With the announcement in 2014 that the Class J 611 would be restored and once again run under her own steam to return home, I anticipated that I too would be in Roanoke, Virginia for the glorious Homecoming Celebration in late spring of the following year. I sensed that I was connected to her in a special way. Not like rail-fans or train buffs, but the way other families whose only financial resource came from the operation of steam engines during the 1950’s on Norfolk & Western’s Pocahontas division. The connection drew me to ages-old railroad papers and books that I gathered so possessively and boxed carefully after we buried the Railroader in 1993. Coal dust had lingered on those timeworn pages and clung eerily to my fingers as I slowly traced each entry and studied them intently. I discovered a strange and surreal, yet inviting connection to a moment in time before I was born. As far back as 1942, the Railroader, a young fireman then, proudly held onto his time books, meticulously recording dates, engine numbers, locations and times on duty, crew members and most importantly, wages earned for each trip. Since the average annual salary in 1942 was only $2400, his $10.85 for a day’s run was compelling enough for him to accept the risks of running a steam engine. Working conditions were difficult in those days; not just because of the long hours in the foggy or snowy weather known to the mountains of southwest Virginia, but just managing to breathe and avoiding burns in the cab of a steam engine was challenging. Railroad families describe how crewmen had to cover their bodies completely to avoid inhaling the deadly fumes or receiving burns from exhaust or injury from falling brick in the structures of those long narrow tunnels. Stories and people of a different time and place, a different way of life, run intently through my mind as I search eagerly to find where I fit in. I remember the Railroader coming home from work, usually in the middle of the night or in the early morning hours, with black coal dirt all over his face and clothing. Overalls and cap that were freshly washed, starched and ironed only 16 hours prior, now carried ground in stains and that peculiar yet familiar smell; the same smell of our basement when the coal bin was full, and where we loaded the stoker to feed our furnace. No matter the hour, the Railroader’s wife would rise and start a fresh pot of coffee to drip while she made biscuits and fried bacon or sausage and eggs. He would eat a hardy meal, head to bed and often, in less than 8 hours, would hear from the call office to report to duty, only to do it all over again. Everyday, seven days a week, weekends and holidays – the railroad never slept. Most Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays, the Railroader was at the throttle on a mine run, a pusher, a time-freight or if seniority presented itself or (he would say, “as luck would have it”) the coveted Powhatan Arrow. As the youngest of four children, I had been given plenty, but I had no concept of the sacrifice that he (and she) made for us. Strangely, it’s only now that I even begin to understand that dad and others like him endured extremely harsh conditions in providing for their families. I indeed went to Roanoke to welcome her home to the shops where she originated. Saturday, May 30th. Wearing the t-shirt that honored by dad, I left Hotel Roanoke and walked across the street to meet up with Tom and Bob Gordon at the O. Winston Link Museum located in the Historic Norfolk & Western Passenger Station.
The brothers are the sons of Neb Gordon, N&W Engineer and friend of the Railroader. Tom’s wife Karen, daughter and family joined us on that historic day around noon. Bright sunshine and a nice breeze was perfect weather to await the completion of J 611’s run from the N.C. Transportation Museum in Spencer. As I swapped stories with others, someone in the crowd called out my name. I turned around to see Wanda Hale Crawford, her husband and grandson standing above. Wanda’s father, Jim Hale also worked for N&W. Their family and ours went to the same church when we were growing up and our parents were friends. Although J611 was a bit late of her scheduled arrival, the reported 70,000 people were awe struck and emotional when she rounded the curve coming into the yard and in front of the Historic Norfolk & Western Passenger Station downtown. Folks with cameras and media reporters lined the bridges over the rail yard and sprawled over the green grassy hillside in front of Hotel Roanoke. 611’s steam and black smoke bellowed atop the shiny newly painted body of the streamlined beauty. When the Norfolk Southern engineer Darin Bridger blew the whistle making that anticipated noise, the crowds roared with excitement and pride. WATCH HERE The couple in front of me had tears running down their face, Wanda Hale’s grandson waved his hat and got so caught up in the moment that he missed videoing the train. I too, took it all in but contained my emotions, all the while thinking that dad would have been oh so happy to be the man behind the throttle. After all, he loved railroading.
If he had worked past 65 years old, his pension would have been reduced, so he complied reluctantly. He once said to me, “don’t ever let anyone tell you that the day you retire is a happy day”.
It was a day worth remembering, a train worth celebrating and a man worth honoring. And in memory of those gone and honoring those who are still with us: – the Norfolk & Western Railroad family.
L.W. Buckland, Sr.
L.W. “Buddy” Buckland, Jr.
Larry C. Buckland
Robert C. Buckland, Sr.
R. Cecil Buckland, Jr.
Charles N. Buckland
George R. Buckland
Asa C. Davis
Neb B. Gordon
The campaign to #FireUp611 caught my attention a little over a year ago when I began to follow the posts on Facebook and the website. I couldn’t help but wonder if my dad had actually run the great streamline steam engine back in the glory days. Pulling out his old time books gave me the documentation that I needed to prove that he not only worked J611 along with his father L.W. Sr., but he documented runs on all J Class engines, 600-613 in a 1954 time book. He also worked the 2156 (documented) that sits along side J611 at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, and likely the 1218 – but I have not confirmed that engine in his time books. No 611 was one of fourteen Class ‘J’ passenger locomotives built for the Norfolk & Western Railrway between 1941 and 1950 and the only one in existence today. Simple lines, a bullet nose and a Tuscan red stripe made the Js stand out as one of the most beautiful streamlined steam locomotives ever designed.