Thoroughbreds of Steam to Stand Side by Side

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The C&O 614 in it’s heyday.

The C&O 614 in it’s heyday.

The Virginia Museum of Transportation and the C&O Historical Society are jointly present a new exhibit exploring the pinnacle of American steam technology: the two ‘J Class’ passenger locomotives, the N&W J 611 and the C&O J-3a 614.

As of January 13, the C&O 614 was on its way from Pennsylvania to Roanoke, where it will go on public display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation on February 12. At the end of April, the locomotive is projected to move to the C&O Railway Heritage Center in Clifton Forge to serve as a feature exhibit at this institution, which preserves and promotes the history and technology of the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway.

Both steam locomotives were built for speed and power based on a 4-8-4 wheel arrangement.

The C&O 614, built in 1948, was the last commercially manufactured 4-8-4 and has not been available for public viewing in a decade. The locomotive is well known for its excursion runs on the Chessie Steam Special in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

The N&W 611 was designed and built in the Norfolk & Western’s Roanoke Shops in 1950, finely tuned to excel on the N&W’s system. The J Class pulled passenger trains from Virginia to Ohio and Tennessee at speeds of up to 110 miles per hour, until the class was retired in 1959.

Both locomotives were one of only slightly more than a dozen of their type, or class, ever built and both are the only one of their class that remain. It is likely that these two fierce competitors have never been seen side-by-side before.

“Bringing these two incredible engines together and developing an exhibit that features their outstanding story is a significant achievement for Virginia’s Rail Heritage Region,” said Beverly T. Fitzpatrick, Jr., executive director at the Virginia Museum of Transportation. “The partnership is working hard and working together to showcase Virginia’s exciting rail heritage and to make new attractions available.”

Both organizations have acknowledged the Greenbrier Express Company for the loan of the 614 and Norfolk Southern Corporation for moving the 614, making this exhibit possible. The Norfolk & Western Historical Society and the Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society are also exhibit participants.

History of the C&O Class J-3a 614

The C&O 614 was designed and built to pull the Chesapeake & Ohio Railway’s premier express passenger trains, The George Washington and The Fast Flying Virginian over the mountains between Richmond and Chicago. Inaugurated in 1948, 614’s reliability, power and speed enabled the railroad to increase the size of the trains and at the same time shortened running times between destinations.

The locomotive was retired from service in 1952 in the conversion from steam to diesel and was stored for more than two decades. In 1976, it was cosmetically restored and donated to the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum in Baltimore, MD, but was later sold to railroad enthusiast and entrepreneur Ross E. Rowland, Jr. in 1979. He oversaw a crew of 15 mechanics and 100 volunteers to completely rebuild the engine for excursion service, a project that took 18 months to complete at a cost of $1.5 million. Subsequently, the locomotive became the only steam engine ever leased by Amtrak, for a time pulling The Cardinal through West Virginia at speeds approaching 80 miles per hour. The C&O 614 is 16’ tall, 112’ long and weighs 434 tons. The engine could develop approximately 5,000 horsepower and, at its peak, was capable of running at 120 miles per hour.