Friday, June 1, 2012

She is a Think of Beauty

#611 - 42, 2012

My father and grandfather were both railroad men. Dad spent most of his working life at the Norfolk & Western Railway. Our house always had N&W note pads, pencils, pens, maps, umbrellas, calendars and commemorative railroad spikes. For years my father’s morning ritual, no matter what the day of the week, started with a call to the local rail dispatcher to make sure the train carrying parts to the Ford Motor Company assembly plant in Norfolk had arrived on time. All that went away when my father died in 1995. None of the members of my generation of Bonneys went to work for railroads, so railroads no longer factored into our daily conversations.
Visiting Roanoke this past weekend, though, was like sticking a probe on the part of my brain that holds all those railroad memories. Roanoke was once the corporate headquarters of the Norfolk & Western. Its sprawling workshops looked like the steel mills of Birmingham and Gary. The buildings were huge and noisy. Smoke rose from dozens of stacks. Raw steel went in one end and emerged from the other as rail cars.
The real pride of the Roanoke shops were its locomotives. The N&W didn’t just buy locomotives out of a catalog. Company engineers designed and the Roanoke shops built powerful locomotives for the specific needs of different coal, freight and passenger routes.
The ecology of railroad locomotives is like a lot of other heavy industrial equipment. It either gets used until it dies or else, when it becomes obsolete, it gets sold down to smaller railroads or railroads in other countries. That’s what happened to most of the N&W’s old steam locomotives. But a few were kept, including #611, one of the fourteen “J” series steam locomotives designed and built at the Roanoke shops. J series locomotives were tremendously powerful and remained in service long after most railroads had transitioned to diesel electric locomotives. On flat terrain a J locomotive could pull a 15-car passenger train at speeds up to 110 miles an hour. The drive struts you see in the picture above moved so quickly when the train was clipping along that they were just a blur. When I looked at a film of J series locomotives in action, the struts moved so rapidly that I wondered why they didn’t just fly off.
#611 - 16, 2012

Locomotive #611 served the N&W from 1950 until 1959 and is now part of the collection at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, just a few hundred yards down the track from where #611 was built.
If it’s possible to describe a locomotive as sexy, #611 is sexy. Its front is rounded like the bow of a submarine. There's trim of chrome and stainless steel. Its body lines are sleek and reflective of the streamline moderne style popular in the 1930s and 40s. 
And lest you suggest that a train can’t be sexy, the title of this post, “She is a think of beauty” is not a typo. It’s what I heard a fellow visitor, a young design engineer from the Ukraine, say as he contemplated #611.
#611 - 12, 2012


  1. Wow--your photos are fabulous here, Chris! Love these. I am always very much aware of N&W when I'm in Roanoke. RC and his family would never ever complain about being held up by a train coming through town, because that was their livelihood. RC had worked for IBM and was moved to Roanoke from NY state--he worked on projects for N&W, and then, he was hired by N&W to head up their IT dept. He worked there most of his life.

    He'd have loved these photos of yours.