Pride of Place

Posted by George Hamlin
on Wednesday, June 30, 2021

"Looks like she's right on time..."  A vintage, “back in the day” photo? I wish, but the North Carolina Transportation Museum's May 3, 2021 N&W 611 photo charter gave me the opportunity to try and re-create something that could have taken place back in the 1950s.  Thanks to Jordan Hood for holding the timetable, the July 1, 1952 issue, by the way.

It also caused me to reflect on what this class of locomotive meant to its owner, as well as to the City of Roanoke, Virginia, where the J-class locomotives were built.  Long after virtually every other railroad in the land had decided to replace steam with diesels, the N&W persisted in its loyalty to the former.

Of course, part of this was due to the fact that the Roanoke-based road had wrung efficiencies out of the earlier form of locomotion; the final examples of their steam power, especially the Js, were truly “modern”.  Via clever design, and a holistic approach to servicing and maintenance (an example being the “Lubritoriums”) allowed the railroad to obtain high utilization rates for its 4-8-4s that likely made some diesel operators jealous.

As a result, N&W passenger timetables in the postwar period all had the same cover, featuring a head-on photo of the first J, number 600, flanked by facing portraits of the namesakes of their two premier trains: the Powhatan Arrow, and the Pocahontas.  The earliest example I have is the December 4, 1949 issue, which advertises that the Arrow has been re-equipped, providing “New Beauty … New Comfort … New Luxury”, which, fortuitously, is just in time for the Holiday Season.

Interestingly, the sole remaining J, now famous as a result of this status, wasn’t yet on the property, as it entered revenue service in May, 1950.  In 1949, plenty of other railroads featured steam on their primary passenger trains; the postwar large-scale replacement of steam was still getting underway.

By 1958, however, steam’s battle with diesel was lost; for that matter, “second generation” diesels were only a year away, in the form of EMD’s GP20.  And if roads still featured locomotives on their timetable covers, they were the evocative cab units that had predominated in postwar passenger services.

The managers in Roanoke apparently hadn’t gotten the message; the June 15, 1958 passenger timetable (number 3 of that year) was identical to the 1949 version, save for the date and issue number.  However, by that year, even the N&W acknowledged that the diesel had won.  E units were leased from the Atlantic Coast Line and Richmond, Fredericksburg & Potomac to bump the Js off most passenger runs, and by the fall, additional EMD GP9s in the 500 series with steam generators arrived to finish the job.

The new Geeps were painted red to match the passenger equipment, but did they rate a place on the timetable cover (or even a mention within)?  Take a look at timetable number 4, effective October 26, 1958:


The portraits of the Chieftain and has daughter are still there, as well as the train names honoring them, but there is no reference to motive power.  In reality, the red Geeps will turn blue within a decade (as will the passenger cars, for the most part), and by 1971, there won’t be a need for steam generators on N&W locomotives.

Hackneyed, perhaps, but appropriate in this case: Sic Transit Gloria Mundi; “Thus passes away the glory of the world”.  Fortunately, however, the 611 still exists, and runs; among other things, it has outlived the passenger timetable.

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