SPENCER, N.C. — Shrouded in steam and black smoke, the newly painted, shiny black locomotive rolls authoritatively down the tracks — a far cry from the rusted metal engine that wasn't in any condition to fire up and had to be towed into the repair yard 12 short months ago.
Now, the Norfolk & Western Class J No. 611 is returning home to Roanoke, Virginia after a yearlong project that has restored the locomotive to its former glory.
The 611 was one of the most powerful passenger steam locomotives made. Built in 1950, it is able to pull 15 cars at up to 110 mph. After passenger service was switched to diesel engines in 1958, it became a reserve steam generator until the flues in the boiler ran out. It was then donated to the new Roanoke Transportation Museum and put on display. In 1981 it was refurbished to carry train buffs on excursions throughout the South until 1994, when No. 611 was finally taken out of service and placed on display again in Roanoke.
In 2013, the Virginia Museum of Transportation launched a campaign to help restore No. 611. In May 2014, the engine was moved to the North Carolina Transportation Museum in Spencer for the work. A group of about 75 volunteers, employees, and contractors were involved in the project.
One of those volunteers is Jason Huffman.
When Huffman was 13 years old, his father took him on a steam locomotive excursion through the countryside. The huge machine puffing through the hills from Roanoke, Virginia to Winston-Salem made a lasting impression.
"The sights, sounds, and smell of it, that's what I love about it. The deep baritone whistle sends chills down your spine," Huffman said. The train he rode in was powered by the Norfolk & Western Class J No. 611.
Huffman, a Winston-Salem police officer, was quick to fill out a form to volunteer.
"I was willing to do whatever they needed," he said. "I would sweep the floors if they wanted, I just wanted to be involved," he said.
Huffman made the hour-long trip to Spencer twice a week for almost a year, doing everything from polishing the driving rods and re-attaching the metal skin, to shoveling coal to the front of the tender and helping clean up as the restoration came to an end.
As the N&W Class J No. 611 steams from Spencer to return to its home in Roanoke, Huffman plans to be on board for the trip.
"I've come full circle on my steam engines," he said. "I'm glad that I could play a small part in preserving an incredible piece of American history for future generations."