Return to Roanoke,

Alamo of Steam

"Don't you know you can't go home again?" said Ella Winter to Thomas Wolfe.  Wolfe used the line in the title of his next book, and the phrase entered the American idiom.  As Wikipedia puts it, "In general terms, it means that attempts to relive youthful memories are never as fulfilling as during their initial creation."  But what if, instead of reliving youthful memories, we return to old places determined to make new memories?

 

On a weekend in early May of 2016, Norfolk & Western J-class 4-8-4 #611 pulled a series of excursions from the city of her birth, Roanoke, Virginia, and thousands of people took part in the spectacle, riding the train, chasing the train, and watching it pass by.  For those of us who kneel at the altar of steam, these two days saw us on a pilgrimage to the holy places, in the footsteps of our forebears -- Blue Ridge and Christiansburg, Villamont and Vicker, where Link, Meyer, Weibler, Thieme, and Hastings had documented the last great steam show in North America.

 

I'd gone to these places before myself, in 1983 and again in 1993, when longtime friend Richard Boylan and I chased 611 on these same routes.  As a high-school senior in the spring of '83, not yet a licensed driver, I served as Richard's navigator, with full-size United States Geological Survey 1:250,000-scale maps on my lap as we pursued the engine eastward from Roanoke; we kept up with her until Petersburg -- meets with westbounds on the single-track sections had slowed her down -- but then we lost her: Although Richard pushed his Rover 3500 to 85 miles per hour on dead-flat-and-arrow-straight U.S. 460 in the Great Dismal Swamp, the smoke kept getting farther and farther ahead of us.  In '93, by which time the engine operated under a much stricter speed limit, we rode and chased trips to the west, twice up and over Christiansburg Mountain to Walton and back and then a round-trip to Bluefield.  On the Monday morning following that weekend's runs, the engine made a ferry move to the east, and we tried chasing her up Blue Ridge grade -- but we found that the speed limit only applied to trips with passengers: After 611 cleared Roanoke, her engineer pulled the throttle back to the roof, and we just barely caught her at Montvale, with only enough time to jump out of the car and watch her fly by, and we never caught up after that.  So for 23 years I had that as my last memory of her, speeding down the same main line that the N. & W. had built her to conquer.

 

In 2016 we would do it again, Richard and I, but half a lifetime later I have become a much better photographer, and thanks to the Internet a better navigator too.  We set out this time with much better intelligence -- screenshots of maps and others' photos -- and I had a clearer, broader idea of what I wanted to capture: not just the locomotive, but the locomotive and her environment, the surroundings that defined this as the Norfolk & Western.  In particular, I wanted to get a good picture of 611 with N. & W. position-light signals, hardware that predates her appearance on the rails in 1950 and that will shortly disappear forever, as Positive Train Control puts the last nail in the coffin of classic-era signaling.

 

(You can see Richard's video of the whole 1983 trip, transferred from Super-8 film, here, with sound dubbed from the reel-to-reel machine he also carried.  For his videos from 1993, go here and here and here and here.  [That last one has the instant of footage from Montvale on the Monday morning as she ran away from us.]  For the whole 2016 trip, click here.   This video has highlights of all three trips.)

 

Richard and I headed south from Bloomsburg on the morning of Friday, the 6th of May, under gray skies.  A few generations of cars have come and gone through the Boylan household since his Rover days, and we rode a diesel-powered VW Jetta wagon -- not quite as peppy as the sports car, but plenty comfortable and getting great mileage; with no roof rack, I could not bring my trademark ladder.  Due to emergency road work on U.S. 11/15 just north of Harrisburg, we made an unplanned and unmarked detour over Blue Mountain west of Duncannon, then hit rain and awful traffic on I-81 at the Mason-Dixon Line.  After crawling through Williamsport, Maryland, on Route 11, we got back to the Interstate just as traffic and clouds cleared, and the rest of the trip passed easily and pleasantly.  I chose to get us off 81 early, on the northeast side of Roanoke, and come into town on the old road (not that the strip-mall-lined four-lane felt particularly venerable).  Winding down the hill, we passed a small used-car lot, and Richard's head snapped around.  "Hey, we have to go back there."  It turns out that he knew Webb Motors already, a longtime British-car dealer and one that sold Rovers, among others.  We admired the MG and Rolls-Royce sitting outside, then went in, finding three good ol' boys passing the time of day among a handful of other antique vehicles.  And it turned out we had come just in time: After fifty or sixty years, Webb would close for good within a few weeks, the former owner having died and his successor having reached retirement age.  Although talking to car guys (which Richard would consider himself, anyway), we had a bond with them, the love of fine machinery, and they had seen 611 a time or two themselves.

 

Richard had scored us two nights at the Hotel Roanoke; I had never stayed there before, and even though our room featured only a sliver of a view of the tracks it felt like exactly the right place.  I will admit to feeling underdressed as we hauled our impedimenta through the lobby, dodging a crowd of people plainly on the way to a

to a wedding.  Even though we could barely see passing trains out our window, we could hear them, and our room squarely faced the two landmark former-N. & W. office buildings; the older one now has luxury apartments, while the newer one houses classrooms and meeting space for a consortium of area colleges.  Only 30 years separated their construction dates, but what a stylistic difference between them; to the credit of the later architect, he used matching brick, to at least suggest a family resemblance.

The hotel, now owned by Virgina Tech, has enjoyed a 21st century renaissance, and it continues to exude "class"; every headboard has the logo affixed.  After unloading, we went back out, to do some research on the line to the east, noting locations at Bonsack and Webster; we made a longer stop at Villamont, to pay respects to the signals there.  Every bit as representative of the steam era as the locomotive we would see the next day, these sentinels had stood for eighty years or so, as billions of tons of coal passed by underneath.  All steel and angles and rivets, they have an industrial character that their modern replacements simply do not, and I will miss them.  In many

places along the line, the position-lights have already fallen, but Railpictures.net and Google Maps had helped me find the survivors, including the pair at Villamont, eastbound and westbound:

We found a pizza place in the minuscule section of downtown Roanoke that has any nightlife, then watched a freight pass by before repairing to the room and passing out, giving ourselves over to steam dreams.

Even in 1983, we had not gained access to Shaffer's Crossing, the engine terminal west of downtown Roanoke, beyond a quick climb to the top of a flight of stairs from 24th Street where we could catch a glimpse of 611 peeking from the roundhouse.  The roundhouse has long since fallen (although the turntable remains), and in the post-9/11 world we knew better than to even try to climb the stairs.  So on Saturday morning we waited downtown for the engine to come to us.  We did not know how early the railroad would send her out for an 8 a.m. departure, so we got up before dawn.

I ate breakfast in the hotel parking lot and made some images of the local architecture, starting with the hotel before the sun rose  and then the former station, now the O. Winston Link Museum, with the N. & W.'s Motive Power Building in the background.

611 had of course pulled trains past the depot thousands of times in her brief first career on the railroad, 1950-59, and the mechanical engineers in Motive Power had put pen to vellum and designed her from scratch right there, along with her legendary stablemates, the A and Y articulateds.  In the early morning light, it felt like time had hardly passed, and the ghosts of the N. & W. blew through town on the light breeze.

The sun had just risen when Richard and I walked over to the footbridge at 1st Street.  In 1993, we had watched 611 come to the station from this very bridge.  By 7:30 we could see smoke to the west, barely visible in the photo below.  The westbound freight that had come north on the line from Winston-Salem cleared before 611 and her long train appeared under the Gainsboro Road bridge, passing the Virginia Museum of Transportation, her home when not under steam.

She passed right under me:

After 23 years since the last time and 33 years since the first time we'd seen her run, almost exactly in this very spot, here she rolled again, all steam and steel and glory.  Sure, some of the old buildings in downtown Roanoke have disappeared, and the position-light signals have likewise fallen, but really, you can't go home again?  I'd argue that you sometimes can, at least when 445 tons of super-power locomotive puts water to the boil in the city of her birth, preparing to assault the grade whose name will live forever in the annals of steam.

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The train, billed as The Powhatan Arrow, started boarding, preparing for the 8 a.m. departure on its 98-mile round trip to Lynchburg.  Richard and I got in the car and drove up the hill, our first objective the signals at Blue Ridge, on the west slope of the mountain, where we expected to see the engine pass us working hard for the summit, a mile and a half farther on.  Not unexpectedly, we found quite a crowd gathering, in four distinct groups.  Fortunately, one group had already started forming on the east side of the tracks, close to the pair of signals, and I headed straight for it: I wanted a front-row seat, with no possibility of other fans in the way.  By the time the train arrived, our little band would number at least ten, occupying an area not much larger than a phone booth; I made the sixth to squeeze in.  Rick Ahern had come out in the pre-dawn darkness, staking out the spot even before he could properly see; four fans from Germany had joined him not long thereafter, and one of them very generously offered me the use of the two-foot stepladder which he had carried in and then decided against using.  Closer to 611's arrival, Mike and Florence Eagleson joined us, and then at least a couple more.  Another four stood a hundred yards behind us on our side of the tracks, while opposite them a group of about fifteen took up precarious perches on the sidehill; this lot included Tom Schultz, a fan I'd met at the Nevada Northern in 1987 but had not seen since, and at least one Brit.  Three hundred yards back, the vast crowd assembled -- dozens of people, kneeling, standing, and on ladders.  Here and there a cloud wandered the bright blue sky, causing minor concern, but the mood overall remained upbeat if not festive, certainly expectant.

We heard her before we saw anything, the whistle blowing for Major Wade Road above Webster.  Then we could hear the exhaust, even at this distance an unmistakable roar, a din.  Smoke appeared over the trees -- the storm cloud bringing that continuous approaching thunder.  Our hearts raced, our breathing stopped.

And here she came:

Perhaps in my excitement I pressed the shutter a little early -- the front of the engine would have looked better farther into the bright patch, and the smoke plume should have appeared centered between the signal masts; on the other hand, the righthand mast would have dropped into shadow an instant later as the plume rolled uphill, and the engineer would have passed into shadow too.  All things considered, this photo made the entire weekend worthwhile for me: 611, in the sun, under a cloud of smoke, between a pair of classic signals.  In all honestly, I could have gone home right then and there.

 

But of course I turned around to watch the engine pound by, and I had my camera to my eye.

For the benefit of the videographers, we maintained decorum as the train passed; we all started breathing again, shallowly, and then, as the last car rolled by, we exulted: Smiles became shouts and whoops.  We had experienced something utterly glorious.

 

So why didn't we just go home?  Well, as Matt Kierstead has pointed out in his presentations about the book Stations at Center for Railroad Photography & Art conferences, we chase trains because we long for the feeling that they give us, and the chase allows us to have that feeling again and again and again.  Richard and I got back in the car and headed east on U.S. 460, plotting our next location.  Of course, we had dozens of other vehicles around us, and while I drove fairly energetically, I did not do anything to feel ashamed of.  Perhaps a little unfortunately, because we reached Forest, just six miles from Lynchburg, at the exact instant the train did: We watched the steamy exhaust billow around the Route 811 bridge from behind the windshield.

 

Oh, well.

We found a place to park by the boarded-up depot and looked around for locations for the westbound, amidst plenty of company, including all three Snells; Rebecca and I checked the train's schedule (well, okay, the Amtrak national timetable did not include this excursion; photo by Scott).  Although I had wanted to work the depot into a photo, ​the combination of crowd and foreground clutter dissuaded me.  Among that clutter, the new mast for a new signal lay awaiting installation, so I would have one last chance to photograph the position-light mast here.  The railroad conveniently put the station sign right in front it.

With a much shorter walk to the car than we had had at Blue Ridge, we now had time to catch the train at one location between Forest and Roanoke, and I chose Montvale, where I could recreate the experience of 1993, when the engine flew overhead just as we arrived.  This time I could compose a photo to emphasize the locomotive's speed (exaggerate it, even):

The title of this essay pays homage to David P. Morgan, editor of Trains Magazine from 1953 to '87, and the story he wrote that appeared in its pages in June of 1956, with photos by Philip Hastings; I know it from its inclusion in The Mohawk That Refused To Abdicate, the anthology of Morgan/Hastings collaborations and the one book I would take to a desert island if ever forced to make such a choice.  Other places in America host steam trains much more regularly -- Strasburg and Durango at the top of the list, even Hollidaysburg and Ringoes -- but almost nowhere else does a steam-locomotive erecting shop still stand, let alone one dusted by the cinders of an engine born there.  The magic of that occurrence suffused this whole weekend, reaching a crescendo at Blue Ridge on Saturday morning as the engine put on a show that we will never forget.  But I felt chills too as the train rolled downhill towards me at a few minutes before noon in Roanoke and 611 passed the buildings where thousands of craftsman once drilled and formed plate steel, forged huge red-hot steel billets, and poured bronze and brass, turning those raw materials into this very locomotive.  I won't see anything like this happen in Altoona anytime soon; nothing remains at Schenectady and Lima; only an office building still stands at Eddystone.  But here in Roanoke, both the engine and I came home again.

In the afternoon, 611 would power The Pelican from Roanoke to Walton and back, the route that Richard and I had ridden behind her in 1993.  (The original Pelican, a Southern Railway train, ran on the N. & W., from Lynchburg to Bristol, on its way from New York City to New Orleans.)  We had plenty of time before the 2 p.m. departure, so we stopped for some lunch before driving west out of town on the Lee Highway.  As far as Shawsville, the railroad follows the course of the Roanoke River, gaining elevation before making the full-on assault on Christiansburg Mountain.  At the hamlet of Wabun, the N. & W. crosses the river on a bridge easily seen from a parallel road bridge; we had photographed 611 there in 1993, and we made our way there now.  In 23 years, tree growth has drastically reduced what one can see -- much less than an engine-length of bridge remains unobstructed -- but the prospect still pleases, with the river in the foreground and a mountain overlooking the bridge.

While we waited, a few other fans joined us, including one with a drone; at least other found a spot at river level close to the bridge, hidden from us in the foliage.  About ten minutes before 611's scheduled departure, we watched a Norfolk Southern freight grind its way westward.  On the other side of the bridge, not quite as far again, the railroad has a second crossing of the river, on the former Virginian Railway.  Norfolk Southern uses that line as well, and we heard -- but could barely see -- an eastbound a few minutes later.  It took until 2:30 for The Pelican to reach us, thirteen and a half miles west of the passenger station in Roanoke.

We easily got ahead of the train to the wye at Walton.  (Each of the weekend's trains ran to a wye, one in Lynchburg and one in Walton, so the entire train could get turned: Every seat always faced in the right direction, and the engine never had to uncouple.)  After parking amidst a crush of vehicles at the crossing, we walked along the tracks as far as the gate, then hopped over.  A siren behind us alerted us to the arrival of the railroad constabulary, and rather than make a run for it we turned around.  The very courteous officer explained that we needed to stay on the near side of the gate, saying that while the railroad had made the very conscious decision to allow things this weekend that it ordinarily would not -- such as our presence on this very piece of real estate -- he could only allow so much.  I appreciated his candor as much as his forbearance.

 

Clouds had rolled in by now, and the train came and went under gray skies.  I did not manage to get any sort of interesting reflection in the puddle; had the engine sat still I might have figured out the angle to shoot from, but the moving one overtaxed my powers of spatial relations.  In the going-away image, as 611 accelerated eastward, you can see the crowds of people at the crossing in the distance, while in the foreground a local canine salutes the train alongside its person:

Back in Roanoke, we had time to park and walk out onto the Gainsboro Road bridge, just east of the transportation museum.  While an interesting Tinker-toy of a structure, the signal bridge here doesn't move me the way the position-light masts do, although ask me how I feel about it in 40 years, when we travel to Roanoke for an excursion behind an AC4400 or something.

 After the train unloaded, we photographed the deadhead move back to Shaffers Crossing from ground level.  One of the car hosts, Scott Bauer, a friend from Pennsylvania, hailed me as he went by in the Dutch door of one of the full-length domes:

Then the engine backed past.  Those brick buildings behind her sure have seen a lot of trains go by since their construction, not long after the Civil War; judging by its roofline, the tallest one relies on its neighbors to remain upright.

That evening, Richard and I went back across the footbridge from the hotel to the hip part of town, having supper at a table outside a lively bar.  Most of the establishment's clientele plainly had nothing to do with trains, whether steam or diesel.  The waiter had no idea where to get an ice cream cone nearby; I cannot remember where he sent us, but we found a place with homemade -- and highly satisfactory -- ice cream directly across the street.  On our way back to the hotel, we had this view of the newer of the N. & W. office buildings; it reminded me of "Ghostbusters".

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On Sunday morning, I ate breakfast al fresco again.

 

During a brief break in the clouds, the brick warehouses glowed.

The train came into the station in much drearier light than on Saturday, but that did not reduce the number of people waiting for it, cameras in hand.

The weather got worse and worse until by the time departure rolled around it had started to actively rain; now 611 had 22 cars and wet rails to contend with, and one of these days I will remember to pack an umbrella when out on the road.  Richard and I drove up to Webster, across from the brickyard, and found places among the mustering fans.  Webster's position-light signals had survived so far, including the westbound signals on a unique plate-steel cantilever gantry; perhaps the once-busy brickyard sidings made placement of a mast problematic on the north side of the main tracks.

 

Once again, when 611 worked past us, at a little past 8:30, she brought a volcanic cloud along with her -- possibly the grandest I have ever photographed.  Lucius Beebe would have loved it.

Even among the crowds, we had no trouble getting away from Webster and out to 460.  Almost immediately, the clouds started to break up, and on the highway we got incredibly lucky: Only three miles beyond Webster, we caught up to the train's head end, and Richard made almost a minute and a half of pacing video as 611 loafed downhill between Blue Ridge and Villamont; it starts at 11:50 in this video.  (You really ought to watch the whole thing, if you haven't seen it already; the Webster scene starts at 10:10.)  Keeping one eye on the road and the other on the J, I noticed something that I had not earlier in the morning: At the smokebox flew pink flags, obviously in honor of Mothers Day.  A nice touch from the crew.

 

East of Thaxton we saw an open spot along the track right by the highway, and I pulled in.  I went for the train-at-speed photo again and shot a little too early, also without full sun.

Richard had his video camera set up and a white Cadillac SUV pulled in right in front of him just before the train appeared, making for a frustratingly quick change of position; fortunately, except for this thoughtless person, we did not have trouble with anyone jumping in front of us all weekend long.

Rather than try to get ahead of the train, we drove into Bedford and spent considerable time researching a location in the heart of town, where three tracks pass under a Depression-era concrete arch bridge.  (The main tracks go from two up the grade to one at Montvale, then Bedford has a long passing siding plus a long industrial siding.)  I walked down from the south side of the tracks and crossed over them, then got trapped by a long freight that crawled into town and stopped.  If the freight would wait here until 611 came west, no photo angle from below the bridge would work, so I had to hightail it out of there; it took some considerable bushwhacking to get up the hillside on the north side of the tracks so I could return to the car.

 

We boogied back west, now aiming for the signals at Blue Ridge again, this time to look upgrade at them.  With much higher sun, compared to the previous morning, the whole S-curve would have light.  Not nearly as large a crowd awaited us, so everyone managed to find space on the pile of ties the railroad had thoughtfully put out for us: no ladder necessary.

 

Even without the official photog present, someone on the engine thought that we needed a display of smoke, and we got lovely plumage as the engine drifted past us.

I could not resist, in the color photo above, changing the flags to green.

 

Did I mention that we had a crowd of people with us?  Look carefully in the going-away photo: A couple of fans decided that they needed to outdo Casey Thomason, the NS corporate photographer who had climbed a tree here on Saturday, and they managed to make it a good 35 feet up, about twice as high as Casey had.

For the Sunday afternoon trip to Walton and back, I wanted to try my luck at the Montgomery Tunnels, three quarters of the way up the grade between Wabun and the summit east of Christiansburg.  Since it gets crowded there, we went directly from Blue Ridge to the tunnels.  Narrow, winding, Den Hill Road climbs up from 460 and then drops down to the tracks, crossing beneath them in a narrow underpass with hairpin turns at each end -- certain death for anyone driving too fast or under the influence.  With at least two hours before the train would get here, we found only a small handful of people set up, and I planted a tripod and a cooler near the track, in front of a ballast pile that would shield me from the people behind.  Earlier in the day I had heard that the homeowner here had had trouble with the crowd on Saturday, and I wanted to make sure that he would not give me, a polite, law-abiding citizen, any grief: As soon as I had my spot marked I walked over to the house, not sixty feet from the near track.  An old frame farmhouse, dating back probably 140 years, it had witnessed some of the most dramatic railroading in the East; how could its residents ever have gotten a good night's sleep in all of that time?

 

Finding the owner involved in some minor vehicle maintenance out front, I stuck out my hand, explained my quest, and offered to help direct traffic.  Far from getting the cold shoulder, I got a genuinely warm welcome, and Greg Sellors talked to me for the better part of an hour.  He didn't mind railfans at all, as long as they didn't park up his front yard -- the area closer to his house than the unused siding; the day before, his wife could not get out to go to work, but as long as we respected the driveway, no worries.  Greg had grown up right here, and he had bought his childhood house from his parents some years earlier; the passing of the trains barely registered, and he had always found the railroad a good neighbor, even during the period in which contractors worked 24 hours a day to enlarge the tunnels for double-stack trains: They parked out of the way, and they always warned him before blasting.  Aside from the frequent semi trucks that would come down the road and have to turn around in his driveway -- GPS sent them this way on a "short cut" to Christiansburg; I could not imagine them getting even this far -- he loved the neighborhood; good hunting in the woods in every direction.

 

I would have kept talking -- well, listening -- all afternoon, but as the photo lines got more crowded I thought it prudent to plant myself with the tripod and cooler, almost at the righthand edge of the photo below; at the left edge, Mr. Sellors relaxes on his porch.

The sun played hide and seek while we waited, and more and more people showed up; for a while I tried keeping cars and trucks in line, but eventually I gave up, and when it came time for Mrs. Sellors to go to work, lo and behold, she could not get out.  Someone else managed to get the offending vehicle(s) moved, but the long suffering Mrs. sprayed a lot of gravel around on her way out.  A westbound freight climbed the hill on the near track, 40 minutes before we expected the passenger special, prompting worries about getting skunked, with double-stack cars between us and 611!  When the steam train did arrive, just after 3, we had a little sun, no intervening train, and not a lot of smoke.  The going-away view includes the secondary photo line and just hints at the crowds behind that yet, not to mention those who had taken in the spectacle from the other side of the tracks:

We went to Christiansburg for the return trip, poking around the station looking for an angle.  Actually, stations: For some reason, the N. & W. built a new station a couple of hundred yards east of the old one but never took down the original one; privately owned, it now houses a couple of businesses, while the railroad uses the newer one (still at least a hundred years old) as a maintenance base.  I fell into conversation with a family who had come to trackside to wait for the train, meeting three generations of Garrisons: two grandparents, a father, and a son, along with the son's friend.  While the boys, about seven, played with ballast, I got a lesson in local history and geography: Actually, we did not stand in Christiansburg, but in Cambria; the railroad had always gone through Cambria, but as Christiansburg grew, it expanded over the hill until its name overran the original one on the station signs.  The Post Office will still deliver mail to Cambria, but only with Christiansburg's ZIP Code on the envelope.  Mrs. Garrison, an artist, formerly did metalworking, traveling to craft shows with her wares, and she had a long collaboration with a blacksmith whose forge once sat close to the old railroad station; although his shingle did not advertise it, he made a good portion of his living by fabricating and maintaining moonshine stills for local use -- if not into the 21st century then at least until near the end of the 20th.  The four Garrisons had ridden the train the day before, aboard the NS coach New York, and I made sure to get an address so I could send them a copy of a photo of it.

 

Without a vantage point that particularly appealed to me, and mostly-cloudy skies, I decided to simply watch the train go by, something I almost never do but well worth it from time to time.  Richard made this photo of me; he had likewise left the video camera aside, but he could not resist getting out his point-and-shoot.

As the big Northern whistled through town and charged by, she also flattened a few pennies that I had put on the rail: I always bring one home for my wife, and the two boys here had never done this before; I always enjoy sharing the tradition with kids who have not yet known it, and these boys seemed genuinely appreciative.

We got back to Roanoke in plenty of time to look for a photo location at the Motive Power Building; I never did find a satisfactory way of including the engine and building in one frame, but I did channel my inner Walker Evans and David Plowden to make an image of its facade.

When the train arrived, Norfolk Southern once again showed its hospitality, allowing all of us to come down the ramp behind the Motive Power Building to trackside; the employee I talked to said the railroad would happily host us here today -- "but don't come back tomorrow."  Yes, sir, thank you.  Yellow tape and cones restricted access to the engine, but when the tape started blowing away I wound some of it up around a cone, at least keeping it out of the way of photos.  With the Route 220 bridge overhead, the engine sat on the main line to the Shenandoah Valley, facing the East End Shops of her birth.

Richard and I posed for the self-timer, and I made a close-up picture of the engine with her pink flags.

The tail end of the train had to clear the crossovers west of the station before the engineer could shove back to Shaffers Crossing, so he pulled the engine ahead before the reverse move.  As 611 backed past us, I made pan photos of her running gear, the exquisitely engineered mechanism that made her feats of speed and power possible; on the steam chest, the single letter that will always stand for the pinnacle of American steam locomotion.

The engine backed out of sight, and our weekend reached its end.  With Norfolk Southern under new management, less enthusiastic about steam, 611's operating future now looks uncertain.  Will we ever again get to chase her up Blue Ridge at the head end of a passenger train?  Not past position-light signals, anyway, but one way or another, and in spite of Mr. Wolfe, at least some part of that next experience, if it happens, will feel like coming home.