Some of the 20th century’s most-stylish muscle machines have rolled into town, a historic gathering of giants.
They are railroad locomotives – 26 in all – built in the 1930s to 1950s and known for their futuristic, Buck Rogers exteriors, styled in an artistic form known as Streamline Moderne, a first-cousin the Art Deco movement. Preened and pampered, these relics of the early diesel age are honored guests of the N.C. Transportation Museum for a weekend exhibit, “Streamliners at Spencer.”
“It’s a once-in-a-lifetime event,” says museum historian Walter Turner, who believes this is the largest exhibition of historic streamliners on record.
Among the machines is the FT No. 103 Demonstrator, a dragon-slayer of sorts. Known as “The Diesel that Did It,” No. 103 was built in 1939 by the Electro Motive Co. as a showpiece of diesel dominance. It went railroad to railroad to show owners that the era of coal and steam was at an end. It represented the next big thing – diesel-powered locomotives with greater efficiency and simpler maintenance.
N&W’s No. 611
One engine among them all, however, stands out. It is the only steam locomotive in the group, the storied No. 611, built by the Norfolk & Western Railway to pull passenger trains at speeds up to 140 mph. It rolled out of the factory in Roanoke 64 years ago Friday.
No. 611 has already lived two lives, and is on the verge of a third. It served the Norfolk & Western as a passenger engine until 1959 and eventually retired to the Virginia Transportation Museum. In 1981, Norfolk Southern, the successor railroad, pulled it out of mothballs and put it back to work pulling excursion trains. In 1994, the railroad ended its excursion program and No. 611 returned to the museum.
Bob Saxtan was the engineer who drove the No. 611 on its last trip in 1994, and he’s the engineer who towed it this week behind a diesel the 185 miles from Roanoke to Spencer.
Saxtan says the 611’s voice is that of a steamship whistle. He’s driven other steam engines that toot with a shrill note, ones that send trackside cattle scurrying away. “This one, though, the cows would run toward us,” he says.
Now the senior general foreman for Norfolk Southern, Saxtan will likely drive the No. 611 again. It is going back into the excursion business for the Virginia Transportation Museum after a restoration in Spencer.
Getting a makeover
Restoring the 611’s boiler to meet federal railroad regulations will take at least six months, and will put Spencer back in the steam engine business, if only for a while.
In 1896, Southern Railway decided to put its steam locomotive servicing shops in Spencer, mid-point between the railroad’s major terminuses of Washington and Atlanta. After diesels took over, the Spencer facility withered. In the late 1970s, Southern donated the site – including its historic turntable and roundhouse – to the state. It became the N.C. Transportation Museum in the ’80s and has one of the last surviving roundhouses with the tools necessary to restore the 611.
Visitors will be able to view the work on 611 as it goes on, says Preston Claytor, who led the $3.5 million fund-raising campaign for the restoration.
Scott Lindsay, who worked for Norfolk Southern’s steam engine program until it ended and then made a career of restoring steam engines for tourist railways and museums, says he’s lucky because the railroad kept the original blueprints for the 611.
“A lot of projects I do, nothing survived,” Lindsay says. “It’s all reverse engineering.”
Style of power
With a rounded snout that resembles the locomotive on the Coors Light beer “Silver Bullet Special” ads, the 611 embodies the Streamline style with a sleek, monolithic fuselage that looks like it was designed for aviation or ballistics. Even at rest, the engine suggests velocity.
In 1956, No. 611 had its worst accident near Cedar, W.Va., in the Appalachian mountains. It entered a 30 mph curve at 52 mph, overturning and killing the engineer. It was suspected that the engineer may have suffered a heart attack in the moments before the accident, Saxtan says.
It was righted, taken to Roanoke for repairs, then reentered service.