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Riding the J

28 May 2017

Norfolk & Western 611 main driver, eccentric crank, roller bearings, siderods

My initial experience of Norfolk & Western Class J 4-8-4 #611 came in the summer of  1976, when my father and I first visited Roanoke, Virginia.  She sat outdoors at the Virginia Transportation Museum’s location at the time, next to the Roanoke River across from downtown.  The giant streamlined engine greatly impressed the eleven-year-old me, especially the vast size of her cab (accessible by a set of wooden steps).  My father made a photo of her that graced the pages of the Steam Directory guidebooks for a few years, and he says I said something like “Boy, I wish we could see her run.”  I do not remember that, and certainly neither of us could have expected that she ever would again have a fire on her grates.  And for either of us to ride in that immense cab?  That would never happen.

In April of 1983, my friend Richard Boylan and I chased the engine, then a year into her glorious second career (as the star of the Norfolk Southern steam program), from her Roanoke birthplace all the way across Virginia, to Norfolk.  Well, we kept up with her as far as the Great Dismal Swamp: She ran away from us somewhere east of Petersburg, Richard pushing his Rover 3500 sports car up to 85 miles an hour on arrow-straight-and-dead-flat two-lane U.S. 460 right next to the double-track ex-N. & W. main line while the smoke on the horizon kept getting farther and farther away from us.  You can watch Richard's movies of that trip here.

Oren B Helbok, N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611

In July of that same year, my father and I spent a weekend chasing 611 on the former Southern Railway main line between Alexandria and Charlottesville, Va.   I do not remember when we left New York that Friday, but early enough that we saw the engine – and Norfolk Southern excursion stablemate Savannah & Atlanta #750 – in daylight in the railroad yard a little ways southeast of King Street Station in Alexandria.  (Not a trace of that yard remains today, new development having wiped it away.)   My negatives show that I got into 611’s cab that afternoon (I made a couple of exposures looking forward along the boiler through the engineer’s front window), and that evening my father made a photo of me sitting in the engineer’s seat in my polyester short-sleeved Oxford shirt, no hat covering my mop of curly hair.  I certainly did not look like an authentic engineer, but hey, I got to put my hand on the throttle.   Whether before or after the photo I do not remember, but the friendly hostler let me stay in the cab while he moved the engine a hundred feet or so (and whether forward or backward, and why he had to move her, I do not remember either).  Imagine my excitement to get a cab ride in 611!

On an October weekend in 1993, Richard and I returned to Roanoke and photographed the engine on a series of excursions that ran to the west, up and over Christiansburg Mountain to Walton and back; we rode one of the trips too, spending the entire time, as I recall, in one of the coach vestibules, hanging out of the Dutch doors and getting an earful from Sid Bailey, one of the steam program’s car inspectors.  (Richard's movies appear here and here and here and here.)   The next year, the railroad axed the steam program and 611 returned to the museum in Roanoke and became a static display.  Thereafter, Richard and I occasionally found other steam engines to chase.

Fast forward almost twenty-three years, and Richard and I returned to Roanoke.  NS had had a corporate change of heart (thanks to its CEO, Wick Moorman) and had helped underwrite the cost of an overhaul for 611: We would have the chance to chase her yet again, this time on a weekend of trips that ran both ways from Roanoke, to Lynchburg in the mornings and Walton in the afternoons (Richard's movie here).  Caution tape and cones and cops kept us and the rest of the crowds at much farther than arm’s length from the engine almost all weekend; on Sunday afternoon, though, the railroad allowed us to approach 611 where she sat a few feet from the old Motive Power Building in which her designers had worked more than three-quarters of a century before, and within sight of the East End Shops that had given birth to her.  We couldn’t touch her, but at least we got close until, with the last passengers off the train, she backed out of sight towards the Shaffer’s Crossing yards.

N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, East End Shops, Roanoke
N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, Mothers Day, pink flags, Roanoke
Oren Helbok, Richard Boylan,N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, Roanoke

Facing the East End Shops, her birthplace;  pink flags for Mother's Day;  Oren and Richard and N. & W. 611

In 2017 we went back again, this time for three days of trips similar to 2016’s (Richard's videos here and here and here)  – and somehow the railroad’s attitude had completely changed: On the Saturday morning, we watched 611 come from Shaffer’s Crossing into the center of town, to stop right where we had seen her the previous year.  Richard and I stood on the sidewalk on the Williamson Road bridge spanning the tracks, looking down at the engine – and then we saw a young fan I knew in the parking lot at track level, setting up his video camera only a few paces from her Wait, if Jason can go there . . .   By the time I made it down the steps alongside the Motive Power Building, a few other people had gathered, and soon we made quite a crowd, separated from the engine only by the low guardrail.   Crewmen and other “official guests” mingled with us, and the vibe felt welcoming and friendly, even jubilant.


Numerous people posed for pictures in front of 611’s drive wheels; one group, on the other side of the guardrail, caught my attention: Among three engine crewmen stood a much older man, wearing a reflective vest and carrying a small grip.  After they had had their pictures taken, I went up to him to ask about his connection here.  It turned out Jack Taylor had run this engine during her first excursion career in the 1980s and ’90s, and he had come back for a cab ride to celebrate his eightieth birthday coming up later in the week. Now retired and living in Norfolk, Jack had brought his two sons with him; both of them also worked for NS and between them had more than sixty years of seniority.  I made sure to make pictures of Jack and of the three of them with the engine, and I got Jack’s address so I could send him prints.  You can find pictures of Jack and his sons here.

On Sunday morning we had the same access to the engine as on Saturday, and I introduced myself to more of the crew as they made the engine ready for the day’s trips.  I also met a couple of the engineers – Norfolk Southern’s Sandy Alexander, who would run the morning trip, and Scott Lindsay of Steam Operations Corporation, the contractor who had overseen the engine’s overhaul and return to service two years earlier. Scott told me that he started out as a teenaged volunteer on Ross Rowland’s High Iron Company in the late 1960s or early 1970s; my father and I chased High Iron trips starting in 1967.  (Actually, my father started chasing in '67; I first went out with him the next year, and by 1970 I had ample experience getting up at 4 a.m. to make it to somewhere in New Jersey to see a 2-8-4 go by at high speed.)  Scott went on to become Ross’s employee on the American Freedom Train and Chessie Steam Special, and through Steam Operations he has worked on more than sixty steam locomotives across North America – a significant percentage of the locomotives that have operated in the past half century.  While making his home in Birmingham, Alabama (where Southern and then NS had its steam shops, 1966-94), he also has an apartment close to the North Carolina Transportation Museum’s Spencer Shops near Salisbury, so he can more easily work on 611 during her stays there.  For this trip, Scott’s wife, Karen, had come to Roanoke too, and I made sure to get pictures of the two of them on and off the engine.

N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, Zac McGinnis, Scott Lindsay, Steam Operations Corporation
N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, Karen and Scott Lindsay, Steam Operations Corporation
N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, Karen and Scott Lindsay, Steam Operations Corporation

Volunteer Zac McGinniss and Scott and Karen Lindsay with N. & W. 611 in Roanoke, May 2017

Richard and I had a great time on both Saturday and Sunday – not perfect weather for photography, but first thing Saturday morning we had one of those turns of luck that come along only rarely, and we got to relive the experience of pacing 611 on Blue Ridge Grade just as we had in 1983 (you can read the story here).  Everywhere we went, the weekend felt like a rolling party, with hundreds of people lining the tracks, all of them thrilled to see the pride of Roanoke doing what she does so well.  Late on Sunday afternoon, after the trip to Walton returned to the city, once again a huge group of us gathered alongside the engine, happily soaking up the atmosphere.  Over the course of the weekend, I ran into at least twenty fans of my acquaintance, people I have seen at trackside sometimes for decades (and some much more recently met, but with almost all of whom I can now easily stay in touch through Facebook), and I talked with quite a few of them now, rehashing our photo- and videographic successes and failures of the weekend so far.

At some point Scott Lindsay, up in the cab, caught my eye and beckoned me over.  Looking down from the gangway, he said, “Would you like to ride with us out to Shaffer’s Crossing?”  “In the engine?” I asked, quite literally incredulously.  “Yeah, come on up.”  I’ve heard those words many times before, even from the cab of this very locomotive, but in the middle of this crowd of people, in the middle of her hometown, and in 2017? “Uh, let me tell my friend where he can pick me up. I’ll be right back.”  I hurriedly found Richard in the crowd, explained the situation, and practically ran back to the engine before Scott could change his mind. “One rule,” he said when I had climbed into the cab.  “Absolutely no photos while the engine is moving.” “Okay, no problem, I’ve got the camera off.”  Disappointing, but I guess I could live with that.

I had met Scott’s fireman, Cheri George, thirty years earlier when I visited the steam shop in Birmingham, during the rebuild of N. & W. 2-6-6-4 1218.  In the winter of 1987, a friend and I took off in my Ford Econoline van, to see America, and we passed through Roanoke.  As a callow 21-year-old, I had learned just enough from my father about knocking on doors and asking for access, and I went to the old N. & W. headquarters building facing the tracks.  I’ve no recollection of how I got directed there, but somehow I found the office of the steam program, and an older gentleman in a tan blazer sitting at a desk made me welcome and told me about plans to run 611 and 1218 together at the upcoming National Railway Historical Society convention in Roanoke that summer; he said that he would have his hand on one of the throttles.


It didn’t occur to me to get a photo of that gracious man, Frank Collins, nor to get an address for him where I could send him pictures (or to try to find him when I did indeed see the two engines at the convention in August), and I regret that, because he did something for me that he really did not have to do: He said, “If you go to Birmingham and want to look around at the steam shop, just have them call here and ask for me.”  Which I did, a month or so later, and I got in, and I got to look around.  In 1993, back in Roanoke, walking with Richard from our hotel (we stayed at the Patrick Henry, the second-best place in town, after the railroad-owned Hotel Roanoke – Richard liked us to have convenient digs), a woman on the street stopped us and said she remembered me: Cheri, who said she had let me into the steam shop and had called Mr. Collins.  I did not remember her at all – another example of the tunnel vision I had back then: I had gone to Birmingham to see the hardware, not to meet the people.


Perhaps karmically, when I now climbed aboard 611, Cheri did not have any memory of me; she also appeared all business, keeping an eye on the stoker controls and the haze at the stack and the water level in the glass.  611 has such a huge backhead, with all of the gauges and knobs spread out across it, that it seems practically bare, at least compared to many of the smaller engines I know; in the huge cab, the fireman also sits well back from the boiler, and the blower and main stoker knobs reach towards the seat on very long rods.  In front of the engineer, a modern, diesel-style brakestand takes away some of the “authentic” feel one might wish for, and a fat braided rope reaches up to the whistle lever on the ceiling – plainly the most important control in the cab.

I felt somewhat self-conscious, climbing into such a famous engine in front of such a crowd of people, and I did not wish to stand in the gangway and wave at my friends.  Richard did get one photo of me, however, talking to the crew before I slipped out of sight.  Along with Cheri and Scott, I shared the cab with two other people: NS had assigned a local road foreman of engines, Bill Aldridge, as the pilot for the afternoon, and engine crew volunteer Duane Leonard rode along.  Bill stood in the gangway behind Scott, and Duane and I sat on the padded bench that spanned the front of the coal boards – also not an original feature of the engine.

N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, Oren B Helbok

As the crow flies, we had a two-and-a-half-mile move to make, but it would take twice that to get us there: First, Scott had to back the train almost half a mile to where we could cross over from the Roanoke District main line (which runs from Roanoke up the Shenandoah Valley towards Hagerstown, Maryland) to the Blue Ridge District (which runs from Roanoke east towards Norfolk).  Then he would take us ahead a mile, past the East End Shops, so the tail end of the train would clear the east switch of the wye leading onto the Winston-Salem District (which runs south from Roanoke to the eponymous city in North Carolina); we would back down the wye, about 3,500 feet, then pull north and then westward the two and a half miles, on the Christiansburg District and within the Shaffer’s Crossing yard, to where the engine and train would lay over. (Because every trip all weekend long had a wye at each end, the engine and train remained coupled together continuously.)


After confirming with the train crew that all of the passengers had debarked and no other work remained to do, and that his conductor had reached the tail end of the train 20 cars back, Scott called the dispatcher over the radio for permission to shove west.  With that received, he pulled the Johnson bar all the way back, pulled out the knob on the brakestand to get the bell ringing, hauled on the braided rope to give three blasts on the steamboat whistle, released the engine brake, and opened the throttle.  The engine responded without any protest and we started moving.  The conductor gave Scott regular updates on the track ahead – “Clear for 20 [carlengths]” – as we slowly passed the former passenger station (now the O. Winston Link Museum), the Hotel Roanoke, and the former headquarters buildings (NS had moved out of them some years after I met Mr. Collins, and now a consortium of colleges occupies one and high-end apartments occupy the other).


From my vantage point on the bench, I had only a small slice of world to see on either side of the engine, but I mostly watched Scott and Cheri at work.  Even with a train of this length, on mostly straight and flat track the engine barely broke a sweat, so Cheri just had to tweak the stoker and blower; the steam pressure gauge hovered between 275 and 300 pounds per square inch.  Scott likewise did not have to make many adjustments of throttle or reverser until we got to the sharp curves of the wye, but he kept a careful eye on our speed (which never exceeded ten miles per hour).  With a third of a mile of train ahead of us and radioed clearance from the conductor, Scott never turned around in his seat, instead facing the front of the locomotive, one hand almost always on the throttle in case of a slip.  But the engine – the most powerful passenger engine anywhere – consistently kept her feet.


On this first move, we had to go under the Gainsboro Road overpass and past the new aluminum signal gantry, which would then give us the indication for the diverging route to cross over from the northernmost to the southernmost of the main tracks.  When we stopped there, to the right we could see the Transportation Museum, under whose canopy #1218 sat cold and quiet.  We got the clear signal, and 611 picked her way through the switches of the crossover.  Amtrak would begin service to Roanoke in the fall (after a hiatus of thirty-eight years), and construction of a platform had begun along the southernmost track.  I could hear the engine’s exhaust echoing off the downtown buildings on either side of us; it got a lot louder as we passed under Williamson Road and then the I-581 bridge.  Now the echoes came back to us off the walls of the East End Shops, within which thousands of craftsmen – 6,000 at the peak in the 1930s – built and repaired locomotives and cars, including 611, which rolled out in May of 1950, among the very last three steam passenger engines built there (or anywhere in America, for that matter; the Shops would deliver the very last American-made steam locomotive just three years later.)  8-1/2 Street Southeast crosses the drainage canal and then the tracks and enters the shops complex; Scott did not blow the whistle for the crossing because of the “quiet zone” in town (not that squealing flanges from the trains that run all night long qualify as "quiet").

The east leg of the wye leaves the main on a fairly shallow curve, crosses Campbell Avenue, and then continues straight for about 500 feet before curving more sharply across 3rd Street and meeting the west leg just north of Tazewell Avenue; in another 700 feet, the single track Winston-Salem line crosses Bullitt Avenue.  Our train briefly blocked all four streets as we crawled southward.  As the engine approached 3rd Street, Scott warned Bill not to stand in the gangway on the engineer’s side: On a curve that sharp, the space between engine and tender would get very tight and, Scott said, “If we derailed, we’d squash you like a grape.”  Bill moved to the other side of the cab.


The next day, when we watched the train get wyed between the two Walton trips (no Lynchburg trip on Monday), we first saw two NS maintainers walk down the east leg, slopping grease onto the rails. We assumed they meant to put it on the inside faces of the railheads, especially on the outside rail of the curve, but they had only a bucket and a stick to work with, and they did not take much care about where the grease went; quite a bit ended up on the tops of the rails.  Perhaps the same thing had happened before the train I rode got wyed on Sunday, because 611 slipped for the only time as we crossed 3rd Street.  When the engine slipped – probably only a quarter of a rotation of the 70-inch drivers – Scott barely had time to move the throttle before she caught herself and marched on.


Coming around the west leg of the wye, the track curves even more tightly than on the east side; Bill moved back to his spot behind Scott, and I watched as the back left wall of the cab and the front left corner of the tender came closer and closer.  Then we reached the straight track of the main line.  As we approached the Transportation Museum, the tail end of the train cleared the wye, and Scott had more or less straight track ahead for the rest of our trip.  He opened the throttle wider.  As the engine accelerated towards ten miles per hour, the sound from the smokestack got louder, and through the crack between the two halves of the Butterfly firebox door the brilliant yellow light got more intense in bursts timed to the exhaust.  These flashes, about three times per second, remain my most intense memory of the entire ride.


Just past downtown we left the main tracks, going straight where they swung slightly to the north; we kept to the southernmost track as the yard widened out between us and the mains: West of 10th Street, the yard spans sixty tracks across (many of them filled with stored and out-of-service freight cars in this time of economic uncertainty and declining coal traffic).  Somewhere to our right and out of sight, blocked by all of that rolling stock, the Shaffer’s Crossing engine terminal had changed completely from steam days, except for the 115-foot turntable that 611 had ridden probably hundreds of times in her first career, 1950-59.  Scott had reduced throttle, the exhausts had become quieter, the flashes within the firebox much less intense, and we came to a stop alongside a gravel road filled with cars, pickups, people, and a fire engine.


Scott dropped down out of the cab to talk to his crew, some of whom then came up into the cab to start work on cleaning the fire.  Chunks of stone mixed with the coal made their job much harder and threatened to block the grates when shaken; I sat on the engineer’s seat for a while and watched one of the volunteers wrestle the stones around in the firebox with the long rake.  Now that we had stopped, I could use the camera again, and I photographed his exertions.  Our NS pilot, Bill Aldridge, likewise seemed in no hurry to leave the cab, and I made a few pictures of him at ease on the fireman’s seat.  When I finally climbed down, I also photographed Bill from the ground; in his fluorescent-yellow shirt and wraparound sunglasses, he did not much resemble an old-time N. & W. fireman, but he did look contented sitting there.

N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, fireman, locomotive fireman, Chris Slate, Zac McGinnis, volunteer
N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, Norfolk Southern, road foreman of engines, Bill Aldridge

Zac McGinnis wrestling stones and clinkers with the rake, and Bill Aldridge sitting in the catbird seat

I found Richard and a couple of the other fans we had met during the previous two days, and we watched the crew connect a fire hose to the coupling on the tender.  Duane, responsible for keeping track of the water quality, climbed up and oversaw the fill-up.  Above him, the solid overcast we'd seen all afternoon broke apart to reveal spectacular cumulus clouds lit by the setting sun.  The clouds turned pink and orange and purple and cleared enough to reveal a waning crescent moon.  Below them all, the J sat and simmered, another day of 200 miles behind her.  I made some photos while the sky turned indigo and then black, and then Richard and I drove away, back to our hotel to get a few hours of sleep before chasing the train on the morrow.  Scott’s way-back-when boss Ross Rowland would ride the engine on Monday, and we would run into him next to the engine in the morning and have a fine conversation, but I’ll save that story for another time.

N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, Shaffers Crossing, sunset, moon
N&W 611, Norfolk & Western 611, Shaffers Crossing, sunset, Duane Leonard, volunteer

So why did Scott pick me out of the crowd that Sunday afternoon?  We had never laid eyes on each other – at least, not to our knowledge – but as with so many of my experiences, I give credit to my father and his reputation as a photographer.  Although only rarely published, his work stood out, and while Scott may never have owned any original Helbok prints, probably some of his friends did; perhaps Scott had seen the pictures in the old Steam Directorys, and in Bill Withuhn’s The Spirit of Steam, and in the late, lamented Locomotive & Railway Preservation magazine.  And I would suspect he has a warm spot in his heart for people like my father and me who chased the trains he worked on in his youth and who remember the great show those trains put on.


Whatever his reasons, they work for me.   Thanks again, Scott, for the opportunity to ride with you; very glad you like the photos I sent afterwards.

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