611 and Her People

Now to Shawsville, Virginia, and a story for the books.

 

It all started with this photograph by Samuel Phillips which I found on Railpictures.net:

What a view!  Norfolk & Western #611 would climb the grade through this landscape four times over Memorial Day Weekend 2017, and I decided I needed to photograph her here.  In the weeks before Richard Boylan and I headed for Roanoke, I researched the location on Google Maps, finding a couple of possible addresses for the spot where Samuel had stood, and then trying, through Whitepages.com and Anywho.com, to ascertain a phone number for the residents.  When I called the likeliest number, I reached a somewhat doubtful older man who listened patiently to what I told him, about wanting to stand in his front yard to take a picture of a steam train, and then he said he didn't have any railroad tracks within six miles of his place.  Oh, I said, I haven't reached someone in Shawsville, Virginia?  No, he said, I live in Callaway (on the other side of those mountains, it turns out).

 

So on the Friday of that long weekend, Richard and I drove from Bloomsburg to the Magic City, where we checked into the Hotel Roanoke and then headed west, into the mountains, destination Shawsville: time to start knocking on doors.  We drove up Newtown Road, stopping first at the log house at the lower right in Samuel's picture.  When I knocked, a dog inside barked, but no one came to greet me.  As I turned back to the car, a middle-aged couple pulled up in a John Deere ATV.  I introduced myself and handed them an 8x10 of my photo of 611 at Blue Ridge from last year, explaining that I would happily give it to them, and would they let me trespass in the field behind the house?  Initially a little dubious, Angie and Doug Sisson warmed up quickly (the dog, having gotten let out, lay in the shade and barked at me languidly); they said that we could certainly use their field for a vantage point, but we would do better going to the top of the hill and talking to Jimmy and Laurie Williams, who owned the property up there.  Leaving the picture with Sissons, we drove up the road, aiming for the farm lane they had directed us to.  As we reached the bottom of the lane, a vehicle came down it, and I jumped out of the car and waved imploringly; the vehicle stopped.  Holding out another 8x10, I explained our quest to the driver, Mr. Jimmy Williams himself.  "Why, sure, you can take your pictures from our place," he said.  "Come back all weekend long, and bring your friends."  Eureka!

 

Before he went his way, Jimmy invited us to go take a look up there now.  We drove up the lane, past four horses grazing, past the ironwork "What-A-View Farm" sign (yes, they really call it that), up to the house.  We parked the car and walked across the front lawn; we had found our spot.  Before us, the pasture dropped down the slope; across Newtown Road, the fields bordered the double-track main line as it wrapped around the hill we stood atop; in the distance, foothills leaned against the mountains, and a sky as blue as the one in Samuel's photograph stretched from horizon to horizon.  Somewhere in town, church bells started to ring, and I immediately thought of O. Winston Link's recording from Christmas Eve 1957 in Rural Retreat, Va., just 65 miles west of where we stood, as the steam-powered Pelican came through eastbound and Mrs. Kathryn Dodson played hymns on the church chimes.  "Listen!" I said to Richard.  "Link has smiled on us!"  (When Link died in 2001, NPR's tribute included Noah Adams's interview with Mrs. Dodson; she died in 2008 at age 94.)

 

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On Saturday morning, we chased the train on the former N. & W. east of Roanoke, up and over Blue Ridge Grade; in the afternoon we would see her come through Shawsville.  With the scene from What-A-View Farm at the very top of my list of locations for the weekend, we went directly there after lunch rather than chase the train from Roanoke; this made for a much more relaxing afternoon than we might have had otherwise.  It also gave me the opportunity to commune with Williamses' horses and Sissons' donkeys, all of whom came to the fence to check out the dude in the hat.

Clouds blew in, and by the time we heard 611 working up the grade the weather had gotten pretty gray; the horses, bored of me, had abandoned their corner of the field, so I only had the fences in the foreground.  The hilltop gave us a good vantage for a going-away view too; I just had to walk around to the other side of the swimming pool to see and hear the engine pass Basham Hollow Road and then blow for Ryan Road.

Rather than run out to Christiansburg or Vicker or Walton, Richard and I stuck around Shawsville, looking for locations down in the valley.  Doug Sisson had told us the day before that he and his father had restored a steam shovel, kept at a nearby quarry, and he also had three steam tractors on the farm here, occasionally fired up for fun.  Exploring the farm, I found all of them, including one in a shed with a view of the tracks, but I could not figure a good way to work it and a passing train into a photograph.  Richard found his location and settled in to wait.

Guess what: By the time the train came, dropping downgrade accompanied by the sound of squealing flanges and brake shoes, the clouds had thickened again.

While we waited for the train, two locals in a old wooden wagon had driven their horse up and down the field, more or less doing laps, and as 611 rolled through they appeared at the top of the road at a dead gallop, heading straight for the train.  They took the corner in the photo below on two wheels, now racing the train eastward:

About a hundred yards on, they ran out of road, and they turned back up the field, away from the train; I imagine they briefly gave the passengers who saw them something of a thrill.  Richard and I did not plan on chasing the train back to Roanoke, and we crossed the tracks on Johns Farm Road -- a very rough crossing that I cannot imagine doing in a wagon -- and found the minimart in town, looking for something to drink.  As I paid for my lemonade, a wizened toothless man came in, looked up at me, and said "Yer a tall one, ain't ya!"  As I walked outside, here came the horse and wagon, pulling up to one of the gas pumps; I briefly considered going over to ask if they could pose with the engine on its next trip through -- but as this thought went through my head, a pick-up truck rolled in next to the wagon, and the shirtless wagon driver jumped down, stuck his head in the pick-up's passenger window, and shouted "Ah jes' got mah pitcher taken wit' Six-Elayven!"  Then I noticed the empty whiskey bottle on the wagon seat, and I decided not to ask about posing.

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Sunday morning, under mostly gray skies, Richard and I again chased 611 towards Lynchburg and back, and at midday we visited with the train crew at Roanoke.  In the afternoon we would try again at Shawsville, hoping for holes in the clouds.  We went back to Laurie and Jimmy Williams's place, up on top of the hill, and I chose a spot on the deck by the pool, sharing it with another of their guests.  We had plenty of time before the train came, and I chatted with the people gathered on the porch, including a family with two small children.  Jimmy told me that he had grown up right there in town, down in the valley, but as a kid he had played in the pasture at the top of the hill, and he had decided that he would build a house and live up there someday.  And so he does.  "Life's too short to be selfish about this place and this view," he said, "and that's why I share it with anyone who wants to come enjoy it."  More power to you, sir.

 

Richard set up one camera on a tripod below us, to run unattended, and took another camera and tripod around the back of the pool to get the going-away shot.  We waited for the passenger train, watching the smoke coming up the valley; then we could hear the whistle.  We could also hear airhorns: A freight came grinding westbound on the far track -- a stack train, but in deference to the steep grade, and with only two diesels on the head end, crawling at drag-freight speed (nothing even remotely related to automobile drag racing).  Now here came 611 on the near track, moving at least twice as fast, overtaking the freight right in front of us; I could imagine the frustration of the photographers down below who found themselves on the wrong side of the tracks.

The horn of the lead diesel and 611's whistle competed for dominance as each engineer blew for the crossings -- Johns Farm Road, Newtown, Basham Hollow, Ryan Road.  By the time 611 appeared through the foliage going away from us, she had left the diesels in her dust.

Richard and I drove down from the hilltop and headed for Christiansburg, where we saw the train come east past the two stations there.  With clouds remaining thick, we did not stop in Shawsville on the return leg but instead went to the small feed mill at Elliston, a few miles east; we would have two more chances in Shawsville on Monday, when both round-trips ran west out of Roanoke.

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Monday morning dawned crystal clear in the city, and it remained clear as we watched the engine crew working on 611 as she simmered just west of the former railroad headquarters buildings downtown.  The sun continued bright as we saw the train come through Wabun, thirteen miles outside of Roanoke -- but as we headed farther west into the mountains, clouds materialized even as we anxiously scanned the sky through the windshield.  By the time we reached Shawsville, it made no sense to go back up to the top of the hill: We'd already seen that without sun, twice.  Richard set up again in front of the old white house on the Sisson farm, and I tried to do something interesting with the neighbors' cabbage patch; a flock of birds paced the train, and some Canada geese watched the tail end of the train go by from ground level.

On this trip we again chased the train west of Shawsville, seeing it go and come through Vicker, location of the coaling dock that still straddles the two main line tracks more than 57 years after the N. & W. dropped its last regular-service fires.  On our way back east, I had an idea for a photo along Shawsville's main street, the old road now bypassed by U.S. 460; the Williamses' hilltop stands to the upper left of the photo below, while the camera looks almost exactly in the direction of the cabbage patch, on the far side of the tracks inside the long curve:

After lunch in Roanoke (we ate a lot of peanut-butter-&-jelly sandwiches on this trip, all assembled in the car), we watched the train get wyed for the afternoon round trip, the final excursion of the weekend.  I would have one more chance at the shot from the hilltop; would the sun shine?

 

On the way out to Shawsville on 460, under mostly-cloudy skies, Richard decided that he would shoot his video from down in the valley, so I dropped him off on Johns Farm Road and started to drive up the hill.  All of  sudden, it occurred to me: I needed to make a photo that included Jimmy and Laurie Williams, the friendly, gracious, and generous people who had allowed us to traipse all over their property for three days.  And in an instant I knew how I wanted to make it happen.


On New Year's Eve, 1957, O. Winston Link photographed the passage of the last steam-powered passenger train on the Norfolk & Western's main line between Roanoke and Bristol, capturing it at night from the porch of the home of Mr. and Mrs. Ben F. Pope in Max Meadows, only 45 rail miles west of Shawsville.  The Popes posed for him:

Up on top of the hill, I parked the car in the usual spot next to the barn and walked up to the porch.  Laurie and Jimmy sat in their chairs outdoors, enjoying their view -- what a view! -- and waiting for the train.  Once again I thanked them for everything they had given us all weekend.  Laurie laughed when I asked them to pose -- "I hope you only want to see our backs!" she said.  "Yes," I said, "exactly!""  By now we could see 611's smoke, a distant smudge on the horizon but getting larger as the engine worked up the valley.  We watched it come for miles and miles, and then we heard the sound of the engine on the grade.

 

I asked my hosts to come out out to the end of the porch, into the sun, and I also asked permission to stand on the picnic table.  Laurie laughed again: These crazy photographers!  Now the engine had almost reached us; the sound got louder and louder.  I climbed up on the table and framed the scene -- and entirely spontaneously, Jimmy put his arm around Laurie.

We watched the train curve through town, that magnificent steamboat whistle blowing for the crossings.  With the current management at Norfolk Southern much less interested in steam than the previous regime, and the Virginia Transportation Museum concerned that it has saturated its hometown market, will we ever again see 611 pull a train up the grade through Shawsville?  Just as the Popes did in 1957, the Williamses may have witnessed the end of an era.

 

Thank you again, Jimmy and Laurie Williams; thank you, Samuel Phillips; and thank you to everyone who has kept 611 alive and running in the 21st century.

For Richard's videos of all three days' trips, click here and here and here.

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For the story of the rest of that weekend on either side of Roanoke, click here.