A passion for steam trains can send one to places they would otherwise never explore. The northern Virginia hill country is one such place for me. The pursuit of steam has lead me there twice; once about 30 years ago and more recently in early June 2016 to ride behind the recently restored streamlined locomotive Norfolk & Western #611 which was pulling a series of excursions on the Norfolk Southern railroad billed as “The American.”
The tracks twist through stunning farmlands now known for organized hunts by well-heeled equestrians in pursuit of local fox, but 150-some years ago this was the territory of Colonel John Singleton Mosby, one of the most feared and revered officers of the American Civil War. A partisan of the south, the Colonel founded the Confederate Army’s 43rd Battalion of the Virginia Cavalry along the railroad in Rectortown, Virginia. The 43rd understood how to use the rural landscape; turning every field, forrest and run into an element of military advantage. The unit would gain renown as Mosby’s Raiders, a band of rangers so effective that the fox-filled hollows of the region were known as Mosby’s Confederacy.
In 1852, a decade before Mosby’s reign, the region was pierced by the route of the Manassas Gap Railroad, one of the earliest railways in the United States. Today the railroad known as the B-Line serves as a key link in the modern Norfolk Southern rail system, but on the first weekend of June, the undulating grades through the hills were the setting for a convergence of eras. The world-famous #611, a product of mid-20th century design and a 21st century restoration, burnished the rails of the pre-Civil War route and returned the moan of the steam whistle to valleys steeped in the lore of American history.
#611 has become an icon of American railroading. Built in 1950 and retired in 1959, the locomotive survived in part due to the efforts of famed photographer O. Winston Link who rallied for her preservation at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, located just down the tracks from Roanoke, VA shops where #611 was built. From 1982 to 1994, the locomotive ran in excursion service for the Norfolk Southern. After going back to the museum for another two decades, #611 returned to operation in 2015 under the guidance of the VMT and a coalition known as “Fire Up 611.”
Since her reactivation, Norfolk Southern has permitted the locomotive to operate on a handful of excursions in North Carolina and Virginia. The June trips marked her return to Manassas, VA where #611 would haul three sold out trains across the Piedmont and up the Blue Ridge to Front Royal and return. The images presented here were captured during the morning runs on Jun 4th & 5th, 2016.
Framed by old growth, the abandoned passenger station and a stone walled lined with railroad hardware #611 heads east downgrade through Markham, VA on the route of the pre-Civil War era Manassas Gap Railroad. Photo by Robert John Davis