Norfolk & Western 611 locomotive brings steam history to Strasburg Rail Road (2024)

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611 history Newsletter

History lessons come in all forms.

Occasionally, lessons can come barreling in at more than 100 miles per hour and weighing over half a million pounds.

This is the case with the Norfolk & Western Class J 611 locomotive. The 71-year-old engine is in the middle of a monthslong residency at the Strasburg Rail Road, where train enthusiasts and fans can pore over all facets of this classic vehicle, from rides to tours. You can even blow the whistle.

A wide range of tours and events are planned at Strasburg Rail Road through Oct. 3.

“This represents when America did stuff, not just the junk it makes today,” says Scott Lindsey, chief mechanical officer of the 611. “Everyone's impressed with an iPhone — this is impressive stuff. Using brain power and experience. Steam built the country, and then diesel came and put steam out of business, all in the name of progress.”

This is actually the 611’s second residency at Strasburg Rail Road, having first made an appearance in 2019. What was true then, is true now: With the 611 in Strasburg, the railroad can lay claim to featuring the last two operational Norfolk & Western engines in the world. The 611 joins the 475, a steam locomotive built in 1906 and owned by Strasburg Rail Road.

611 history

The 611 was built in 1950, right at the end of the great steam experiment in the United States. Throughout the ’50s, the 611 transported passenger trains between Norfolk and Cincinnati, and could scale the Blue Ridge Mountains with ease.

In its first nine years on rail, the 611 notched 1 million miles of travel.

“It’s not like today where, when you have so many miles, cycles or hours, you throw it out and buy a new one," Lindsey says. “There are components on here that never wear out, short of freeze damage or accident, and you rebuild it and keep it running. They can run forever with the proper care.”

After its initial decade-long lifespan, the 611 went where many old locomotives and trains go when they’re not in motion — to a public park, where kids and families can admire it. From 1963 to 1981, it sat in a park in Roanoke, Virginia. In 1982, Robert Clayton, the first chairman of the newly formed Norfolk Southern Corporation, sent the 611 to Birmingham, Alabama, for restoration.

For the next 12 years, the 611 served as a public relations tool, traveling everywhere from Jacksonville, Florida, to Buffalo, New York, usually with hundreds of people along for the ride.

Strasburg Rail Road trainmaster Ryan Merrill says visitors from as far as Australia, Japan, Germany and Switzerland have already come to marvel at the steam behemoth.

“These engines are from a time when you could legitimately set your watch to them showing up on time,” Merrill says.

The 611 locomotive is just as powerful and awe-inspiring today as it was in 1950, but the allure has only grown over the years, as steam-powered engines become a fainter memory in the public consciousness.

Lindsey, who has stood faithfully with the 611 each stop of the way since 1982, agrees.

“It’s very important to keep this kind of technology in front of people to observe and enjoy, and hopefully create a new generation of fans to ride behind it, or operate the locomotive,” Lindsey says. “Otherwise, it’s just a cold piece of steel.”

Norfolk & Western 611 locomotive brings steam history to Strasburg Rail Road (2024)
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