Return of the Mighty 611

Grants  •  History

Mighty 611, courtesy VA Museum of Transportation
Mighty 611, courtesy VA Museum of Transportation

From Big Lick to Hogwarts … and Beyond

By David Bearinger

From the end of the Civil War to the 1960s, the dream of American progress was serenaded by a steam-whistle. The cradle of modern American culture rocked to the thunder of steel wheels on the rails.

Trains. The pictures and the sounds of a steam engine rolling across the open landscape, pulling a long chain of passenger or freight cars behind it, inspired just about every distinctively American art form in the twentieth century, especially music and song. Think Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Odetta, Big Joe Turner, Bob Dylan, Blind Willie McTell …

The images and sounds of steam engines bore deep into the American psyche, and they remain there more than half a century after the last steam-powered locomotive was retired from service.

Today, almost every American knows something about trains. But what most Americans, including many Virginians, may not know is that the most technically advanced steam locomotives ever made were designed and built in a place called Big Lick, later known as Roanoke.

Beginning in 1941, fourteen J-class locomotives were produced in Roanoke’s East End Shops.  They were engineering masterpieces, the most powerful steam passenger locomotives in the world, capable of speeds well above 100 miles per hour.

They were also streamlined works of mechanical and visual art, combining power and precision, beauty and strength in a way that took hold of the imagination of just about everyone who saw them. Or heard their baritone steam-whistle in the distance.

Today, only one of the original fourteen J-class engines survives, the 611.  It took its last excursion run in 1994, and for twenty years it was the centerpiece of the collection at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, in Roanoke.

But apart from train buffs and visitors to the museum, few Americans knew the story of the 611 or the stories of the men who designed and built it; the porters, waiters, conductors, and engineers who worked on it; or the passengers who rode it. That’s about to change.

In December 2014, VFH awarded grant funds to support an hour-long film documenting not just the history of the 611, but also its restoration and return to service, a process that began in June, 2014 and is now well underway.

The museum has made a commitment to restore the 611, using the original design and engineering specifications. It has also committed to documenting, through this film, the restoration process and to exploring the histories of the 611, the J-class locomotives, and the era of steam-powered rail transport.

The story of the 611 begins with the creation of a Norfolk & Western railroad hub in Big Lick. It follows the story of American railroads to an eighty-five-acre complex in east Roanoke—to the motive building (design) shop and the pattern, blacksmith, machine, boiler, and assembly shops where the J-class engines were produced.

It includes interviews with the people, many now in their eighties and nineties, who were part of the Roanoke story, and with others who worked on the passenger trains pulled by J-class engines—the Powhatan Arrow, the Pocahontas, and the Cavalier—that rode from Bristol to Norfolk, and into Ohio and West Virginia.

Here, the story intersects with an earlier VFH-funded oral history project called Cotton to Silk, which documented the experiences of African American railroad workers on the Norfolk & Western, later Norfolk Southern.

Along the way, the film looks into the boiler, the firebox, the flues and superheaters, the pistons and air-compressors of the 611, and at the crucial balance of the wheels that allowed the engine to maintain high speeds over long distances. It visits the immense turntable where in May of 1950 the 611 “took her first turn and was set free to ride the high iron across the Commonwealth” (Virginia Museum of Transportation).

It also includes interviews with historians and engineering and other rail technology experts.  Among them are Deena Sasser, archivist and curator at the transportation museum; Jennifer McDaid, historical archivist with Norfolk Southern Corporation; and William Withuhn, curator emeritus with the Division of Work and Industry at the National Museum of American History, part of the Smithsonian Institution.

Restoration crew members begin the process of restoring the Class J 611 locomotive, June 2014, courtesy VA Museum of Transportation
Restoration crew members begin the process of restoring the Class J 611 locomotive, June 2014, courtesy VA Museum of Transportation

The story of the 611 has many parts, and the film is designed to appeal to many audiences. First and foremost, this is a Roanoke story. But it’s also a Virginia story, an American story. And a story that resonates worldwide.

When Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone was first published in 1997, its cover featured not a British locomotive, but an O. Winston Link photograph of a J-class engine to represent the Hogwarts Express.

The so-called STEM disciplines and the humanities are often seen as separate, having little relationship to one another. This film and the effort behind it prove otherwise. The 611 has been recognized as a National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark by The American Society of Mechanical Engineers. Its story is also recognized, increasingly, as one of the great stories of Virginia’s—and America’s—history.

Soon, Virginians and visitors to the state will once again be able to ride behind the mighty 611, an experience from the golden age of steam-powered travel. At about the same time, film viewers throughout Virginia and far beyond will have an opportunity to learn the stories behind and within this spectacular and uniquely American feat of engineering and design.

VFH is honored to be among the supporters of this important and one-of-a-kind documentary effort.

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