On Saturday, June 13, 2015, many people between Lynchburg and Petersburg beheld what many of them had not seen in decades, if ever: a coal-fired steam engine rumbling down the tracks. Specifically, the old Norfolk & Western No. 611, a “J” class locomotive originally built in 1950.
A Weekend of Great Excitement
On that morning, I was at home in Burkeville, sitting in front of my computer, when Norfolk & Western No. 611 first passed through. I had somehow missed all of the announcements about the coming of the steam engine, and so I was completely oblivious to what was about to happen.
Then, without warning, I heard it. A long, mournful sound. The sound repeated several times. It sounded nothing like the horns of the diesel trains that blare past my house several times each hour. This sound was softer and less abrasive.
I initially had no clue what the sound was. I grew up long after diesel engines had replaced steam, so I had never heard a steam engine’s whistle before. At first I thought that the sound might be a test of a public-alert siren of some sort. Then I remembered having read an article a few weeks before about a refurbished steam engine arriving in Roanoke, and it dawned on me that that must be the sound that I was hearing.
I was not fast enough to see the train pass through Burkeville. Assuming that the train was coming from Roanoke (and thus heading eastward), I drove to Hagberg Park in Crewe, where a large group of people was still waiting for the train to arrive. After perhaps ten minutes, the train’s tell-tale plume of smoke appeared in the distance.
The train rumbled along slowly as it accelerated—it had stopped at the railroad yard in Crewe—but it was upon us faster than one might have expected.
The train quickly passed us by as it continued gathering speed.
Shortly after taking this photo, the black cloud of smoke produced by the train drifted directly overhead, and for a moment it became dark enough that the sky seemed overcast. I was confused enough that I actually looked up to see whether a stray cloud was passing in front of the sun; the black smoke from the locomotive really was the cause. I did not notice it then, but, when I saw the train for the second time as it was passing through Burkeville on the return trip that evening, I realized as I was walking away that I was covered with tiny bits of coal. Progress has been made in that regard, certainly.
Not only was this the first steam engine that Crewe had seen in quite some time, but it was also the first passenger train that it had seen in many years:
Passenger service to Crewe was discontinued long ago, and the railroad there is now used only for freight.
The Lasting Impact of Railroads
A great many railroads have criss-crossed Virginia throughout history, and so many towns in Virginia can rightly call themselves old railroad towns. I write “old” because, with the declining importance of railroads compared to other forms of transportation, and with the decreased labor needs brought about by advances in technology, not many towns can truly claim to be railroad towns anymore. I happen to live in one of those old railroad towns (Burkeville), and I work in yet another old railroad town (Victoria).
Of course, at one time in history towns tended to form near railroads because railroads were the major form of land-based, long-distance transportation, both for passenger travel and for freight. That process of self-selection is one reason why so many towns can claim to be old railroad towns.
In other words, railroads literally changed the geography of Virginia. Railroads were the major transportation arteries (especially before the advent of the interstate highway system); people flocked to those major transportation arteries; towns and factories sprung up along those major transportation arteries; new highways were built to accommodate those towns and factories; and many of those towns remain (struggling as some of them might be, often with empty factory buildings), even though many of the railroads have been removed or are otherwise of diminished importance. Railroads, quite literally, changed the geography of Virginia.
Although most trains in the U.S. have been powered by diesel since the 1950s, the majority of the large-scale expansion of the railroad infrastructure in Virginia took place back when steam was still king. Steam-powered engines, in a very real way, drove many of these changes to Virginia’s geography—steam-powered engines like Norfolk & Western No. 611.
The Disappearing Black Smoke
And that, I suspect, formed much of the reason why so many people came to see Norfolk & Western No. 611 pass through town. The advent of the railroad age in the 1800s changed the physical world around us, and we changed with it. Every set of railroad tracks—or every abandoned railroad right-of-way—that we see now reminds us of these days gone by. The geography around us shapes our collective memory, even if it sometimes hides in the background of our memories. The geography around us thus also inspires our collective nostalgia for the days of steam engines, readily available passenger rail, and all of the economic development and amenities of life that once centered around railroads.
As much as it had been long-awaited by many, Norfolk & Western No. 611 did not stay long in Crewe. It quickly departed into the distance, just as it had done on hundreds of routine passenger trips back in the 1950s—but this time fading into only memory.