Encounters with the Queen of Steam

More than 40 years have passed since I first saw Norfolk & Western class J 4-8-4 #611, then stuffed and mounted in Wasena Park in Roanoke, Virginia, and more than 35 years have passed since she came back to life as an excursion locomotive.  In that time, I have photographed her on a handful of occasions -- two weekends in 1983, one in 1993, one in 2016, and best of all in 2017, when my companion on three of the previous trips, Richard Boylan, and I spent Memorial Day weekend in and around Roanoke, the locomotive's birthplace, chasing six trips, two to the east and four to the west.  Productive photographically, these three days felt so satisfying for other reasons too, primarily socially -- we got to see many old friends, and made new ones -- but also because we got to briefly step back in time and relive some of the best moments from decades ago.

 

In 2016, Norfolk Southern kept all of the engine's admirers at some distance from her whenever she stood in Roanoke, until the Sunday afternoon when we got reasonably close, right behind the old Motive Power Building in which, decades ago, C.E. Pond and his associates designed the Js and the other phenomenal locomotives that for so long kept internal combustion at bay here.  This year, everything felt much friendlier, and the railroad allowed everyone to get right up to 611 just about all of the time.  At 7 on Saturday morning, with the engine facing the Motive Power Building and the first passengers starting to board the train stretched out the length of downtown, Richard and I joined the throngs at trackside.  Among the crowd, I knew a large handful of other photographers, and we greeted each other ebulliently: What railfan could help but feel happy under an increasingly sunny sky next to this quietly-steaming engine, knowing that in just a little while she would single-handedly take on one of the legendary mountain grades?

 

When a group of men posed in front of the engine's drivers, I gravitated to them, even though I did not know any of them.  In recent years I have concentrated more and more on documenting the people who make the trains run: Making pictures of the hardware alone does not fulfill me, but the relationships among the people and the machines endlessly fascinate me.  (In fact, while I made some good "hardware photos" of 611 in 2016, the distance at which the railroad kept us from her and from her people left me feeling quite unsatisfied and even a little cold towards the engine; after 2017's experiences, I have a much warmer spot in my heart for her.)

When the group dispersed, I made my way to the most senior man among them and introduced myself.  Jack Taylor, it turned out, had fired and then run 611 and her steam program stablemate, class A 2-6-6-4 #1218, in the 1980s and '90s; now retired from a career with the railroad that spanned 40 years, he had come from his home in Norfolk for one more ride in the cab -- to celebrate his 80th birthday, coming up the following week.  Gracious and friendly, Mr. Taylor happily chatted with me and the others who came to pay their respects, and he willingly gave me his home address so I could send him prints, should anything turn out well.  His two sons, who between them have more than 60 years of seniority on Norfolk Southern, had come along too, and I made photos of all of them in conversation with a current member of the steam team.

In all honesty, if I had not made any other photos all weekend long, these would have satisfied me.  On last year's trip, the first picture out on the line Saturday morning had felt much the same way: Although "only" a hardware photo, it had captured everything I had gone to

Roanoke for, the engine passing between a pair of the iconic position-light signals, in the sun and with a lot of smoke.

 

In 2017, those signals had fallen, and I did not have any must-do locations in mind except for the distant vantage point in Shawsville (more on that later); for our first location as the train headed for Lynchburg, Richard chose to try a redo of his leaving-town shot from 1983, with the engine passing her birthplace just east of downtown (you can see that original movie here), and I took the ladder out of the back of the car and set up against one of the electric towers along Campbell Avenue, making a panned photo of the engine as she came towards me.

Oh, back in 1983 we never made it to Norfolk with the engine: She ran away from us in the Great Dismal Swamp, Richard pushing the Rover up to 85 miles an hour on arrow-straight-and-dead-flat two-lane U.S. 460 while the smoke on the horizon kept getting farther and farther away from us.

For Richard's video, click here.

 

What followed became among the best few minutes of my entire railfan life, as Richard and I got to relive some of our own ancient history.

 

In 1983, he and I (28 and 17 years old at the time) chased 611 from Roanoke to Norfolk on an April Saturday, making our first pictures in the exact spot above; we then got on U.S. 460 East and by luck caught up with the train at the spot between Bonsack and Webster, at the foot of the Blue Ridge, where the tracks and highway come closest.  As he drove (an English Rover 3500 sports car), I had my head out the window, watching the engine attack the grade, throttle wide open, black smoke pouring into the cloudy sky as we briefly paced alongside her.  "Look at that, kid," Richard said then, "and remember that."

 

Fast-forward 34 years, and now the 62- and 51-year-olds have returned, and once again on a Saturday morning we have captured images of the engine passing her birthplace; then we hit the road on 460 East.  The highway now has four lanes, lined on the way out of town with strip malls and shopping centers and lots of traffic lights, not to mention traffic.  With me at the wheel this time (of Richard's 2014 VW Jetta wagon), we somehow once again meet the train at that exact spot between Bonsack and Webster.  Doing 35 miles per hour, pushing black smoke into the now-sunny sky, the engine roars up the grade with an even longer train behind her than in 1983.  I swing us onto Webster Road and we pace her, just about exactly alongside the engine, for three miles, all the way past the brickyard and until the road and tracks separate at Glade Creek.  Richard has his video camera out the whole way (watch his video here), and I watch through the windshield and through his window, as much as I can while also watching the road; fortunately we have only one or two vehicles ahead of us, and I can keep my distance from them while still maintaining a good angle on 611.  The motorcyclist behind us, who had waved me into his lane on 460 at Bonsack as I signaled, likewise keeps a safe distance behind me.  The Jetta and the engine pass under the Blue Ridge Parkway bridge neck and neck; I see a couple of dozen fans photographing at the railing.  Roaring through Webster, whistle wailing for the crossings, 611 leaves hundreds of smiling people in her wake, but surely no one has a smile as wide as mine: I cannot believe our good fortune, having this dazzling vision out of the misty past living and breathing right beside us, mile after mile.  I have become a 17-year-old again.

 

A couple of images from the pace etch themselves into my memory, most clearly at the east end of Webster, where the tracks and road curve slightly: We have dropped to just behind the engine, and as we swing through the curve the sun shines through the smoke above us, the engine silhouetted below, the roar of the exhaust and the steamboat whistle filling our heads and hearts and souls.  What a glorious moment!  As David P. Morgan said of a Phil Hastings photo of another majestic locomotive "pinning her ears back", "study again the accompanying [video].  It is everything that it implies."

 

It turns out that motorcyclist who followed us had stumbled onto this vision from the past completely out of the blue; when we pull up to the crossing at Villamont and stop a few minutes later, he jumps off his bike and gets on his phone, shouting "You would not believe what I just saw!" as the engine blows for the crossing just a few feet from him.

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We change gears here, and instead of a linear narrative the rest of this photo-essay consists of essentially a series of snapshots, images that just happen to have all gotten made over that one weekend as Richard and I chased the train in and out of Roanoke, eastward to Lynchburg on two mornings and westward to Walton on the third morning and all three afternoons.  We had plenty of company: hundreds of other photographers and thousands of other "regular people".  On our glorious pace of the engine on Saturday morning, described above, we passed dozens of cars, parked willy-nilly at the brickyard in Webster, and we saw similar scenes all weekend long wherever the tracks paralleled or crossed roads.  Such widespread enthusiasm helped make the whole weekend feel like one long outdoor party.

Saturday morning in Roanoke dawned with two of the New York metropolitan area's notable fans, Dennis Livesey and Mike Del Vecchio, trying to figure out their electronic gear in Mike's company-issued chase vehicle:

After watching the eastbound Powhatan Arrow go through Bedford on Saturday morning, and while waiting for the westbound, Richard and I took a walk around town, admiring the lovely 19th- and early-20th-century buildings on Bridge and Main Streets:

She passed right under me:

Along the spur track just west of the concrete-arch bridge in Bedford, we found this item; I can't decide if the words on it offer good advice:​

Midday Saturday in Roanoke, we got right up to the engine while the crew ministered to her; here, engineer Sandy Alexander smiles from the cab as volunteer Will Sadler cleans the ashpan:

Will and Zac McGinniss talked shop next to the firebox; I must say I do not approve of all of the modern sunglasses that almost all crewmen seem to wear nowadays almost everywhere . . .

Now Sunday morning: Has the Irving Road bridge at Thaxton ever had more people on it at once?  Probably only when the school bus goes over it:

Back in Bedford later that morning, I found a few interesting graffiti; I had to double-check the spelling of the German philosopher's name when I got home; the graffitist got it right.

Someone really took time on this decoration:

The Piedmont Label Company there on the right still employs a few dozen people in this plant, making paper and plastic labels for packages ranging from cans of vegetables to jugs of motor oil; the employee I talked to (who later went up onto the building's roof to watch the train go by) said that the new out-of-town owners have laid off as least as many as remain, and those owners have no understanding of the expertise that the remaining employees have.  In the old days, behind the windows that run all the way across the second floor, the company's artists and designers had great north light to work by; the space sits empty now.

More like a wake than a party: A bunch of us fans climbed around this pile of position-light signals right across the street from Piedmont Label, mourning -- mourning that we had not brought trucks with us to put the pieces into to bring them home.  I liberated one small signal-head cover and two bulbs as keepsakes.

"The Quick and the Dead":

On Sunday afternoon, after they brought their train back from Walton, 611's crew relaxed in the cab.  Fireman Cheri George looked quite satisfied with the work she had done, and engineer Scott Lindsay likewise approved, but Cheri didn't think that we should take his opinion too seriously:

With the engine and train wyed in preparation for the next morning's return to Walton, the crew moved the consist to Shaffers Crossing, on the south side of the yard (across from where the roundhouse, coal dock, and lubritorium once stood).  Someone dragged a fire hose over to to refill the tender and canteen, and various members of the engine crew took turns attacking the fire, which suffered from incombustible stones mixed in with the coal; they feared shaking the grates too vigorously would get the stones jammed between the grate tables, making an awful mess.  In the two photos here, Zac McGinniss rakes and Chris Slate looks tired just watching him:

Norfolk Southern sent a pilot engineer on every movement.  On Sunday afternoon, Bill Aldridge oversaw the trip to Walton and back, around the Roanoke wye, and out to Shaffers Crossing; although not a avowed steam fan, he seemed in no hurry to leave the cab that evening.

Volunteer Duane Leonard has charge of the locomotive's water quality, doing all of the testing for dissolved solids and pH and the like; he watched the level rise in the tender as the clouds overhead dispersed, revealing a spectacular sunset and a crescent moon:

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In the week leading up to the trip, and intermittently during it, the weather forecast called for rain, heavy at times; I had come prepared with the five-foot-diameter Gustbuster® umbrella my mother got me a couple of years ago, but it never came out of the car.  I'd had it in mind to try to somehow recreate one of my very favorite O. Winston Link photos, of the Cavalier leaving Williamson in the pouring rain, but that will have to wait for another time.  Nonetheless, that idea inspired me to make the photo below of the engine pulling up to its spot at the station in Roanoke on Monday morning, passing the landmark former Norfolk & Western headquarters building at a few minutes before 7 a.m.:

High Iron Company/American Freedom Train/Chessie Steam Specials/614 impresario Ross Rowland came to town to ride the train on Memorial Day, and Richard and I took the opportunity to thank him for the unforgettable experiences he gave us twenty and forty and fifty years ago.  Still the Pied Piper of Steam, Ross took time to explain the workings of the locomotive to two boys who had gotten up early on a holiday to see history come to life.

On the left, to the tune of the Beatles' "Penny Lane", "He likes to keep his steam engine clean, it's a clean machine --": engineer Sandy Alexander.  On the right, engine foreman Tom Mayer chats with some of 611's admirers.

Although I have come to see my photos of people as collectively the most important part of my documentation of steam railroading, the photo below ranks as one of my very favorites from this particular weekend -- pure hardware, but it does have a very human aspect: Imagine all of this rotating at almost nine times per second and you have a Norfolk & Western J at 110 miles per hour -- and some idea of why C.E. Pond and his associates in the Motive Power Building had such outstanding reputations:

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

For the story of the extraordinary experiences we had that weekend west of Roanoke, at Shawsville, click here.