Riding the 611 Steam Train

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Jim Glanville

Cambria from 611

On May 27, along with three friends and my wife, I made the round-trip excursion on the 611 steam train from Roanoke to the Walton Junction near Radford.


Our party had reserved seats in the Silver Lariat dome car, which originally went into service in 1948 on the California Zephyr route from Chicago to San Francisco. The dome car was a great location for taking photographs.

The accompanying pictures show the view of Cambria taken from the dome on the outward leg of the trip and the 611 storming back into Cambria at full power the following day on its return trip from Walton to Roanoke. At Walton, the 611 backs up along a large Y-junction across the New River from the Pete Dye golf course, which enables it to turn around.

As can be seen in the Cambria photograph, crowds of spectators came out to see the 611 roll by. They were present all along the route—at every place where a car could be parked. Many spectators took still or moving pictures of the train.

611 returns to Cambria

Steam trains hold an enormous sentimental attraction for the public and rail fans are a legion. Observing the 611 pass over the Cambria crossing on May 28 were fans who had traveled to watch it from as far away as Cleveland, Ohio and Florida. It is generally agreed that steam locomotives were dirty and inefficient, required frequent stops to take on vast quantities of water and coal, and needed lots of maintenance, but people love them anyway.

The engineer told us that it would take 10-11 tons of coal to make the roughly 80-mile round trip. Jim Stump, the vice-chairman of the Fire Up 611 Committee, who visited the dome car during the ride, said that the coal used comes from Kentucky and that it takes the best part of a day with a back-hoe to load the 24-tons of coal that 611 can carry. In the heyday of steam, coaling towers such as the one that can still be seen at Vicker, enabled fast refueling.

Another visitor to the dome car was its owner Burt Hermey. He purchased the stainless steel car from Amtrak in 1985, extensively rebuilt it, and now leases it for excursions to rail lines all over America.

In 1855, the arrival of the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad changed Christiansburg and Radford forever. When the railroad reached Bristol in 1856, it opened the route from Richmond to Tennessee. Until its destruction in 1865, this main line railroad played an important role during the Civil War in supplying the Confederacy.

The Italianate style Cambria depot seen in the photograph was built in 1868 to replace the one destroyed during the war. Until l908 the depot also served as the passenger station and from 1908-1980 as a freight station.

Today, Cambria is a busy railroad place, with most of its traffic being long Norfolk Southern westbound double-stacked intermodal trains and mixed freight trains.

East bound traffic through Montgomery County consists mostly of heavy Norfolk Southern eastbound coal and grain trains that travel over the parallel former Virginian Railway.

Possibly, passenger train service might soon return to Christiansburg and Radford. The extension of Amtrak to Bristol is under consideration. In May 2016 the Town of Christiansburg purchased land on Mill Lane behind its Aquatic Center. That land and adjacent property may become the site of an Amtrak station.

The days of regular steam trains in Christiansburg and Radford are long gone, but we may yet see a return of passenger trains.

— Jim Glanville is a retired chemist living in Blacksburg. He has been publishing and lecturing for more than a decade about the history of Southwest Virginia.