Return to the rails: Why the 611 steam locomotive is more than just a train

Get an exclusive, behind-the-scenes look at excursion preps

GOSHEN, Va. – The Spirit of Roanoke makes her triumphant return.

After years of waiting, the world-renowned Norfolk & Western Class J No. 611 steam locomotive will kick off its 2023 fall excursions on Friday, October 6.

Preps for fall excursions

Traveling through the Shenandoah Valley, tourists will get a full view of the colorful fall foliage on a four-hour ride. These half-day sight-seeing opportunities will depart from Goshen in Rockbridge County, travel through George Washington and Jefferson National Forest, Augusta County, and enter historic Staunton.

The round-trip tours are expected to run Friday through Sunday, October through early November. Seating options vary and are priced from $99 to $249 per person.

10 News got an exclusive look behind the scenes of what it took to get the Steam Queen ready for the rails, and why it means so much to the community.

Crowds started pouring into Goshen late this summer. Many were just hoping to get a glimpse of the locomotive while at Victoria Station. The one-stoplight town has been buzzing with visitors for months as volunteers and staff prepare the 611 for its fall schedule.

Its first test run of the Shenandoah Valley Limited route at the end of September drew people to the rails as they stopped and watched the steam engine pass by.

It’s easy to tell when the 611 is close because you can hear her loud whistle and see the billowing black smoke trailing high in the sky.

Queen of Steam returns to Roanoke (WSLS)

An American ring

“That’s the sound of America,” said Ross Roland, steam locomotive engineer for the 611.

Powered by steam, iconic with its red and gold striping atop a shiny black body, the 611 is a showstopper.

It honors an era of American rail history that produced one of the most powerful steam locomotives of all time.

“It’s the last great American mainline passenger steam locomotive built in the United States, representing thousands of her sisters that came before her,” Roland said.

It may be the last of its kind, but it is still going strong in all its glory.

Goshen Mayor Tim McCraw said the 611 coming to Goshen is perhaps the biggest event to happen there in the last century. He has a fun antidote he likes to tell people about his similarities to the locomotive.

“Me and the 611 are both the same age. We are 73 years old, and we are both still up in running. I like that,” McCraw said. The love of the 611 spans generations of people, young and old.

For Roland, running the 611 is about preserving a piece of history that changed the world. Roland beamed with pride as he stepped down from the engine after its test run in Goshen. He said the ride went great.

“Running the beautiful 611 locomotive is an honor and a pleasure.”

First designed and built in Roanoke in the 1950s, the Class J. 611 has a worldwide cult following. As Roland explains, that following is for good reason.

“Unbeknownst to most Americans, before the steam engine came along in 1830, we got around the same as the time before Jesus Christ: sailboat, horse and buggy, or walk. The steam engine and railroads to run it on changed everything. It allowed the settlement of the country, the industrial revolution. So they are really, really important,” Roland said.

That is part of why so many over the years have worked to keep it running.

“It’s my baby,” said Scott Lindsay, Virginia Museum of Transportation’s Chief Mechanical Officer for the Norfolk and Western 611.

Lindsay has played a key role in every move the locomotive has made since its first restoration in 1982. He keeps the 611 running and has spent so much time with the locomotive, he considers it family.

“It’s a great piece of equipment. I’m proud to be a part of it. It’s like a family member to me. I’ve spent so much time with it. It’s hard to feed at Thanksgiving. Hard to park,” Lindsay joked.

“But, it is really fabulous, and it is really nice to share the technology of when America really made great things. It is still, at 73, just as good as it was 73 years ago. And that’s a real testimony of what America can do.”

Bringing the 611 back to the rails

Lindsay played a crucial role in bringing the 611 back to the rails in 2015. He remembers fondly the crowds that came out. He says they show up wherever the 611 goes.

“We have a crowd day, and night. it’s astounding,” Lindsay said.

Getting everything ready for the excursions in just a few months’ time was a massive undertaking that took a lot of hands. Not only did crews have to lay a half-mile track of new railroad in Goshen, but they also had to completely transform the railcars that would carry the passengers for excursions. Painting them was part of a trade deal to use them.

“We’ve been putting in 12 hours a day for about a month now,” said Lee Harris, paint manager of the project who was tasked with painting all rail cars received from Chicago.

When they arrived from Chicago in Goshen, they were covered in graffiti and needed a lot of work. A crew was busy cleaning them when 10 News arrived.

“We’re cleaning windows, cleaning all the vinyl, scrubbing the floors. Hopefully, we will have it nice and pretty for everyone to ride,” said Janie Harris, wife of Will Harris, president of the Virginia Museum of Transportation. She was busy wiping down all the vinyl seating.

The connection that runs deeper

For many like Lee Harris, there’s a personal connection to the locomotive.

“I had a 611-train set when I was a kid,” Harris said as he was painting the wheels of one of the passenger cars black.

From a 611-train set, to painting the real deal. It’s a full-circle moment.

“There’s nothing else like it. This is the last one like it and we are very fortunate to have it here.”

What’s happening here is a labor of love for a modern marvel that 70 years later still fascinates train lovers as much as the public.

“It’s amazing the number of people that are coming by just to see a glimpse of the train, much less ride it, just to be able to rake a picture of it, listen to it. It’s got an incredible sound to it,” said Steve Bickley, Vice Mayor of Goshen.

Goshen is a small town with a population of 350 people. The Mayor said hosting the excursions is a game changer.

“It’s tremendous. It’s a great thing for the little thing of Goshen, the entire area of Rockbridge County, and other counties around. What it can do economically for this area is almost beyond belief. It’s going to be a great thing for this little town,” McCraw said.

From honoring American history to rekindling nostalgic childhood memories, or rebuilding the local economy of a small town; the 611 is more than just a train. Time after time the locomotive proves that.

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