Big transition at the home of N&W’s Big Three

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Tuesday, December 12, 2017

Examples of Norfolk & Western's 'Big Three' of steam — Class J 4-8-4 No. 604, Y6 2-8-8-2 No. 2147, and Class A 2-6-6-4 No. 1212 — are lined up for a publicity photo in April 1943. N&W photo
This wouldn’t ordinarily be the place to report on the comings and goings of railroad museum personnel, but the transition announced last week by the Virginia Museum of Transportation in Roanoke is momentous. The city is, after all, the place David P. Morgan called “the Alamo for Steam.”

After a hard fought and successful 11-year run, the museum’s executive director Bev Fitzpatrick is retiring on January 1. Succeeding him will be Lisa Sphar, a marketing and community development specialist based right in Roanoke. She was selected by the VMT board after a nationwide search.

I’ll say more on both Fitzpatrick and Sphar in a moment, but first some observations on the museum and its recent history.

Like a lot of railroad museums, VMT had a rough and tumble history over its first four decades. It opened in 1963 as the city’s own Roanoke Transportation Museum, most of it outdoors in Wasena Park on the south side of town, until the flooding Roanoke River forced a different solution. I remember walking past a grand but sun-faded Norfolk & Western 4-8-4 No. 611 in the summer of 1971 and thinking, “This baby needs to get indoors.”

The city’s museum was ultimately conveyed to today’s independent VMT. Later, thanks to the largesse of Norfolk Southern, the entire museum moved to the former N&W freight house downtown, where it now resides. After years of harrowing financial straits, the museum finally began achieve stability under Fitzpatrick’s leadership, and today it seems to be on solid ground.

Why should anyone outside Roanoke care? The reason is visible under the canopy of the Robert B. Claytor and W. Graham Claytor Jr. Pavilion outside the main building: that would be N&W’s “Big Three,” arguably the finest trio of steam locomotives ever fielded by a single railroad. They need little introduction: Y6a compound articulated 2-8-8-2 No. 2156 (on loan from the Museum of Transport in St. Louis), A-class simple articulated 2-6-6-4 No. 1218, and the streamlined No. 611.

There are thousands of pages of books and magazine articles out there extolling the virtues of these three machines. One of the best is Perfecting the American Steam Locomotive, by J. Parker Lamb (Indiana University, 2003).

As Lamb notes, when the first Class A 2-6-6-4s rolled out of the shops in 1936, N&W could boast that it had created perhaps the finest truly dual-service locomotive, a machine that could deliver 6,300 drawbar horsepower to lug a coal train but turn around later in the day and move a passenger train at 70 mph.

In 2015, upon the arrival of Y6 2156 (on loan from St. Louis' Museum of Transportation) in Roanoke, the Virginia Museum of Transportation restaged the famous Big Three lineup with VMT's own Class J 611 and A 1218. Jim Wrinn photo
But that wasn’t enough for the N&W’s ambitious mechanical engineers. About the same time came a dramatic rethinking of the railroad’s dependable Y-class compound 2-8-8-2s, reemerging in 1936 as the Y6 and culminating in the Y6b of 1949-1952, which employed such new standards as cast frames, roller bearings, and improved lubrication. The N&W effectively squeezed another quarter century out of a wheel arrangement most railroads considered obsolete.

Draft horses they may have been, but the 2-8-8-2s were essential to the Roanoke legend. O. Winston Link’s famous audio recordings — notably 2nd Pigeon and the Mockingbird — would be unimaginable without them.

Then there were those J-class 4-8-4s, thoroughbreds that matched an unusually high boiler pressure of 300 psi with 70-inch drivers, providing a combination of speed and power that was unique in all of railroading. Most other roads’ 4-8-4s had much longer legs, but the J’s ability to dig in with those small driving wheels was the perfect match for N&W’s unrelenting mountain profile.

Lamb avoids getting into picky arguments about whether some locomotives were better than others, the old tractive effort versus horsepower debate. He focuses instead on the mantra that drove N&W’s design decisions: gross ton-miles per train hour. And these three engines arguably were better at that than anyone else’s. Lamb’s conclusion: the N&W had “brought American steam locomotives to their highest level of technology.”

The museum has other gems besides the Big Three, including a gleaming Wabash E8, a beautiful Virginian EL-C freight motor, an N&W “Pevler blue” Alco C630, not to mention a virtual indoor parking lot full of classic automobiles. But you go to the Louvre to see the Mona Lisa. You go to the Smithsonian Air & Space annex to see the Enola Gay. And you to go Roanoke to see the 611, the 1218, and the 2156.

Bev Fitzpatrick, whose grandfather was a conductor on N&W’s Powhatan Arrow, certainly knows that. “The big thing for us has always been the rail collection,” says Fitzpatrick, “And the fact that we have those three N&W engines designed and built here is really a drawing card.”

He has the statistics to prove it. Over his tenure as head of the museum, attendance has climbed from 12,000 annually to 55,000. He’s been involved in the recent and spectacular revival of 611’s excursion career. He oversaw a wide range of upgrades to the collection and capital improvements. He gives all the credit to his staff and the enduring support of former NS Chairman Wick Moorman, but looking back over the past decade it’s clear Fitzpatrick’s been the right man at the right time. 

Now he is turning over the reins to an admitted newcomer to railroading, but someone with a track record for building public support for large non-profits. Lisa Sphar comes to VMT after several years at Advance Auto Parts, the nearly $10 billion retailing giant based in Roanoke.

Her most recent position put her in charge of community affairs. She was a key figure at Advance Cares, the name of the company’s foundation, for which she designed and managed fundraising campaigns and events for a variety of non-profit organizations. That’s expertise every railroad museum needs, but often lacks.

“I have worked with Bev and his team here over the years, so I know my way around the museum,” Sphar explains. “I’m a fan of cars, planes, trains, everything like that. It’s all about engagement. Railroad folks are passionate, and with the legacy of railroading here in Roanoke, we have a lot of passionate people who want to give back.”

Sphar will make tapping into that passion her goal. One of the prime items on the museum’s to-do list will be finding the support to build a three-track, climate-controlled facility behind the Claytor pavilion, to protect some of the most important parts of the museum’s collection.

The Big Three should be the prime attraction in that new facility. Getting there won’t be easy; along with the considerable fundraising required, keeping the Big Three together a while longer would require extension of the current arrangement in which the Y6a is loaned to the museum via a lease between St. Louis and NS.

I hope common sense continues to prevail, at least for a few more years, and that the two museums find a way to keep these magnificent machines together in the railroad town that built them.

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