Steaming Through Mosby’s Confederacy

A passion for steam trains can send one to places they would otherwise never explore. The northern Virginia hill country is one such place for me. The pursuit of steam has lead me there twice; once about 30 years ago and more recently in early June 2016 to ride behind the recently restored streamlined locomotive Norfolk & Western #611 which was pulling a series of excursions on the Norfolk Southern railroad billed as “The American.”

The tracks twist through stunning farmlands now known for organized hunts by well-heeled equestrians in pursuit of local fox, but 150-some years ago this was the territory of Colonel John Singleton Mosby, one of the most feared and revered officers of the American Civil War. A partisan of the south, the Colonel founded the Confederate Army’s 43rd Battalion of the Virginia Cavalry along the railroad in Rectortown, Virginia. The 43rd understood how to use the rural landscape; turning every field, forrest and run into an element of military advantage. The unit would gain renown as Mosby’s Raiders, a band of rangers so effective that the fox-filled hollows of the region were known as Mosby’s Confederacy.

Framed by old growth, the abandoned passenger station and a stone walled lined with railroad hardware #611 heads east downgrade through Markham, VA on the route of the pre-Civil War era Manassas Gap Railroad. Photo by Robert John Davis.
On the morning of Saturday June 4th, 2016 #611 crests the Blue Ridge at Linden, VA. The big 4–8–4 rolled over the summit of Linden Hill without issue, but the next day slick rails in a light rain caused a traction deficit that would see her barely make 1 mph across the top. Photo by Robert John Davis.

In 1852, a decade before Mosby’s reign, the region was pierced by the route of the Manassas Gap Railroad, one of the earliest railways in the United States. Today the railroad known as the B-Line serves as a key link in the modern Norfolk Southern rail system, but on the first weekend of June, the undulating grades through the hills were the setting for a convergence of eras. The world-famous #611, a product of mid-20th century design and a 21st century restoration, burnished the rails of the pre-Civil War route and returned the moan of the steam whistle to valleys steeped in the lore of American history.

#611 has become an icon of American railroading. Built in 1950 and retired in 1959, the locomotive survived in part due to the efforts of famed photographer O. Winston Link who rallied for her preservation at the Virginia Museum of Transportation, located just down the tracks from Roanoke, VA shops where #611 was built. From 1982 to 1994, the locomotive ran in excursion service for the Norfolk Southern. After going back to the museum for another two decades, #611 returned to operation in 2015 under the guidance of the VMT and a coalition known as “Fire Up 611.”

Since her reactivation, Norfolk Southern has permitted the locomotive to operate on a handful of excursions in North Carolina and Virginia. The June trips marked her return to Manassas, VA where #611 would haul three sold out trains across the Piedmont and up the Blue Ridge to Front Royal and return. The images presented here were captured during the morning runs on Jun 4th & 5th, 2016. More images appear at http://raconteur.robertjohndavis.com/2016/06/18/steaming-through-mosbys-confederacy/

The bricks of the Delaplane, VA country store shake as #611 rolls westbound through the “S” curve in the center of town. It was here in 1861, when the town was known as Piedmont Station, that General Stonewall Jackson loaded his troops on an eastbound train headed for the Battle of First Manassas. The movement marked the first time an army used a railway to move into battle. Photo by Robert John Davis.
After almost being defeated by a light rain and slick rails on the eastern slope of the Blue Ridge, #611 has crested Linden Hill and is rolling downgrade towards Front Royal, VA on Sunday morning. Photo by Robert John Davis.
The passenger station and freight house at The Plains, VA provide a steam-era backdrop as #611 heads east at track speed on the return to Manassas. Photo by Robert John Davis
Old Glory appears as both a folk art shipping pallet and a traditional 50-star banner, greeting “The American” as #611 wheels the train east through Gainesville, VA. Photo by Robert John Davis
N&W #611 rolls west past the pre-Civil War depot in Rectortown, VA in the heart of Mosby’s Confederacy. Behind the photographer stands an old warehouse whose interior walls still bear graffiti from soldiers held captive there in the Civil War. Photo by Robert John Davis

This article was originally published in June, 2016 at http://raconteur.robertjohndavis.com/