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Classic coal-fired locomotive will steam again

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Photo courtesy of the Virginia Museum of Transportation. N&W’s Class J 611 locomotive pulled the famed Powhatan Arrow passenger train. Photo courtesy of the Virginia Museum of Transportation. N&W’s Class J 611 locomotive pulled the famed Powhatan Arrow passenger train.
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By JAMES E. CASTO
For The State Journal

One of the last coal-fired locomotives built in this country, the Norfolk & Western Railway's Class J 611, soon will be steaming down the track again.

Built in 1950, the iconic steam locomotive pulled the famed Powhatan Arrow passenger train that linked Norfolk and Cincinnati, traveling the N&W mainline through Bluefield, Williamson, Kenova and other southern West Virginia communities.

Noted rail historian Thomas W. Dixon has hailed the N&W's Class J locomotives as "certainly among the best looking of the streamlined locomotives that graced the rails of the United States between the 1930s and the 1950s." 

Dixon is the author of "Norfolk & Western's Powhatan Arrow," a book chronicling the famed streamliner.

Retired in 1959, as new diesel locomotives wrote an end to the steam era, the 611 was moved to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke. Now a plan is progressing to restore the locomotive to operating condition and employ it to haul steam excursion trains.

Dixon notes that N&W's Class J locomotives, with their distinctive bullet noses and sleek black and red paint scheme, long have been revered by rail fans. 

"They hold a special place not only in the hearts and minds of N&W enthusiasts, but for those interested in the aesthetics of railroading, as well as those who appreciate their mechanical capabilities," he said. 

The Class J locomotives were among the most powerful ever built. They were capable of pulling a 1,000-ton, 15-car passenger train at better than 100 miles an hour, though they normally didn't operate at that speed. The 611 is the last Class J locomotive in existence, and it went on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in 1962.

In 1981, the Norfolk Southern Corp., the corporate successor to the old N&W, pulled the 611 out of retirement and restored it to its original glory for use in excursion service. The locomotive was retired again in 1994 and moved back to the museum. 

Now the museum is spearheading an effort, dubbed the "Fire Up 611!" campaign, to again restore the engine and return it to excursion service. The campaign was launched in June 2013, with a goal of raising $5 million — including $500,000 to $750,000 to mechanically restore the locomotive, $2 million to $2.5 million to build a maintenance facility for it, $500,000 for business operations and $1.5 million for an endowment to guarantee the 611's future operations.

In October, the campaign announced it had raised enough donations to restore the locomotive and was now switching its focus to finding funding for the maintenance facility. 

"It's no longer a matter of ‘if' the Class J 611 will run again, but ‘when' she'll return to excursion service," a campaign spokesman said.

The maintenance facility is to be built on the grounds of the Roanoke museum. The building also will house an educational center that can teach science, technology, engineering, math and social sciences to students of all ages. 

In November, the campaign received a significant shot in the arm when Norfolk Southern announced a $1.5 million donation. Norfolk Southern said funding for its gift came from the sale of a painting by abstract expressionist Mark Rothko, which had been part of the railroad's extensive art collection. 

More information about the 611 campaign can be found at www.fireup611.org.