NS can’t take the glory out of Roanoke

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, February 27, 2020

Norfolk & Western's Roanoke Shops have been a major presence in the city for well over a century. They sprawl across the upper portion of this 1930s view, with the road's headquarters buildings at lower right. Classic Trains coll.
Some cities and machines belong together. Imagine Renton without 707s, or Dearborn without Mustangs, or Groton without submarines. Unthinkable.

Maybe that puts Norfolk Southern’s announcement of last week in perspective. The company has decided to shift what remains of its locomotive maintenance and repair in Roanoke, Va., to its Juniata Shop in Altoona, Pa. The company is giving 85 mechanical staff an opportunity to transfer to Altoona, but 19 clerical people will lose their jobs.

To NS management in Norfolk, the move is a prudent response to business reality. The company put its “difficult but necessary” decision in stark terms: “[This] follows a 48 percent decline in coal tons shipped since 2008. Norfolk Southern also has seen a 22 percent reduction in our locomotive fleet since 2018, reducing the volume of locomotive maintenance and repair required to operate safely.”

Fair enough. I’m not qualified to criticize how NS runs its business. But that doesn’t mean I have to applaud it, either. Few places can match Roanoke’s place in locomotive history, thanks to its heritage as the once-upon-a-time headquarters of the Norfolk & Western Railway. Its motive-power roots are amazingly diverse: it was the home of N&W’s celebrated homebuilt “Big Three” of modern steam, the J-class 4-8-4, the A-class 2-6-6-4, and the Y6b-class 2-8-8-2; it became a diesel stronghold with the end of steam in 1960; it even dabbled in electric motors and steam turbines.

Giant Y6 2-8-8-2s fill the shop floor at Roanoke in the early 1950s, when N&W was alone among major railroads in its commitment to steam. W. A. Akin Jr.
Put another way, the railroaders of Roanoke have been building or maintaining locomotives since little Roanoke Machine Works turned out its first 0-8-0, an 86-ton 2-8-0, in September 1884. That means the city has been a center for locomotives for 136 years! Along the way the shop forces of Roanoke manufactured nearly 450 steam engines.   

I can only imagine the consternation the move has brought this proud, vital mountain town. You can’t visit Roanoke without an overwhelming sense of the N&W. You feel its presence amid all the old company Art Deco office buildings on North Jefferson Street, in the lobby of the Hotel Roanoke, over at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, and down along the NS main line where coal trains still slink through town. 

I felt it the first time in August 1971, during a brief visit with my longtime friend and colleague, the photographer John B. Corns. We arrived in Roanoke late one night in the middle of a violent thunderstorm and I vividly recall opening up the curtains in our motel room to reveal that famous red neon sign — N&W ROANOKE SHOPS — shining like a sentinel through the downpour, along with the iconic Roanoke Star glowing from the top of Mill Mountain. We felt like we’d arrived somewhere important.

And Roanoke wasimportant, never more so than in the development of the Big Three, widely regarded as the finest front-line machines ever to serve a single railroad. Among steam locomotives, they were elite. For some insight I checked in with Tim Hensley, longtime CSX resident vice president, Amtrak engineer, and N&W historian. Hensley provided the eloquent text and captions for Steam, Steel & Stars (Harry N. Abrams, 1987), the first deluxe monograph of O. Winston Link photographs.

S1a 0-8-0 No. 244, the last reciprocating steam locomotive built for U.S. service during the steam era, stands outside the shops that created it in December 1953. The famous N&W ROANOKE SHOPS sign is the background. Classic Trains coll.
“The N&W had a lot of pride, and when it came to steam, they had many firsts beyond the engines themselves,” Tim reminded me. “They had the first electrically welded firebox, they were the first to safe-end flues, they introduced the lubritoriums, along with the canteens to cut out water tanks. In essence, they ‘dieselized’ with steam.”

Dieselizing with steam — I like that concept, strange as it sounds. But that’s why N&W was so far ahead of other railroads in creating what they liked to call “the modern coal-burning steam locomotive.” They addressed steam’s weaknesses and, at least for a few years, nearly turned them into strengths. 

Hensley can’t help but note the irony of the upcoming move to Altoona. Some of that is rooted in the Pennsy’s approximately 60-year majority control of N&W stock, which ended with N&W’s 1964 merger with Wabash; Nickel Plate; Pittsburgh & West Virginia; and Akron, Canton & Youngstown. The N&W’s steam engines were nothing like PRR’s, but the two railroads did share an obsession with heavy-duty physical plant and position-light signals. It went beyond that, though.

“A lot of original employees at Roanoke, especially machinists, came down from Altoona, mostly Irishmen,” Tim says. “And in the early days, Altoona and Roanoke even had baseball teams that played one another, taking turns hosting and visiting.”

In 2015, Roanoke was still a major locomotive shop on the Norfolk Southern system. Five years later, its functions have been transferred to NS's former PRR facility in Altoona, Pa. Robert S. McGonigal
Another perspective comes from Ed King, a prolific railroad writer and author of The A: Norfolk & Western’s Mercedes of Steam (Interurban Press, 1991). Ed was a boomer who worked for several carriers. He did some time in the late Fifties both at the Roanoke Shop and the Shaffer’s Crossing Car Shop, and the recent news hits a nerve.

“The closing isn’t surprising to me,” Ed told me. “I regret it, of course. My feeling is that the old N&W was the Rodney Dangerfield of railroads. It didn’t get no respect.”

Ed says that despite the widely acknowledged excellence of the Big Three engines, the N&W brain trust in Roanoke suffered a disrespect that might linger today. “What seems to be forgotten is the power that Roanoke built, designed by N&W’s own mechanical engineers. The mechanical ‘intelligentsia’ elsewhere never liked them and enumerated what they thought were design flaws in the Big Three, ignoring the performance the N&W got out of them.”

Their performance won’t be ignored here. What people like Tim Hensley and Ed King know, and have expertly chronicled, is that the craftsmen of Roanoke produced something special — a generation of locomotives that certainly matched and arguably eclipsed whatever Baldwin, Alco, Lima, and yes, even the PRR was turning out. That craftsmanship presumably continued right through to today as the last NS diesels are transferred from the shop. 

Roanoke will move on from this disappointing news, and that light from the star on Mill Mountain will continue to shine down on this old railroad town. But never as bright as the red neon glow from atop the N&W Roanoke Shops. 

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