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"The Spirit of Roanoke"

Posted By John Forsythe, Wednesday, May 18, 2016
Updated: Wednesday, May 11, 2016

The “Spirit of Roanoke” is the name for the steam engine number 611 of Class J, but most rail fans refer to the “Spirit of Roanoke” as 611. The Class J design represents the pinnacle of steam engineering.  It was designed to pull 10-15 car passenger trains at 90-110mph.  All of the engines numbered 600-613 were designed and built in Roanoke, VA by the Norfolk and Western Railway. No other engine could out power the Class J until the end of the 1950’s.


611 was built in 1950 and remained in commercial service until October 1959 and is the only remaining example of the Class J. It was saved due to the efforts of the photographer O. Winston Link who memorialized 611 in hundreds of photographs taken between 1958 and 1959. 611 was donated to the Virginia Museum of Transportation (VMT) in 1960.


611’s retirement from commercial service has been a mix of static display and living monument.  Between 1960 and 1982, it was a static display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation (VMT). Then it pulled excursion trains from 1982 until 1994. It remained on display until May 2014 when it was taken to the North Caroline Transportation Museum for restoration. Restoration was completed in under a year and 611 began pulling trains again on May 30, 2015 from Spencer, NC to Roanoke, VA.  


Keeping a steam engine operational is not a simple task. The VMT has to continually ensure a knowledge base, a supply chain, meet regulatory standards, and have access to rails where excursions are permitted. The knowledge to operate a steam engine safely is very specialized and now uncommon.  A new generation of operators is being trained by the VMT. Learning to operate a steam engine is a mix of instruction and hands on learning followed by certification by the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA).


The type of coal used in 611 is high bituminous coal because it burns hotter and cleaner than other types of coal. The coal is only found in Eastern, Kentucky as well as West Virginia. Additionally, replacement parts such as wheels are hard to come by and sometimes must be fabricated. For example, the original pilot wheels on the 611 needed to be replaced and new ones were machined to the correct specs from existing wheels.  611 is subject to Federal Railroad Administration certification to ensure it is safe to operate. Lastly, Norfolk Southern must give approval before any excursions can take place.  


VMT’s plan is forward thinking. The funds raised to restore 611 to operating condition also included the construction of a climate controlled shed to house 611 and other railroad artifacts so future generations can learn about railroad history. The FRA requires that steam engines undergo servicing every 1472 days. The VMT is scheduling events so that the next mandatory servicing will be in 15 years. During those 15 years, a portion of each ticket sale goes into a fund that is for 611’s servicing.


Starting a steam engine is not as simple as hitting a switch. The heat in the firebox expands the boiler longitudinally and radially. If the engine is not heated up properly, the boiler will crack or explode. Three days before an excursion, a mixture of sawdust and diesel fuel is spread over a bed of coal and lit. Slowly the fire is stoked to bring the engine to operating temp and steam pressure. When 611’s duties are finished it is slowly cooled down to prevent damage.


“The Spirit of Roanoke” is a metaphor for both the Virginia Museum of Transportation and Roanoke. Getting 611 back in service required cooperation from Norfolk-Southern, the city of Roanoke, and the North Carolina Transportation Museum. 611 has raised the profile of Roanoke and all of Roanoke’s museums by making Roanoke a destination. Downtown Roanoke boasts many museums, including the Taubman Museum, which is hosting an exhibit on Norman Rockwell, and the O. Winston Link Museum, which displays the photographs of O. Winston Link and 611 excursions depart from here.  To get from the VMT to the O. Winston Link Museum you can follow the Rail Walk that gives you a detailed tour of how the area has changed from the late 1800’s to today. The Taubman is across from the O. Winston Link Museum and stands out architecturally; the past and contemporary meet and build upon their different strengths to create dynamic city.


We are excited to call Roanoke the home of our 2017 annual conference. This post is the first in a series designed to highlight all that Roanoke has to offer, and the exciting initiatives taking place at museums in the Star City. Stay tuned for more!



“Spirit of Roanoke” Photos

Image 0634 - Spirit of Roanoke warming up on Friday, May 6th.  The fire was lit on Wednesday, May 4th.

Image 0638 - 611’s drive wheels….Each drive wheel is 70” inches wide

Image 0641 - 611’s Fire box.  The door is not wide enough to shovel in coal because there is a steam driven blower that loads the coal faster than a man can shovel.

Image 0643 - The Engineer’s seat on the right side of the cab

Image 0646 - The Fireman’s seat on the left side of the cab

Image 0657 - View from the Engineer’s seat

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