Norfolk & Western #611

The Spirit of Roanoke | The Queen of Mainline Steam


Simple lines, a bullet nose, and a Tuscan red stripe made the Js stand out as one of the most beautiful streamlined steam locomotives ever designed. The Js were the pride of the N&W's crack fleet of home-built steam locomotives. They powered the famous named trains like the Powhatan Arrow, Cavalier, and Pocahontas. The Js along with the Class 'A' and 'Y' freight engines embodied the ingenuity of N&W engineers and represented the pinnacle of steam technology. At a time when other railroads were scrapping their steam locomotives, the N&W was building more. No. 611 rolled out of the Roanoke East End Shops on May 29, 1950 at a cost of $251,344. She shared duties with the other Js pulling the company's premiere passenger trains for the people along the N&W's right-of-way.

Fire Up 611 committee

611plate Norfolk & Western #611 was one of fourteen Class 'J' passenger locomotives built by the Norfolk & Western Railway between 1941 and 1950 and the only one in existence today. Constructed in Roanoke in 1950 and rebuilt after a wreck in 1956, #611 served in high-speed revenue passenger service until a farewell to steam excursion in 1959. The locomotive was then donated to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke in 1960, where it sat dormant for two decades. 1n 1982, #611 was rebuilt by the Southern Railway's Norris Yard steam shop in Birmingham, Al. A year later she began a long first career in excursion service across the Norfolk Southern mainline system, lasting until their steam program was dropped in 1994. Stored again in Roanoke, in 2013 the Fire Up 611 committee announced plans to rebuild the locomotive again for a second excursion career in the NS 21st Century Steam program. #611 remains based in Roanoke, Virginia.

Class J technical drawings / web

Norfolk & Western #611

  • builder:East End Shops, Roanoke Va
  • arrangement:4-8-4 Northern type
  • class:J (high speed passenger)
  • built:May 1950, number 388
  • series:14 produced 1941-50
  • number in class:12 of 14
  • fuel:Pocahontas coal / water
  • drivers:70" diameter
  • length:109 ft 2 in
  • height:16 ft 2 in
  • axle load:72,000 lb on drivers
  • adhesive weight:288,000 lb
  • locomotive weight:494,000 lb
  • tender weight:395,250 lb
  • total weight:889,250 lb
  • fuel capacity:70,000 lb (31 tons)
  • water capacity:20,000 US gal
  • firegrate area:107.7 sq ft
  • boiler pressure:300 lb
  • heating surface:4,693 sq ft
  • cylinder size:27 in × 32 in
  • valve gear:Baker type
  • maximum speed:110 mph
  • power output:5,100 hp
  • tractive effort:84,981 lbf
  • factor of adhesion:3.39

  • notes:
  • wrecked 1956, rebuilt at Roanoke, 1957
    retired from revenue service, 1959
    stored at Virginia Museum of Trans, 1960
    rebuilt at Birmingham shops, 1980
    retired from excursion service, 1994
    stored at Virginia Museum of Trans, 1994
    rebuilt at Spencer Shops, 2014
    started second excursion career, 2015

    owned by Virginia Transportation Museum
    named "Spirit of Roanoke"
  • Roanoke, Va / May 2016 / RWH

    Roster Shots


    A 'piece of equipment' can hardly describe a thing of beauty as the Class J. Anyone who ever experienced one under steam can easily tell you that these, as all steam locomotives, are alive and do indeed have real personalities. The Class J was and still is a wonderful sight to behold, alive or dead. Most will agree, however, the best way to view them is under steam. From the tasteful, elegant, richly colored tuscan red band trimmed in gold, to the subtle chromed parts to accent the shape flow of the boiler jacket, little can compare. The Norfolk & Western J was a southern aristocrat -- reserved, tasteful, and ladylike. The Class J was in a class by itself -- functional, simple, and yet most attractive.

    Kenneth Miller, Norfolk & Western Class J, 2000





    The steam event of 2015 -- Norfolk & Western No. 611 in steam on the main line -- is underway, finally. I was fortunate to be among the small group of fans who gathered trackside Thursday to see it in person, and none of us were disappointed. No. 611 lived up to her legendary ability to accelerate and sprint while looking graceful at the point of a passenger train. The good thing about this all: It was only the first day of more than two dozen in the next six weeks when the engine will be under steam and running.

    Jim Wrinn, TRAINS, May 2015


    Spring 2016

    My first encounter with the Queen of Steam was in the fall of 1993. I had just moved to Bristol, Tennessee, to attend a liberal arts college there. Although railfanning was not at the forefront of my mind in those college years, news of N&W #611 and Southern #4501 tied down together overnight between weekend excursions was enough to get me out of the dorm and down to Bristol yard for an inspection. 4501 was like an old friend by that point, but I had only ever seen the big J in print or on a few VHS tapes from the early 1980s. Nothing prepares you for an up close encounter with her impressive stature and stylized lines. I remember that weekend well, as I had only just met and begun dating my eventual college sweetheart, later bride. Her family was in town that weekend for other reasons, and I was delighted to discover that her brother had a soft spot in his heart for trains, too. We all ventured down to the old N&W yard and inspected both locomotives, idle for the evening. The inset photo includes some of my family-to-be, standing around the streamlined pilot. No one else around in the yard, Will and I climbed into the cab of 611 and inspected her controls. I remember how a railfan had tucked a rolled up piece of legal paper behind the automatic brake handle, a note for the next day's engineer: When you get to Rural Retreat on Sunday, can you be sure to pour on the black smoke? I'll be taking pictures there. That made me want to make my way up to Rural Retreat as well! But it would be almost a quarter of a century before I could chase her anywhere. I had no car in those early college days, and the next year Norfolk Southern dropped the entire steam program.

    My second encounter with the Queen under steam would come some 23 years later, with a chance to chase the J during a weekend of trips out of Roanoke, Virginia -- May 7-8, 2016. Will and I had watched from afar last summer, when she was brought back to life for a second excursion career after a rebuilding at Spencer Shops in North Carolina. I told him we simply could not let another excursion season go by without seeing her action, finally, after all those years since she was under steam at Bristol. Since then, I had seen her a few times on static display in Roanoke with my father (above, right), but I was determined to be trackside this time so as to finally understand what all the fuss has been about, since 1959 and her first retirement. So we made plans to be in Roanoke top of the morning for the Saturday trips to Lynchburg and Walton. It was more than worth the wait. In advance of an 8am departure, the J made her entrance downtown with and impressive 19 passenger cars in tow. Will and spent the balance of the day chasing her to Forest and back over familiar home rails with CPL signals, later visiting the Virginia Museum of Transportation rail yard during her midday layover, and then catching the consist one last time in a picturesque field outside of Elliston. It was a wonderful day, made perfect by blues skies and mild temps.

    I never made it to see her dark clouds displayed across Rural Retreat. But then again, the Queen's reign extends wherever she roams. I'm grateful for a brother-in-law with whom I can attend her court, then and now.

    Links / Sources

    This page was updated on 2017-07-01