Dramatic Live Steam Show Envelops Virginia Museums

The restored 611 arrives in downtown Roanoke behind the art museum

The restored 611 arrives in downtown Roanoke behind the art museum

For the last month, crowds in western Virginia have been turning out in droves to see the dramatic result of engineering, technology, and determination by several museums and volunteers to resurrect the biggest, fastest passenger steam locomotive to live out its former glory on the Norfolk & Western Railroad.

If the CEO of Norfolk Southern hadn’t sold his Rothko in New York in 2013 and donated $1.5 million of its record-breaking proceeds, this amazing steam revival might not have happened.

Waiting for the 611 at Evington, Virginia on its debut run

Waiting for the 611 at Evington, Virginia on its debut run

The Virginia Museum of Transportation is celebrating the culmination of efforts to “Fire Up the 611” and let this 100-mile-per-hour wonder rip through the foothills of the Blue Ridge and points east all month and hopefully into the future.

As the 611 made its way from its rehab yard at the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer, North Carolina, people lined the tracks to see the newly refurbished 1950s streamlined locomotive pull 17 passenger cars loaded with fans 140 miles north to its new home in Roanoke. The celebration of 611’s return has been going on all month, as the locomotive keeps making runs to Petersburg, Lynchburg, Radford, and other Virginia towns.

611 parked next to the O. Winston Link Museum

611 parked next to the O. Winston Link Museum

The 611’s Twitter feed lets everyone know when to expect it, although the piercing steam whistle and roaring sound are also sufficient alerts to anyone in a five-mile radius. Listen to its sounds on our Flickr video of its 45-mph pass through one lucky town and see photos its Roanoke arrival.

The 611 and its 13 sister locomotives (Norfolk & Western J Class) were produced after 1941 and pulled passenger trains through Ohio, North Carolina, Virginia, and Tennessee until the late 1950s – around the same time that Rothko painted the canvas that would later benefit the 611’s resurrection. Since it’s retirement, this coal-fired steam engine mostly sat in the yard at the Roanoke museum, but had a brief comeback in the 1980s making a few tourist rail runs.

Inside the O. Winston Link Museum, showcasing Link’s spectacular photographs of the last days of steam on the Norfolk & Western Railroad

Inside the O. Winston Link Museum, showcasing Link’s spectacular photographs of the last days of steam on the Norfolk & Western Railroad

Norfolk Southern initiated a “21st Century Steam” initiative, and volunteers at the Roanoke museum began the “Fire Up the 611!” campaign. The NS CEO decided to jump-start the initiative with the $1.5 million from the Rothko sale, and volunteers put in over 8,000 hours to bring the magnificent machine back to life.

When the 611 steamed into downtown Roanoke on May 30, it stopped for photos and an official welcome right behind Roanoke’s contemporary at museum and in front of the O. Winston Link Museum, housing the work of one of the most acclaimed railway photographers of the 20th century in the former Norfolk & Western Railway Building.

Link’s 1960s portrait of steam locomotive fireman, Joe Estes

Link’s 1960s portrait of steam locomotive fireman, Joe Estes

Link, a Brooklyn-born commercial photographer, fell in love with steam locomotives that he knew were rapidly being replaced by diesel. He innovated nighttime lighting gear to capture dramatic shots of the steam giants coursing through the hills and crossroads of West Virginia and Virginia. Link recorded their sounds as well – recordings that continued to sell well for decades. Catch a glimpse of Link’s gorgeous images, equipment and recordings on our Flickr site.

After finishing its July runs, the 611 will be on display in the museum yard in Roanoke, parked alongside other giants of steam.

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