Instead of being up in the air on my way to somewhere exotic on Father’s Day this year, I was solidly on the ground in the prosaic small town of Spencer, North Carolina at the N. C. Transportation Museum operating the largest steam locomotive running in America, the Norfolk & Western J class 4-8-4 number 611.  Clichéd though it sounds, being at the throttle of the big steam engine was the thrill of a lifetime!  Even in one hundred degree heat on the Summer Solstice (June 21), It was a joyous experience, made more so because it was so unexpected.

Will at the N&W 611 throttle (6-21-15)

So what is an N&W J class engine?  Here are some quick facts, with thanks to Wikipedia:

“Norfolk & Western Railway’s J class steam locomotives were a class of 4-8-4 locomotives [4 small pilot wheels to guide the loco through curves, 8 large driving wheels, and 4 trailing truck wheels to support the boiler] built by the N&W’s East End Shops in Roanoke, Virginia between 1941 and 1950. The first batch, numbered 600 to 604, were built in 1941–42 and were delivered streamlined. In 1943, 605–610 were delivered without shrouding and lightweight side rods, due to the limitations on the use of certain materials during the war; due to these distinctions, they were classified J1. But, when N&W showed the War Production Board the reduced availability numbers because of this, the Board allowed the J1s to be re-fitted as Js with the lightweight rods and shrouding in 1944. The last batch, 611–613, were built in 1950, all streamlined. The Js were built and designed completely by N&W employees, something that was uncommon on American railroads. The total cost for building 611 was $251,544 in 1950 (equivalent to $2,441,000 in 2015).

“The first Js had 275 psi boilers, 70-inch driving wheels, and roller bearings on all wheels and rods; after about 1945 boiler pressure was raised to 300 psi. Calculated tractive effort was 80,000 pounds – the most powerful 4-8-4 without a booster. The 70 inch drivers were small for a locomotive that was to pull trains at over 100 mph. To overcome this, the wheelbase was made extremely rigid, lightweight rods were used, and the counterbalancing was precise. As delivered, the Js had duplex (two) connecting rods between the primary (second) and third drivers, but in the 1950s Norfolk and Western’s engineers elected they could do without these. 611 and at least one other Class J were rebuilt with a single connecting rod. The negative effect of the J’s highly engineered powertrain was that it made the locomotives sensitive to substandard track. Its counterbalancing and precision mechanics were so modern that it was joked that the J’s top speed is only limited by the nerves of the engineer. Judging by their performance in hauling a 15-car 1050-ton train at speeds in excess of 110 mph over Pennsylvania Railroad’s “racetrack”, the Fort Wayne Division, while on loan, it is hard to dispute that claim.”

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All J class locomotives burned coal but were highly efficient.  The 611, the last J operating, still is.  Black smoke, which indicates incomplete coal combustion, was and is regarded as an embarrassment by engineers, and the 611 is usually seen ejecting white smoke, which consists mostly of water vapor from condensed steam.

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The N&W 611 locomotive weighs 494,000 pounds, and the tender comes in at 395,250 pounds, for a total weight of almost 873,000 pounds. For comparison the newest 747 series, the 8F, is rated empty (net of cargo) at 466,000 pounds.

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Yet, with a half million pounds under me in the cab of the 611, the big engine responded nimbly and rode comfortably on the track. I had just 22 minutes at the throttle of 611, so I wasn’t in charge of the beast very long, but I felt an immediate affinity with it.

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I’ve always had a knack for operating large machines and had several opportunities to exercise that ability in a series of part-time college jobs. I drove big city buses through Chapel Hill’s narrow streets with ease when at UNC. I mastered driving a semi-tractor hauling an oversized Cat D9 on its flatbed trailer the first time I took it out, even backing it up down a narrow muddy track.

I astounded one of my airline clients in the 1980s by acing all my landings at the old Hong Kong airport on its super-short runway that jutted out into the bay in their 747 simulator (any chimpanzee can take off a 747; the hard part is landing one), and I flew a real 727 once.

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But operating the 611 steam locomotive was uniquely different. I felt totally comfortable in control handling the throttle and engine brake, like a natural extension of my body and spirit. The 611 is a sweet machine. I had the strange feeling that I’d done it before.  The 5,100 horsepower generated in the boiler is a palpable presence. It was a lightning-charged thrill, but oddly comfortable, like it was a part of me. As a longtime admirer of this famous and historic machine, frankly I never dreamed I would have an opportunity to be at its throttle. How even more surprising to find that running it brought such joy.

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A quick look in the cab in this 12 second video.

The N&W 611 drives by in this video.

The big steam locomotive approaches in this final short video.

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