Riding the Rails: Preserving the history of trains in the Shenandoah Valley

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SHENANDOAH VALLEY, Va. (WHSV) — The railroad has a rich history across the country and in the Shenandoah Valley, and it remains on display thanks to dedicated rail fans.

Whether it’s full size or 1:64th scale, there is something about trains — specifically locomotives.

The undeniable “Queen of Steam” is the storied Class J 611.

“Most people have a draw to it. Most people are mesmerized by it,” said Will Sadler, Class J 611 group volunteer.

Brian Barton, train master of operations for the 611, says the locomotive’s appeal comes from its impeccable design. “Its power. Its personality. 5,200 horsepower, high pressure boiler, and it will run over 100 miles per hour.”

It’s known as “The Spirit of Roanoke.” That’s because it was designed and built by Norfolk and Western engineers in the Star City in May 1950.

According to the Virginia Museum of Transportation, the steam locomotive’s original cost was more than $250,000.

It has been fully restored twice, most recently in 2015 after a world-wide fundraising effort. Seeing her in person is impressive.

“There's a certain Mystique,” said Sadler. “It's really something special.”

Riding the rails under her power? For many, that’s a chance of a lifetime.

“She's a beauty, she's a gem. And it's a marvel of engineering,” said James Powell who traveled with his son Henry from Newton-Conover, North Carolina, to the Shops at Spencer - the North Carolina Transportation Museum. The opportunity to climb up in the cab for a ride was too good to pass up. Henry called the experience, “awesome. Better than awesome.”

The 611 has returned to her home in Roanoke, where she's on display at the Virginia Museum of Transportation.

She also makes trips along the rails at the Augusta County Railroad Club and Museum at the Staunton Mall — at least in scale model form.

“I don't have room for the real thing,” said Lundy Pentz, a member of the Augusta County Railroad Club.

Pentz has been a rail fan since his youth, but fell in love with the 611 back in 1992 when he got on board the restored locomotive in Roanoke and took an excursion with his baby daughter. “And since then, I've built about four models of her,” Pentz said.

Linda Down is also a member of the Augusta County Railroad Club and has been a fan of trains since receiving a Lionel set for Christmas when she was young. She started collecting HO scale, but when the set would no longer fit under her Christmas tree, she transitioned to N scale and runs them at the museum.

“I keep saying, 'no more' because I have quite a few,” said Down. “And every time you look in a magazine, there is a new train coming out.”

Her collection is one of many running weekly at Augusta County Railroad Club. There’s a track for each scale — and the collections and technology on display are impressive.

Although the 611 did not power through the Shenandoah Valley, plenty of other steam locomotives did.

“People from New York, Philadelphia, so forth would come and see the beautiful Luray Caverns,” said David Lipscomb, from The Page Valley Rail Historical Society.

The group is in the process of restoring the rail’s past for the public.

“So that they won't forget that there used to be steam engines going up and down this particular line,” said Lipscomb.

That line ran from Front Royal to Staunton, making many stops in between. In the early 1900s, folks could simply flag down a passing train and hop aboard. The conductor would handle the rest.

“He would ask you where you are going. And he would tell you how much it cost. Usually it cost about $0.01 a mile,” said Lipscomb.

The Page Valley Railroad Club formed in 1999 and was instrumental in the full restoration of the old Luray depot building, which now houses the town's visitor center in addition to the museum. The intricate train set inside took two years to build. Lipscomb says it should feel familiar to local visitors.

“The layout represents the entire county.”

The history of rail, in many respects, is the history of the Valley over the past 150 years. It was an opportunity for the communities along it to flourish. For the people who lived here, it was their ticket to see the country.

“They could travel. They could go see places where they had never seen before. And for a lot of these people living in Page Valley they had not been further than their front door,” said Lipscomb.

Whether it’s through the local clubs or the world-wide, multi-million dollar fundraising effort to restore the 611 — it takes a special effort to bring those memories to life today.

“You see the little, you see the little kids, or you see the older fellas and older people who might remember when steam ran and bringing back the memories and talking to them, that's what makes a payday,” said Sadler. “That's what makes it worthwhile to do.”