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Train buffs visit museum where Norfolk & Western J Class 611 steam engine is being restored

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SPENCER, North Carolina — Not every rail fan wants to wait for the Norfolk & Western J Class 611 to roll back into Roanoke before seeing it again.

A group of train buffs from all over Virginia and even out of state packed a charter bus to North Carolina in late February to visit the classic steam engine at the site of her makeover.

Like kids checking out a cool new toy, a cluster consisting mostly (but not entirely) of gray-haired gentlemen followed restoration leader Scott Lindsay around the 611's immense, exposed, rust-and-bolt-covered hulk, asking questions such as "Where's the motor for the stoker?"

Turning his back to the engine, Lindsay proudly explained to his audience, "It's basically a power plant that moves itself."

Often cited as the most powerful steam locomotive ever built, the 611 is the last of its line. For 20 years, the engine has sat idle in Roanoke, but now the Virginia Museum of Transportation is having it restored to operating condition so it can pull passenger cars once more.

Railroad fans of all ages are eager to see the 611's wheels in motion.

"It's cool!" gushed 5-year-old Owen Lewis.

"He's just dying to ride it once they get it done," said his mother, Beth Lewis. The Crewe resident brought her son on the bus ride to see the engine as part of his home school lessons about trains. "I thought it would be a good trip to see it under restoration."

The 611's makeover is underway inside the historic roundhouse at the North Carolina Transportation Museum. The campus that houses the museum used to be the largest steam locomotive servicing shop for Southern Railway, which joined with Norfolk & Western in 1982 to become Norfolk Southern. Though the North Carolina museum has many other vintage engines on display inside the roundhouse, "the 611 is queen of the crop today," said museum volunteer Mike Garifo.

Built in Roanoke in 1950, the 611 is the only remaining Class J engine, considered the most advanced line of coal-fired steam locomotives ever built. The engine had been kept at the Virginia Museum of Transportation since 1962. In 2012, on occasion of the museum's 50th anniversary, the 611 officially became part of the museum's collection.

When the Virginia museum launched the Fire Up 611! campaign to restore the locomotive in 2013, their fund drive to raise $3.5 million at first had a slow start. At the end of that year, a $1.5 million donation from Norfolk Southern lit the fire.

Museum officials estimated that restoring the 611 engine would cost about $750,000, so in 2014 they made the decision to go ahead with it even though the full $3.5 million still hasn't been raised. The ultimate goal is to have the locomotive take part in Norfolk Southern's 21st Century Steam passenger excursion program.

Officials with the campaign estimated the 611 could return to the Virginia Museum of Transportation in late May. Museum executive director Bev Fitzpatrick has hedged the date as "mid-2015," noting that "it's important to remember that the unexpected is expected."

The Federal Railway Administration will ultimately certify whether the 611 is rail worthy. On Feb. 20, the day the tour group visited the 611, campaign officials sported confident smiles.

"We just had our first successful hydro test with the FRA" that week, said campaign committee member Cheri George.

George, from Atlanta, was a volunteer on the 611 during its latter-day excursion years, which ran from 1981 to 1994. For Fire Up 611!, she coordinates the national team of volunteers assisting in the restoration.

The hydrostatic test involved filling the boiler with water and pressurizing it to see where its staybolts leaked, then fixing the leaks. It was a soggy day for the men working on the restoration.

"At the end of the day, there were no leaks," said Bob Yuill, a retired Norfolk Southern foreman who owns Historic Machinery Services in Birmingham, Alabama.

PHOTO: ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 8 - In this photo taken Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, the top of sand dome, with the tops ajar in the back shop, are inspected by rail fans at the North Carolina Museum of Transportation in Spencer, N.C. Not every rail fan wants to wait for the Norfolk & Western J Class 611 to roll back into Roanoke before seeing it again. In late February, a group of train buffs from all over Virginia and even out of state packed a charter bus to North Carolina to visit the classic steam engine at the site of her makeover. (AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Stephanie Klein-Davis)  LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; SALEM TIMES REGISTER OUT; FINCASTLE HERALD OUT;  CHRISTIANBURG NEWS MESSENGER OUT; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL OUT; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL OUT
ADVANCE FOR USE SUNDAY, MARCH 8 - In this photo taken Friday, Feb. 20, 2015, the top of sand dome, with the tops ajar in the back shop, are inspected by rail fans at the North Carolina Museum of Transportation in Spencer, N.C. Not every rail fan wants to wait for the Norfolk & Western J Class 611 to roll back into Roanoke before seeing it again. In late February, a group of train buffs from all over Virginia and even out of state packed a charter bus to North Carolina to visit the classic steam engine at the site of her makeover. (AP Photo/The Roanoke Times, Stephanie Klein-Davis) LOCAL TELEVISION OUT; SALEM TIMES REGISTER OUT; FINCASTLE HERALD OUT; CHRISTIANBURG NEWS MESSENGER OUT; RADFORD NEWS JOURNAL OUT; ROANOKE STAR SENTINEL OUT

Yuill and his crew are restoring the 611's boiler. On the day of the visit from Roanoke, his men were placing heavy steel grates inside the engine's firebox, which holds the burning coal that heats the steam. Yuill was recruited by Lindsay, the campaign's chief mechanical officer, who on that day was guiding the tour groups.

Never a railroad employee himself, Lindsay, 56, turned his boyhood love of trains into a career. He owns Steam Operations Corp., also in Birmingham, which specializes in rebuilding historic steam locomotives.

He was part of the 611's maintenance and operations crew during the excursions of the 1980s and '90s. At the end, he was the contractor in charge of that crew.

He said he was with the engine from its relaunch in Birmingham "until we shoved it back into the museum."

Now that he's back to work on the 611, "it's like another day at the office, 20 years later," he said.

Lindsay introduced Ross Rowland to the group as a "celebrity volunteer."

"I've been railroading since I was 7," said Rowland, 74. "Once you get bitten by the steam bug, you never get loose." Rowland runs the Yellow Ribbon Express Foundation in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, which aims to organize a traveling train exhibition in order to raise funds to help wounded U.S. military veterans.

"To bring this piece of history back to life is a special honor," Rowland said. "These are the machines that built America."

Rowland happily took a break from polishing the 611's throttle valve to explain how the engine works and why it remains state-of-the-art in steam technology. The key, he said, was in the way its wheels were counterweighted. "This engine was so finely balanced that it could maintain 110 to 115 miles an hour and still ride smooth as a baby carriage."

The 611's futuristic look, by 1950s standards, adds to its appeal. "I'm attracted to the design of it, the streamlined shape," said retired Chrysler engineer Dennis Guza. He was traveling with Steve Parker, pastor of Morgans Baptist Church in Moneta.

"I was born in Norfolk on Pearl Harbor Day," said Parker, a retired U.S. Army chaplain. "We both have motor oil in our blood."

He said the impending reactivation of the 611 is a fabulous development. "It's exciting to think that I can get on that thing one day."

Railroad veterans along for the tour were happy to share 611 stories of their own.

Retired Norfolk Southern foreman Mike Arrington, 64, an Indiana native, remembers the exact date and time the 611 derailed in the Great Dismal Swamp between Norfolk and Suffolk (May 18, 1986, 2:13 p.m.). He can also recall the milepost (N16). He knows it so well because he and four of his children were on board; none of them were badly hurt. The track split beneath the train, its rails flying up to either side of the middle cars.

The derailment had a positive side, he said. Doctors discovered that a woman who was taken from the train to the hospital had a leaking aorta unrelated to the crash. "Her being in that wreck saved her life," Arrington said.

He's delighted at the idea that the 611 will get back on the tracks. "I think it's wonderful."

Brenda Short brought her son, 23-year-old James Short, from Halifax County to take part in the tour. Proving that love for trains crosses generations, James Short was eagerly sharing his knowledge of 611 trivia.

Boiler mechanic and restoration foreman Tom Mayer noticed the young man's intense interest in the train and handed him a spare cap from one of the staybolts, telling him he could keep it.

As her son smiled, Brenda Short was moved to tears by the gesture. "For him to have that piece of history, it's just priceless," she said.

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