And it also came first.
It was the whistle that got to me, the vibrant, perfectly pitched and steam-released Hello, I'm Almost There. I could see a mile or so down the empty track, but had yet to see the Spirit of Roanoke, the Class J 611 steam locomotive and the only survivor of its kind from another, perhaps less complicated era.
But I knew she was coming. We all did. About 100 of us gathered around Lexington's reconstituted freight depot to watch our 65-year-old history steam by us, on it's return trip to Roanoke after a year of restoration at the Spencer shops.
Then, in a moment, she was in sight. First was the billowing black coal smoke above the trees. Then the incredibly bright engine light. And still there was the whistle with its promise of that mysteriously delightful Doppler effect — is it only train whistles that we hear that way?
When the engine finally reached us, bringing with her a symphony of sounds, including the unmistakable chugging rhythm of the boiler, pistons and drive wheels in 4-8-4 time, I almost missed her. I was busy scanning a view finder, one eye looking through a camera lens, the other on the train itself. Impossible multi-tasking. Wait. Wait. Wait. Now! Click.
|The Class J 611 majestically steams through Lexington and on to Roanoke.|
I thought I had time to snap one more, but by then I was being Dopplered. So I had to be content with the image that I caught.
As it was, Kim and I had seen her in Spencer a week ago, regally posing for her fans with less pressure on the photographer to make snap decisions. I have a pretty nice photo gallery going.
Later in the day, I started Googling various Web sites, including the NC Transportation Museum, trying to see how the locomotive was received at other towns along the way.
Apparently, fairly large crowds turned out all along the route. Thomasville was impressive. So was Lynchburg. The 611 pulled into Roanoke sometime around 5 p.m., taking something like nine hours to cover what an automobile can do in under three hours.
I know. Not a fair comparison. This trip was a sendoff excursion, after all.
And there's no romance in car travel. Not really.
But as the 611 showed, there is plenty of romance in history.
It was a special day.