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Mack Williams: Rail “Ferrying”

My brother Joe called about another sighting of the 611 “in the works” for the following day (5/4/17), a “ferry run,” taking empty coaches to Lynchburg for an excursion from Lynchburg to Petersburg and back.

The next morning I saw on Facebook that the 611 had departed Spencer around 9:20, a.m. so I figured about 11:30 for reaching Danville. It being an off-day from my “science guy” job in the natural history museum-Danville train station, my time was my own.

At 11:30 a few people with cameras were there, but not many. I wondered if the greater frequency of 611 appearances had caused the public to take the old engine and it’s coal tender (a crucial part) for granted.

A friend, “Caz” had his camera set up on a tripod. He recently had a much more substantial tripod with an 8-inch diameter Schmidt-Cassegrain telescope set up at the science museum’s monthly star party. This time, instead of possible time exposures of star trails, he would be photographing a true “star of the rails!”

Caz spoke of his youth, when teenage boys hopped freights from one end of Danville to the other. The train usually slowed enough for them to hop off within the city limits. One friend didn’t hop off when he should have, resulting in Caz receiving a frantic telephone call from Manassas (no “Bull,” just fact)!

A Yankee lady showed up with three small children and her camera, this time to take pictures of something literally “unrelated.” She said: “I guess you guys can tell I’m not from around here.” We laughed with her, but didn’t voice agreement, as that would have been un-gentlemanly, and we are Southern gentleman (not in wealth, but upbringing).

A local Danville newspaper cameraman waited with us, but received a call that the freight train preceding the 611 had hit a van at a nearby rail crossing. The photographer left for his story, then Caz and I left on our separate ways to eat lunch and come back, hopefully to see a “delayed 611.”

We all came back about the same time, the latest projected arrival of the 611 in about 15 minutes. The newspaper photographer said the van had driven around orange barrels marking the crossing closed for asphalt replacement. The van got stuck in those bared rails! No one was hurt, so fortunately, Darwin’s law didn’t kick in. The photographer said the man would appear in traffic court (but to me, “train court” would be more appropriate).

The newspaper photographer asked me to make a video with his I-pad while he snapped stills. I said “Yes,” but held it at the corner of my vision, as I wanted my “eye proper” to be centered on the 611 ( just “eye and train,” without intervening “device”).

Caz said he was planning on “giving chase” to the 611 to Lynchburg. Hearing “giving chase,” I thought of the Great Locomotive Chase of 1862 and the N.C. Transportation Museum’s recent restoration the “The Texas.” In the manner of The Texas’ in-reverse chasing of “The General,” I had a strange mental picture of Caz on a highway parallel to the railroad, his car in reverse, chasing the 611 (Caz might could pull it off, but I can’t even parallel park).

When the 611 came by, it slowed for its photographic “station run-by.” Standing no more than a few feet from the great wheels, I appreciated their “bone-crunching” (mashing) power.

The ferried coaches were empty, no one looking out of the windows or standing on the back to receive spray when the toilets are dumped on the tracks (I think they pump them out now).

And with no competing human images inside those coaches, my imagination removed my reflected image from the outside of the passing windows, placing it on the inside, looking out from a window-side seat being pulled toward Lynchburg by the Norfolk&Western Class J, No. 611.

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