Wednesday, June 10, 2015

The Queen of Steam, the Norfolk & Western 611

Early on Saturday morning Steve arrived at Meadow House and we drove to Marshall diner for breakfast. We hurriedly gobbled it down as we had an appointment with a very important train that was running thrown my small town. We rushed to the level crossing, parked Stuart, and walked down the tracks so the old landmark grain tower would provide a suitable backdrop. And we waited. I was very excited and immensely relieved to be set up before the locomotive arrived. I had my G15 set up on a tripod for video and my Sony was ready to roll too.
And then we heard her, a shrill whistle in the distance got everyone in their places with necks craning for the first glimpse. The barriers came down over the crossing and then we heard a deep rumble of a steam engine. Dark grey plumes of smoke could be seen puffing above the tree tops and suddenly a bright headlight flashed into view. More piercing whistles shrilled from the train and all I could do was stare with incredulous awe at this magnificent beast bearing down on us. And then the most wonderful sound of all, the slowing down of the engine. It was stopping! Stopping here in my little town of Marshall! Right next to the feed mill tower. I was almost in tears, completely bowed by this majestic spectacle and so profoundly grateful that I was experiencing this moment.
The Norfolk and Western Class J was the most powerful passenger train ever built. One of only 14,  the 611 was built in 1950. She worked for over 3 million miles but was retired in 1957 due to diesel becoming a cheaper fuel. She belongs to the Virginia Museum of Transportation and is a static display there. She then pulled excursions for over 20 years before being retired again in 1994, and returning once more to be displayed at the museum in Roanoke. She hasn't been running for over 20 years so this weekend was a historic moment, a unique opportunity to see this monumental engine running in all her fully restored glory.
The 611 stopped at Marshall for a full 5 minutes blowing steam and smoke from every orifice and blasting her whistle, giving her spectators a never to be forgotten show. I had goosebumps as I stood and stared up at her in complete adoration. It was actually really hard work to put myself behind the viewfinder of my camera and concentrate on taking photos that I would likely never have the opportunity to take again.
And then with a long loud shrill, she started chugging slowly forward, and I reached out to stroke her cardinal red and gold stripe that runs down her side. I waved at the driver and yelled out a thank you, then stood back to watch her pick up speed and round the corner out of sight.
We moved fast then, picking up tripods and camera bags, rushing for the car. We were on a high after our experience and laughed and shouted as we quickly walked, marveling at what we had just witnessed. There were many cars that had been held up on the crossing and as we drove down Main Street, I had never seen so many vehicles in Marshall before. We were soon on Rte 55 racing toward Markham, following a line of other cars with the same idea in mind.
We saw the smoke in the distance above the tree tops and heard her whistle. With windows down we tore along the country road, breathing in the wonderful smell of coal and watching a helicopter above us that weaved back and forth across the tracks.
We manged to draw level with her a few times and watched as she raced under bridges and across roads, with folks lining the tracks waving furiously and snapping photos. And then she veered off to the right and we knew we'd have time to beat her to Markham as the tracks took her on a detour through the countryside.
We got to Markham and quickly got set up by the tracks again; this time we were actually lower than the railway so she was going to look huge as she came by. Once again we heard her whistle and then saw her headlight on her bullet nose coming close. But now her engine was racing, she wasn't going to stop. The 611 came thundering through the tiny village, dwarfing the old abandoned train depot. The sheer force of her blasting past us nearly knocked me off my feet. It was sensational, the noise, the smell, the sheer hugeness of this intoxicating metallic beast. I drank in and relished every second of her passing. And then suddenly she was gone. Steve and I just stood grinning widely at each other. What a ride! And we hadn't even been on the train. I was euphoric! We had been extremely fortunate to have experienced 2 thrilling moments. We loaded our equipment back into Stuart and then headed for a beer, eager to look through our photos and video footage. What a morning!
 We drove down to Manassas later hoping to see her but she was tucked away safely in the Norfolk Southern yard, so after chatting to a few rail fanners there we headed back to our homes.
Next morning I was on my own but undaunted I drove back into town to see the Steam Queen pass through Marshall again.
But this morning she didn't stop, and barely slowed down. Smoke and steam billowed as her whistle shrieked a 'So long!' and she was gone. I rushed for Stuart as others leaped into their cars and the chase was on once more. This time I was heading for Linden where the 611 passed under a bridge. There were already quite a few folks there but I still managed to grab some shots and video.
She barreled beneath us, spouting her black smoke and whistling, enveloping us all in the thick cloud, and we laughed with each other as we became coated in a fall out of tiny coal particles.
And then I drove to Rectortown to catch her on her return trip. I arrived there to find just one other person waiting by his tripod and we struck up a conversation. John and I patiently waited a good 45 minutes and by then a small crowd of others had turned up.
I got one good photo as I crouched down low by the track and then jumped into Stuart to race into Manassas. The station was very busy when I arrived and I couldn't believe my luck when I immediately found a parking space. Huge crowds lined both sides of the tracks and the air was humid. We all waited in the glaring sun, ears listening out for that now familiar whistle. At last she came, trundling slowly round the corner but still making an impressive entrance with shrieks and chugs , spouting dark, thick smoke continuously.
This is my favorite photo of her. What a beautiful countenance, noble yet also somehow sinister with her shiny black paint and chromed accessories. Rivulets of steam running down, streaking the coal dust after her work out. I had to just stand and stare for a while. I'd been so excited yesterday seeing her that I couldn't stand still, but today after having chased her up and down Rte 55 for the past two days, I felt more familiar with her and could now just stand and marvel at her majestic magnificence as she towered above me. I walked slowly up and down inspecting every nook and cranny, relishing the this opportunity to not rush my photography. What a bewitching piece of engineering.
Driving back from Manassas I decided to stop at Marshall one last time but had to return to Rectortown as I'd placed a quarter on the track for the 611 to squash but had forgotten to pick it up. Bill called and met me out there.
A last photo as she hammered around the corner and was gone.
Bill and I drove to Fox Meadow Winery, relaxing outside with a bottle of red wine, cheese and crackers, chatting about our experience with the 611. I heard her whistle in the distance, on her final leg back to Manassas, and had to resist the urge to leap to my feet and dash after her. I felt a twinge of regret as I suppressed myself, but thought, no, it's time to relax. And silently bid the Queen of Steam a silent adieu.
I did shoot some video footage of the 611 with my G15 but the poor soundcard really couldn't handle her shrieking and engine noise so on some parts of the video it sounds like the speakers have blown out!
The video of the 611 at the locations we chased her to is here.
A wonderful link about the 611 is here.


Anonymous said...


Fantastic post! I had no idea the 611 was still making excursions. Thirty or so years ago I had the great pleasure of taking that train from Alexandria to Roanoke and back. Later I tagged along with a rabid railroad fanatic and we chased much it as you did. Speed limits may have been ignored in the quest to beat it to the next crossing.

The photos you took at Marshall are excellent.

Thank you,

Carter (DeBaggio's)

Debby Karalee said...

Thanks so much Carter! It sounds like we had similar experiences, although you had the excitement of the ride as well as the chase. I admit that we too, along with other vehicles in our convoy, may have exceeded the speed limits just a tad on our chases :)
Great to have met you the other week, I do need to pop back in again soon. DeBaggio's plants really are supreme.

meggva said...

Great post! Really captures what being so close to a powerful steam locomotive does to you. FYI, "tiny coal particles" are cinders (as in Cinderella). And you don't want to get one in your eye which is why you see the folks riding the train with their heads out the windows wearing goggles.

Debby Karalee said...

Ha, ha, too true! Thanks for the FYI and compliment.