Steam returns to Roanoke

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Monday, June 25, 2012

Photo by Jim Wrinn.

ROANOKE, Va. – Let the record show that on June 24, 2012, at approximately 4:03 p.m. Eastern Daylight Savings time, an operating mainline steam locomotive rolled into the city once known as the Alamo of Steam. Over a radio, I heard Southern Railway 2-8-0 No. 630 call the approach diverging signal for Norfolk Avenue and then roll into view. It was a most unlikely liberation by an everyday, turn-of-the-century Southern Railway K-class Consolidation in this, the headquarters of the Norfolk & Western, maker of some of the largest, most sophisticated steam locomotives in the land. And it occurred roughly six months shy of 18 years when N&W 4-8-4 No. 611 tied up for the last time, on Dec. 7, 1994, thus ending the original Southern Railway and Norfolk Southern steam program.

So, there were many smiles on the faces of those assembled on the footbridge just west of the N&W passenger station (now the O. Winston Link Museum) and near the old N&W general office building as 630 arrived with a short consist (six coaches, one tool car, a commissary, a canteen, and a GP40/slug set for helpers). For those who have been around Southern, N&W, NS, and their excursions, the word “vindication” was often spoken aloud as they watched as 630 discharged her 250 or so passengers. They came from Winston-Salem, N.C., traveling over a line with so many twists and turns it has earned the nickname “the Punkin’ Vine.” A lot of skeptics had said this day, when steam returned to Roanoke, would never happen, but it did, and several of us among the faithful were there to witness it in person. In a testimony to the love of steam in Roanoke, the swarm of passengers who filed off the engine didn’t bolt for their automobiles upon arrival: they went forward for a better look at the iron horse that had brought them to town this sultry summer day. 

This is a fine moment for those who enjoy seeing NS openly enjoy being a railroad. NS announced its re-entry into the steam excursion business in 2010 and followed up in 2011 with a few trips in Tennessee. But this is the first full summer of NS’s so-called 21st Century Steam program.

It’s also a fine moment for 630, a relatively small freight hog, which has so far turned in an excellent performance on the main line, running from Chattanooga to Atlanta and then northward on the Southern main line in fine fashion, trouble-free and no longer suffering the axle problems that it experienced in 2011. The engine rolls along at 40 mph, looking for all the world like a runner with another man in hot pursuit right behind, going all out with her flailing Southern valve gear. And she is a clean runner at that. Those who tried to keep up with the excursion train found that her stack is clean with little or no soot, thanks to a high grade of metallurgical grade coal that she is burning on this outing.

Allow me a few additional observations: 630 never traveled to Roanoke during her Southern Railway excursion career, 1968-1977. She mostly stuck to the Birmingham-Atlanta-Charlotte-Alexandria main line, while big sister 2-8-2 No. 4501 visited on neighboring and accommodating N&W from time to time. But she has been to Roanoke before: in 1967, she visited to help celebrate the opening of the Roanoke Transportation Museum. At the time, she was an East Tennessee & Western North Carolina 2-8-0, No. 207, and she pulled brief excursions on the Roanoke Belt Line.

In addition to revisiting Roanoke, 630’s 21st Century Steam tour this year is very much of a homecoming for the engine. She spent the last three weeks in North Carolina, where she once was a Murphy Branch locomotive, working the mountainous line west of Asheville in the heart of the southern Appalachian Mountains. She’s also returned to Virginia, where she was built in Richmond in 1904. And next month, she will roll through Johnson City, where she was an ET&WNC engine in the 1950s and 1960s. After employee trips next weekend out of Roanoke, she makes her way home in July to Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn.

Now, a personal aside: At my request, the good offices of Tim Andrews, president at Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, allowed No. 630 to perform for a day for photographers at the North Carolina Transportation Museum (my volunteer home for the last 25 years) to demonstrate what she looked like in regular service, pulling freight. So, after a morning of posing her on the 100-foot turntable in front of the 37-stall roundhouse and with fellow SR 2-8-0 No. 542 (cosmetically restored at the museum in 2011), we put her (sans canteen, but with the green flags of a first section) on eight freight cars and performed photo runbys on the museum trackage. The time she spent on the Murphy Branch in freight service must have looked something like it.

Between the engine’s stint on freight cars and the return of steam to Roanoke, with apologies to my fellow North Carolinian, author Thomas Wolfe, maybe you can go home again after all.

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