Harry Cupper’s Steam Engine of the Week: Norfolk and Western 611

By | June 8, 2015

The Norfolk and Western Railway perfected the coal burning steam engine with three classes the Class A, the Class Y, and the Class J. Over the next three weeks Harry Cupper will take a look at each of these behemoths starting off the pinnacle of Norfolk and Western steam…

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Sleek black pearl with a Tuscan red stripe makes the bullet nosed steam-lined Norfolk and Western class Js unmistakable.The most powerful steam passenger locomotives ever built with a boiler pressure of 300psi and tractive effort of 80,000lbs. The class Js had roller bearings on the driver and tender axles for a smoother ride and quick acceleration. Moving parts were lubricated by a mechanized system that enable the Js to be quickly serviced and put right back on the next train.

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Several Js logged over three million miles by the time they were retired in 1957. But for 611 it wasn’t such a smooth road. Number 611 rolled out of the N&W shops on May 29, 1950 at a time when most railroads were scrapping steam.

On January 23, 1956 while pulling N&W’s premiere Pocahontas passenger train 611 jumped the track with five cars. The engineer took the curve much to fast. As a result, 611 was sent back to Roanoke for a complete overhaul and returned later that year in better condition than any of her sisters.

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Because of her recent overhaul 611 pulled the company’s “farewell to steam” excursions in October 1959. Several people including famed N&W photographer O. Winston Link and two Roanoke natives Graham and Robert Claytor reached out to the then president of N&W to save 611 from the scrapper’s torch.

611 was donated to the new Roanoke Transportation Museum (now the Virginia Museum of Transportation) for static display. She sat in the elements waiting for new life. That chance came in 1982 when Norfolk Southern president Robert Claytor sent 611 to Birmingham Alabama to be restored and she became the star of the Norfolk Southern steam program. 611 traveled everywhere from Jacksonville, FL, to Chicago, to New York until the program ended in 1994.

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Now thanks to the Fire Up 611 initiative N&W 611 has joined Norfolk Southern’s 21st century steam program and returned to inspire a new generation of railfans giving them a chance to experience the awe and power of a big damn 4-8-4 going by.

I was there myself to see her off from Spencer, NC to Roanoke, VA. 611 was the steam engine that provided a face fo Harry Cupper’s own train The Rainbow Tiger in Shining Time Station. Where Harry also mentions the hard work and dedication of men working to bring one of these big engines from museum display to restore it to operational condition to share with the world.

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Fire Up 611 is a group that truly believes in magic. 611 has just completed her first weekend of public excursions in her third career. Knowing she is out there on the front of a passenger train reminds me that all things are possible. The Thomas and the Magic Railroad director’s cut and Shining Time Station finally coming to DVD are things which can be obtained. Let’s move forward to 611 signatures. Visit www.fireup611.org for excursion details and to make donations to help put better shelter of 611 and her two big sisters. Next week Harry will show us the Class A.

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