'Queen of Steam' fires up Roanoke with millions in economic impact

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ROANOKE (WSLS 10) - Turns out, smiles and goose bumps were not the only byproducts of the Norfolk and Western Class J 611 steam passenger locomotive's historic return to the rails this past summer.

Following two decades spent in retired silence, the 65-year-old engine's restoration and triumphant return resulted in an estimated $4.5 to $7 million of total economic impact in the Virginia communities she visited, with excursion passengers in Roanoke alone accounting for an estimated $549,300 of outside money spent in Roanoke in 2015.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation, home to the unique bullet-nosed locomotive, celebrated the completion of the yearlong 611 restoration that took place at the North Carolina Transportation Museum with participation in Norfolk Southern Corporation's 21st Century Steam Excursion Program.

The five excursion weekends featuring the 611 kicked-off on June 6 with "The American" excursion running from the Manassas Train Depot to Front Royal's Riverton Junction. City officials estimate that 30,000 people attended the Manassas Rail Heritage Festival in 2015, the largest turnout in the event's 21-year history. Additional 611 Economic Impact Fast Facts:

- 80,000 people lined the route from Spencer, North Carolina to Roanoke, Virginia, and another 10,000 were waiting in downtown Roanoke to welcome home 611 on May 30, 2015.

- Spectators and passengers in downtown Roanoke during the May 30  homecoming and the July 4 weekend excursions accounted for 5,300 hotel room nights and $1,526,000 spent in the Roanoke economy. The communities of Manassas, Lynchburg, and Petersburg experienced similar benefits from excursions.

- A total of 12,000 - 20,000 estimated hotel nights in communities throughout Virginia and North Carolina can be directly attributed to 611's operations in 2015.

"Roanoke is fortunate to have a unique railroad heritage not found anywhere else in the world," Landon Howard, Roanoke Valley Convention & Visitors Bureau president, said in a written release. "The 611 is admired by train-lovers everywhere, and last summer's return home had a huge, positive economic impact on our visitor economy."  

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