1950 steam locomotive coming to Spencer from Virginia for lengthy restoration

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, March 26, 2014

SPENCER — An iconic steam passenger engine built in 1950 is headed to Spencer for a complete restoration that should put the Norfolk & Western Class J 611 locomotive back on the rails, blowing her whistle and steaming over the Blue Ridge and Appalachian mountains once again.
According to an agreement between the N.C. Transportation Museum & Foundation, Virginia Museum of Transportation and the Fire Up 611 Committee, the steam passenger locomotive will be restored at the Bob Julian Roundhouse in Spencer, one of the few facilities equipped to house a steam locomotive this size. After the restoration, the Class J 611 will return to its home at the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke.
No date has been set for the Class J 611 to move to the N.C. Transportation Museum. Before the Class J 611 can move, the Virginia Museum of Transportation must raise adequate funding to restore the locomotive and build a preservation and education facility to house her.
To date, the Virginia museum has raised almost $2.3 million. Donations have poured in from every state, the District of Columbia and 18 countries.
“Like us, the North Carolina Transportation Museum strives to preserve and showcase our rail heritage,” said Beverly T. Fitzpatrick Jr., executive director of the Virginia Museum of Transportation. “We can’t think of a better venue to host the Class J 611 during her much anticipated restoration.”
Once the funds are raised, the Class J 611 — a 4-8-4 locomotive — will be moved dead-in-tow to Spencer. The locomotive will then undergo its first ever 1,472-day inspection and receive repairs.
The process is expected to take six to nine months. After repairs are made, the Class J 611 will steam back to her home in Roanoke.
The Norfolk & Western Class J Locomotives were a marriage of beauty and power. Designed, constructed and maintained in Roanoke, the Class Js were known for their bullet nose, modern lines, graceful curves and baritone whistle.
Unique design combined with power to make the engine the iconic symbol of modern steam locomotives. No. 611, the last remaining engine of her kind, is known as the Spirit of Roanoke.
The Class J 611 steam locomotive was built in 1950 and pulled the Powhatan Arrow, the famed passenger train, from Norfolk to Cincinnati. The Class J 611 retired from passenger rail service in 1959.
In 1962, she was moved to the Virginia Museum of Transportation. In 1981, Norfolk Southern pulled her out of retirement and restored her to her original glory. She was retired from excursions in 1994 and moved back into the Virginia Museum of Transportation, where she sits today, greeting tens of thousands of her fans who visit from across the globe every year.
“The North Carolina Transportation Museum is honored at the opportunity to partner with the Virginia Museum of Transportation and the Fire Up 611 Committee to provide a location for the restoration of this iconic locomotive,” said Steve Mersch, president of the foundation that supports the Spencer museum. “Speaking on behalf of the museum and foundation employees, volunteers and the local community we are all very excited that once again Historic Spencer Shops will house the repair of a mainline steam locomotive just as it did in decades past.”
One of the largest buildings on the N.C. Transportation Museum campus is the 37-stall Bob Julian Roundhouse, built in 1924 and one of the biggest surviving steam-era roundhouses left in North America. Its 100-foot turntable and restoration shop are capable of handling a locomotive the size of No. 611.
The museum, located on 57 acres, encompasses 13 historic shop buildings that were part of Southern Railway’s largest steam locomotive shop, which dates to 1896.
To learn more or contribute to the restoration, visit www.fireup611.org .