I don't believe that 6-year-old me ever thought this dream would become a reality. But yes, for $25 and a 6-hour round trip drive to Roanoke, one can visit the cab of the Queen of Steam, #611, while it's fired up!
After a drive that felt all too long, I arrived at the museum and immediately delayed gratification by visiting the model railroad exhibits and the hall of antique vehicles. The O scale 3-rail layout hosted several trains, including a non-streamlined N&W J class steamer, and a circus train in the bottom cabinets of the layout. Upstairs, I found walls of antique toy trains, and some very impressive circus models. I then wandered over towards the model airplanes, even the bus exhibit seemed enticing, but I couldn't stand to wait any longer to get out in the train yard!
Immediately upon exiting the building, one is greeted by the 1218, obscured by a row of flowerbeds, and a ramp down to the tracks of the Claytor Pavillion. There, a Wabash E unit, the 10,000th locomotive produced by EMD, and the Y6b #2156 (on loan from the National Museum of Transportation in St. Louis, Missouri) sit on the tracks adjacent to the 1218. Seeing the Y6b for the first time was very impressive. This gargantuan beast sported enormous low-pressure cylinders for the front set of drivers, and a firebox that hung over more than half the rear set of drivers. Behind the E unit sat the Bicentennial SD45, strangely classified as an 0-6-6-0 on the builders plate. I then wandered around the outside of the pavilion to the 4th track, where i found an RF&P boxcar, a Virginian EL-C electric locomotive, a variety of industrial critter engines, and some comparably modern rolling stock such as a Norfolk Southern "Top Gon" hopper, part of a rebuild project from the mid-1990s.
Even once I came up towards the 611, I still felt a bit nervous about my impending cab tour, and opted to photograph the locomotive from all angles, and walk down to the far end of the museum grounds. In the distance, I could see stored NS diesels, and a string of coal-loaded gondolas for the 611 were parked on the museum lead. Seeing the J parked on museum grounds meant that I could walk up as close as I like, and take dead-on shots from both the front and rear of the locomotive. Thankfully, the usual water canteen and tool car were parked on an adjacent track, so I could see the rear of 611s actual tender!
After stalling myself a bit longer, I finally worked up the nerve to enter the cab of the Queen of Steam. I was warmly greeted by the crew, who were keen to give me a brief tour around the cab, including a peek inside the firebox. I got to sit in the engineers seat, ring the bell and best of all, blow the whistle! Best $25 I've ever spent:
After fulfilling my boyhood dream, I wandered back to my camera, perched on a garbage can and babysitted by a fellow railfan (thank you, neighbor!) I was pleasantly surprised by another running locomotive at the museum: Alco T6 #41 was tasked with switching the evening photoshoot, and the VMT volunteers had fired it up for a bit of a shakedown after some minor operating issues were reported. The T-6 is one of my favorite types of diesels, and getting to see it run in-person was quite a treat! As can be seen from the pictures, the Alco did not disappoint!
Satisfied with their shakedown run, the volunteers began changing out lightbulbs on #41 and #522, and I moved along to the few outdoor exhibits I hadn't seen yet. This included some more Alcos, one of two remaining Virginian steam locomotives, a Norfolk Southern track inspection car, the other surviving piece of the N&W Bicentennial equipment (a truck trailer), and one of the "Lost Engines of Roanoke" awaiting its turn at restoration. I would have liked to have spent more time enjoying the museum, but I had to get home to load-in my Lego train layout for the following day. A big thanks to the Fire Up 611! group for offering cab tours and whistle blows for such a reasonable price, never dreamed I would get the chance!