Why Norfolk & Western Y6 No. 2156 should stay in Roanoke

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Wednesday, May 20, 2020

I can remember buying one of the bumper stickers as a teenager on a late 1970s visit to what was then called the Roanoke Transportation Museum. I didn’t fully understand it, but I got the joke. It said, “Free the Y6A, more than 7,000 days in captivity.” The sticker was the sentiment of N&W fans and an eye poke at what was then called the St. Louis Transportation Museum, now the Museum of Transport for not returning the last of the Norfolk & Western’s Big Three magnificent homemade designs. The Big Three were the Class A 2-6-6-4 fast freight locomotive, the Class J 4-8-4 passenger locomotive, and the Y6 drag freight 2-8-8-2 that could pull damn near anything before the drawbar would rip out or shatter. All of them had been built in the Roanoke shops. Roanoke had the A No. 1218 and the J No. 611. St. Louis had the Y, No. 2156. It was the railroad steam super-power equivalent of breaking up the Beatles. 


Nothing happened until 2015 when Norfolk Southern Chairman Wick Moorman made a deal with the now Museum of Transport for NS to borrow the Y6A and place it for five years at the now Virginia Museum of Transportation in downtown Roanoke in the old N&W freight house, a hooter whistle blast away from their birthplace. N&W No. 611, the last Class J, had just been restored. It was time to get the band back together. The Y6 rolled into town Memorial Day weekend five years ago. I was there. We all stood and cheered and looked on in awe as the N&W Big Three sat side by side, the 611 the only one of the three under steam. But that was just fine. The world was right once more if your blood bled Tuscan red, you love steam locomotives, or if you just crave a sense of order in the otherwise chaotic world of American railway preservation. Somebody finally got something big and magnificent and majestic right.


Five years is a long time. Wick Moorman has retired. A new administration at Norfolk Southern faces more serious issues on its hands (PSR, Wall Street, declining coal traffic, PTC, etc,) than any of us can imagine. A Y6B isn’t even on the company’s radar screen. VMT has its own struggles, despite its overwhelming success with No. 611’s return. Money is scarce. Finding leadership is difficult. It’s been through two executive directors since Bev Fitzpatrick retired. MOT has been spun off by the county as a stand-alone non-profit. Basically, everyone is vulnerable. None of the players is in an especially strong place.


I know the folks at VMT tried to get together a package to buy the Y6 and keep it in town. I do not know what dollar figure they came up with. But I know that a couple of hundred thousand would be appropriate for a dead steam locomotive. VMT could even throw in two locomotives from its extensive collection: An EMD FTB and Wabash E8 No. 1009 to sweeten the deal. St Louis was the headquarters of the Wabash and what would be more appropriate at a nationwide museum than the prime surviving Wabash diesel and EMD’s 10,000th unit beautifully restored as it is. I don’t know why the MOT folks declined the deal. I haven’t been to the museum in years, but I feel sure they could use the money and have one less mouth to feed. They’ve got an amazing collection, and one more locomotive will not make or break it.


Over the years, there have been opportunities missed to get locomotives and rolling stock home where they belong. Some work out.  Some don’t. The National Railroad Museum in Green Bay had substantial offers (some said $1 million) to buy the British A4 4-6-2 Dwight D. Eisenhower and repatriate it to the UK while it visited there. But they declined. At North Carolina Transportation Museum, where I’ve been a volunteer or a board member since 1986, I worked to donate Ringling office car Wisconsin to become a centerpiece of the Ringling Museum in Sarasota, Fla.; we sent a Western Maryland VO1000 Baldwin diesel back to Hagerstown, Md., in the heart of Western Maryland territory; and we sold Buffalo Creek & Gauley 2-8-0 No. 4 so it could return to West Virginia, where it spent its working career. I hope to see it run again one day on the Greenbrier River in the state where it belongs. Repatriation is a good thing.


Before NS sends a wide-nosed GE to tow No. 2156 back to Missouri, I hope that someone steps up strikes a deal. The Y6 should stay in Roanoke, where it was born and worked. It should stay there so that the N&W Big Three can spend eternity as one mighty fleet of some of the best of American steam. It’s the right thing to do. We don’t need another round of “Free the Y6” bumper stickers.











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