Saturday, March 31, 2018

Onboard the N&W Pocahontas: A Bygone Scioto Locomotive


What is more inspiring than a train? And what machine is more beautiful in operation than a steam engine? A powerful locomotive is symbolic of travel, freedom, and adventure. One of the most famous passenger trains to run through our area was added to the Norfolk & Western lines on November 21, 1926. It was named the “Pocahontas” (or “Pokey” for short). It was railroad's primary nighttime run between Norfolk, Virginia, and Cincinnati, Ohio, replacing an earlier named train called the Norfolk-Chicago Express. Untrue to its lethargic nickname, the fleet train earned a coveted place in locomotive lore.

The N&W promoted the Pokey as "… a new fast train connecting the Midwest with the Carolinas and the Atlantic Coast." Railroad enthusiasts still speak of “the bullet nose, modern lines, colorful red color, graceful curves and baritone whistle” that combined with “unbridled power” made the Class J engine the iconic symbol of modern steam locomotives. The Pocahontas ran from November 1926 until May 1971.

Westbound Train 3 left Norfolk at 2:40 p.m. and arrived at Cincinnati at 7:35 a.m., while the eastbound Train 4 left Cincinnati at 11:25 p.m. and arrived back at Norfolk at 5:10 p.m. A connection was made in Portsmouth, Ohio, with the Columbus District passenger trains 33 and 34..

The Pocahontas carried two 10-roomette-6-double-bedroom sleeping cars from Norfolk to Cincinnati, one of which went through to Chicago on train 71 of the Pennsylvania Railroad. It also handled a Winston-Salem to Columbus 10-6 sleeping car that was carried in train 12 from Winston-Salem to Roanoke, train 3 from Roanoke to Portsmouth, and train 33 from Portsmouth to Columbus. All those trains had counterparts operating in the opposite directions.


The early version of the Pocahontas offered relatively familiar amenities of the day such as the aforementioned sleepers, diners (which offered classic Southern fried cooking), parlors, and standard coach service. As an added touch the rear heavyweight observation featured a brass railing with its rear porch overhang. Finally, through Pullman service, passengers had the option of reaching such far away destinations as Chicago, Cleveland, and Detroit (before the N&W came to serve these cities directly in later years by acquiring such roads as the Wabash and the Nickel Plate).

While the Norfolk & Western's Pocahontas was not initially a streamlined operation, it nonetheless operated alongside the railroad's flagship run, the Powhatan Arrow. The N&W maintained the Native American theme. The N&W called its trains the Twin Team serving the Virginia coast and the duo proved surprisingly successful for a railroad which did not spend lavishly on passenger services.

The Pocahontas featured standard heavyweight equipment of the era with power provided by K Class 4-8-2 Mountains. It took the train more than 15 years to finally earn streamlined status (thanks to hand-me-downs from its big sister) and the Pocahontas actually became the N&W's flagship train for the last few years. It remained on N&W's timetable all of the way until the start of Amtrak in 1971.

The streamlined Pocahontas was adorned in a classic passenger livery of Tuscon red and black with Gold Leaf trim. However, this changed somewhat in the early 1950s when the N&W attempted to reduce costs by switching to an imitation gold paint. N&W "officially" adopted blue at the end of 1965. The repaints were not all done right away.

The streamlined version was powered by the famous J Class 4-8-4 steamers. They were the pride of the N&W, pulling other crack passenger trains such as The Cavalier, The Powhatan Arrow, as well as ferrying the Southern Railway's Tennessean between Lynchburg, Virginia and Bristol, Virginia. One test proved that a "J" could pull fifteen cars at 100 mph along one section of flat, straight track in eastern Virginia. On tests on the Pennsylvania, No. 610 regularly cruised at 110!

Despite their power and speed, the class J's were among the most reliable engines, running as many as 15,000 miles (24,000 km) per month, even on the mountainous and relatively short route of the N&W. Despite having only 14 of the class, the J’s held down 80% of the N&W’s passenger schedule. They were so well balanced and lubricated that two men could push the 494,000 pound locomotives with ease on level track.

One notable accident in the J class's service history occurred on January 23, 1956, when No. 611, while traveling westward with the Pocahontas, derailed on a wide curve along the Tug River near Cedar, West Virginia and almost fell into the Tug River. It was determined that the engineer ran the engine at an excessive speed around a curve and its high center of gravity caused it to flip on its side.

After extensive repairs, the 611 was put back into service. It remained in good condition until January 1959 when the J's were retired. A request by the Roanoke Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society to operate a passenger excursion later that year led the N&W to pull the 611 out of a group of “J's”destined for the scrap yards at Portsmouth, Ohio. After completing the excursion between Bluefield, West Virginia and Roanoke in October, 1959, the 611 was donated to the City of Roanoke’s Transportation Museum, the present owner.

In 1981, N&W towed the 611 from the museum to the Southern Railway’s Norris Yard steam shop at Birmingham, Alabama to be rebuilt. Restored to mint condition, the 611 steamed into Roanoke in August, 1982 with N&W Chairman Robert Claytor at the throttle. The rebuilding of the “J” was a gift from the N&W to the City of Roanoke in honor of the City’s 100th birthday.

The J's remained primary power for the two flagship trains – the Pocahontas and the Powhatan Arrow – until the N&W finally upgraded to Electro-Motive's GP9s for passenger service in 1958. Interestingly, unlike most lines which used streamlined diesels (such as Electro-Motive's E series) for their passenger trains. the N&W never owned a single example (this can be explained by the fact that it continued operating steam locomotives until the late 1950s). 

Ready to Depart for Portsmouth, 1958
The Pokey made its final run on April 30, 1971.

The June issue of the N&W Magazine featured this cover photograph of the train pulling into Lynchburg on its final trip to Norfolk. The former Nickel Plate steam locomotive No. 759 powered the Pocahontas on her last run. The 1971 N&W annual report noted that “thousands lined the track along the route to wave, cheer and even to cry as the last 'All Aboard!’ was sounded and an era came to an end.” In some cities, school had been dismissed so students could see the train. Here is an account of that last run:

Forty years ago today the final Pocahontas rolled east on the Norfolk and Western, having been left out of Amtrak in favor of the James Whitcomb Riley route over the Chesapeake and Ohio through Virginia and West Virginia. The N&W gave the 'Pokey' a fitting send off though by leasing Ross Roland's ex-Nickel Plate Berkshire No. 759 for the portion of the route east of its Roanoke headquarters. The tender was re-lettered 'Norfolk and Western' and former Wabash open-platform parlor car 'Lafayette' brought up the markers. In between, the railroad had rounded up just about every available coach - including the former Wabash domes built for the 'Bluebird.'

“The Pocahontas, still running on 'Amtrak Day,' was completing a run that had begun in Cincinnati the night prior with an 11:25 p.m. departure. That train, with heavy head-end business, had a late arrival in Roanoke with freight GP9 883 leading a pair of passenger units. Those units would take the head-end cars on to Norfolk with their coaches added to the waiting equipment in Roanoke. Scheduled for a 5:10 arrival in Norfolk, it was well after dark - about 9:30 IIRC - when the train pulled to a stop in the station near Lamberts Point. No one seemed to care. The mood was somber, yet celebratory. It was the end of an era. Tidewater Virginia arrivals for Amtrak would be on the other side of Hampton Roads at the C&O's Newport News station. Nearly four years would pass before an Amtrak train pulled into Norfolk - the Mountaineer - combined with the Riley between Tri-State Station near Kenova and Chicago. That would last until 1979.”

Last Pocahontas Departing Roanoke

What is it about a steam train that creates strong feelings of nostalgia like no other design of the past? Surely the power and motion excite us all, young and old, as we marvel at the beautiful creations. In our admiration, we also feel a little sadness that these trains no longer occupy a part of our daily existence. Who doesn't want to step back into time and ride to some distant destination on one of these beautiful machines? Despite giving way to more efficient means of transport, trains like the Pocahontas remain as colorful images in our fondest dreams.


Christopher Chant. (2012), The History of North American Steam (3rd ed.), Chartwell Books, Inc.

Last N&W Pocahontas.”,2456798 May 1, 2011

Norfolk and Western Railway, October 27, 1957 timetable, p. 14–15

Norfolk and Western Railway, October 27, 1957 timetable, p. 5 

Norfolk & Western Railroad Paint Schemes

"N&W 611 Class J Steam Locomotive National Historic Mechanical Engineering Landmark May 1984". ASME. Archived from the original on October 3, 2017.


“The Pocahontas.”

“Pocahontas.” wiki

This Month in History; May(NRHS Rivanna Chapter)

N&W RR in Scioto County, Ohio

#history #norfolksouthern #community#heritage

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