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Mack Williams: The ‘real’ 611

A couple of weeks ago, while working at the Danville Science Center and train station, I received another call from my brother Joe regarding the Norfolk and Western No. 611 steam locomotive. With its May 30 run through Danville still fresh in my mind, Joe told me that it would be returning to Spencer for some fundraising activities, but he didn’t know the date.

A little later, I exited the back of the old station to do a walk-through of our Butterfly Garden prior to final closing for the day. After that, I always lock our adjacent 1948 Norfolk and Western caboose. People are sometimes still enjoying both attractions at that time of day, and I make a point to express my sincere regrets for their having to leave (just as I took my mother’s lesson of worrying to heart, so did I take her lesson of always being nice). On one such occasion, inside the caboose I found an elderly man who bore a strong resemblance to the aged reclusive neighbor in “Home Alone” (1990). At first, he had the disturbing look of being intent upon living there, but fortunately announced that he had to get back to his home a little ways down the tracks.

On the way to the butterfly garden, I encountered a small group of people appearing to be in anticipation of something; and as it turned out, they were! One told me the 611 was on its way from Chatham, Virginia. (In light of this, the timing of my brother’s phone call seemed truly prophetic.) I quickly locked both garden and caboose, then took up my wait, this time looking North instead of looking South as before.

Pretty soon, I saw a thin column of distant black smoke, getting fatter and fatter with approach. I thought I could almost distinguish its cindery “particulateness.” (I did have a fresh set of contacts in, but I’m sure they weren’t that good.) This time, as opposed to the 611’s May 30 run, there was no accompanying helicopter “toying” with it to cause disturbances in its free-flowing smoke trail.

On this most recent pass, the 611 was generating a bit of its own wind, as it was doing about 50 miles per hour. On May 30, it slowed to about 15-20 miles per hour to accommodate the 150-plus crowd at the Danville station. On that day, some had cameras to make a “run-by photo,” while those without them waited to make a “run-by memory glimpse.”

The railroad, not being one to waste money, had a string of freight cars tacked on this time. I wondered if those few hoppers, boxcars, etc. “realized” what an honor it was to be pulled by such a piece of history. (You know, “anthropomorphism” is bad enough when you attach it to a semi-sentient living creature, but even worse when ascribed to a totally “impervious” bunch of railroad cars.)

What was really unique about this sighting of the 611 was that the moment seemed so ordinary. Its previous trip was heralded weeks before by the media and well-notified rail-fans with fever pitch, cresting in that final moment of viewing. This time, instead of being “heralded,” the 611 just “happened,” in much the same way as ordinary, modern-day diesels appear at railroad crossings.

With future excursions of the 611, a trace of coal smoke “patina” may even build up on the bottom of some railway overpasses; but it will be only a “trace” compared to the 19th and 20th centuries’ accumulation.

Having been present at its most recent run through Danville, I can now say, in a sense, that I’ve seen the “real” Norfolk and Western No. 611.

This 611 wasn’t as camera conscious and “full of itself” as the one of May 30. (But whereas a man’s being “full of himself” is a sin, in the case of the 611, it’s an inalienable right!)

To me, the 611 had the look of performing an everyday railroad job, just as it would have been doing when my father would have seen it. But even in the mid- to late-1940s, when he began working at the Spencer yard office, steam was already on the way out, becoming more “special” every day.

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