When we moved here in 2014, we didn’t know anything about Roanoke to speak of. When, in 2015, there was a lot of hooplah about the return of a steam engine from Spencer, North Carolina, we didn’t know why it was a big deal and didn’t know to ask. The news reported that people waited beside the tracks along the route, hoping to get a video, even though the time that it would pass was kept a secret. We did think that that was odd, but we were busy and weren’t paying attention.
The local hockey team is called the Rail Yard Dawgs. Up until recently, the oldest craft brewery in Roanoke was the Roanoke Railhouse. There are ads on television for the the popular local Roanoke restaurant called The Great 611 Steak House. At some point, you would think that we’d start asking questions, right?
We took our son, who was visiting from Dallas, to see the Museum of Transportation shortly after the 611’s return and even that didn’t make me learn something about 611. The truth is that it wasn’t until I started uploading photos for this blog post that I really started to actually read articles on the 611 and asking questions.
The Virginia Museum of Transportation is actually a lot of fun. Even before you pay admission and go inside, there is a fantastic monument to fallen firefighters.
We had arrived late and only had an hour before the museum closed. We mostly had the place to ourselves and spent a great deal of time in the classic car display.
It’s fun to see which car everyone is drawn to. My husband likes older trucks. I like the boxy cruisers from the 30’s and 40’s (or something with fins). Our 30-something son loved the DeLorean. He’s a “Back to the Future” fan, so he made connection with the DeLorean – and, later, the steam locomotive – in a way I wouldn’t have thought of.
The other side of the building tips the hat to aviation and has several displays like the inside of a cockpit and the donated uniforms. There is a small prop plane suspended from the ceiling.
Upstairs, there was a diorama of a large circus. And downstairs, there is a big model train display. I still don’t know Roanoke well enough to know if it is modeled on Roanoke’s actual rails.
There is a star on the hill, reminiscent of Mill Mountain. This display is just as you come in and you can look down on it from upstairs.
If that was all there was, that would have been worth the price of admission. But the really big stuff is in the back, outside.
One fun find was a trolley from the now defunct Glen Echo Amusement Park near Wahingon, DC. My husband had ridden a trolley like this one when he lived in Boston many, many years ago.
There were cabooses, too, and all manner of different kinds of cars under the shade of an awning out back.
And there were locomotives. This is where I started to finally look things up. I wish that there were placards that could have given me then the information I’ve found today online. It really is fascinating. The blue engine pictured below is the Wabash #1009. It at one time pulled the Wabash Cannonball, a daytime express route between Detroit and St. Louis. Interestingly, the name originated as a fictional train in a folk song that’s popularity continued throughout the twentieth century with variations by leading performers like Johnny Cash, Hank Snow, Roger Miller, Willie Nelson, Earnest Tubb, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and more. In the folk song, the Wabash Cannonball was a train that carried the souls of departed hobos to their final destination.
Norfolk & Western #41 is a diesel engine built in 1959 for Norfolk and Western. It was transferred to the Chesapeake Western line in 1964, where it was renumbered #11. In 1980, it was purchased by the Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society and restored to its original livery and number. There is an incredible PDF online here.
Which brings us to the 611. This is the “Queen of Steam” or “The Spirit of Roanoke”. She (see, now they’d got me doing it too) was manufactured here in Roanoke in 1950 and was involved in a derailing accident in 1956 that sent it, um, her back to the shop. She made her last regular run from Bluefield, WV, in October of 1959. Thanks to repairs made after the derailment, the 611 was in the best shape of all of N&W’s steam engines and so was selected to pull the company’s “Farewell to Steam” excursions in 1959 when new diesel engines took over the regular routes. She was then donated to the VMT as a static exhibit until 1981, when she was used by the Norfolk Southern to pull steam excursions throughout the east. She’s been as far north as New York, south to Florida and west to Chicago. That program ended in 1994 and she came back to Roanoke as a static display.
When we arrived here in 2014, we didn’t know all of this (and, honestly, probably wouldn’t have cared at the time). Norfolk Southern had started up another program in 2013 called 21st Century Steam and the 611 had gotten another lease on life. That is why the return from Spencer, NC in 2015 was such a big deal and why people gathered along the lines in the hope of seeing her pass by.
There have now been three successful years of excursion tours but we still haven’t made it for one. I didn’t realize just how novel these tours are or that they might ever end. When I ran across a news story that Norfolk Southern auctioned off passenger cars this summer that had been used on the excursion tours, it finally dawned on me that we might have missed our chance. So I wrote to the museum.
I have been reassured that the museum is investigating other options to run public excursions and is encouraging people to sign up for their mailing list at fireup611.org or follow them on Facebook to be notified of future excursions. Per Mendy Flynn, Director of Membership, Donor Services & Trademark, there are many plans in the works right now. Mike, who answered an email sent to the excursions desk, added that they are very excited about the arrival of Amtrak’s passenger service to Roanoke this fall and that it will be in no way detrimental to the continuation of the 611 excursion tours. If anything, he said, it will make the moving of excursion cars in and out of Roanoke easier.
In the meantime, the 611 is heading back to Spencer, North Carolina, on October 8th for her annual federal inspection. The VMT is offering special cab and whistle blowing tours for $25 from 1:00 to 5:00 that day before she heads out.
For more information on the 611 or the Museum of Transportation, please check out the following links:
- Whatever Happened To: Obstacles May Lay on 611’s Tracks – Roanoke Times (12/12/2015)
- Changes Ahead for 611’s Excursions: VMT Looks to Expand Route Options for Popular 611 Excursions – WSLS10 (05/25/2017)
- Amtrak to Bring Passenger Service to Roanoke this Fall – US News & World Report (07/19/2017)
- NS Set to Auction Passenger Cars – WDBJ7 (08/13/2017)