The Norfolk Southern Steam Program And The Clator Brothers – part 1

1218 and 611 running side by side. Photo by Tom Sink from

The Norfolk Southern Steam Program And The Clator Brothers – part 1

Just after midnight 30 July, 1945, Japanese submarine I-58 sighted a United States Navy Portland-class heavy cruiser in its periscope. The ship, the USS Indianapolis, was torpedoed and sank within 12 minutes. 300 of her crew went down with the ship; another 880 were left in the water to survive on their own. They had no lifeboats, no food or drinking water, but most of all no one knew of their fate, for they were a part of the most secret project of the war!

The USS Indianapolis left San Francisco on 19 July 1945; on her deck were the parts for the Uranium Atomic bomb that was to be dropped on Japan. Her secret destination was the island of Tinian. She arrived there on the 26 of July and off loaded the parts for the bomb. Four days later she was torpedoed. Because her mission was so secret, no one knew she had gone missing. After being in the water for four and a half days, a PBY seaplane on a routine patrol flight spotted a large group of men floating in the water. It was the survivors of the USS Indianapolis. The PBY under the command of Lieutenant Wilbur Gwinn immediately dropped a life raft and a radio transmitter. He then reported the location of the survivors. 


U.S. Navy photo, USS Indianapolis

U.S. Navy photo, USS Indianapolis

That night, the USS Cecil Doyle a navy destroyer under the command of W Graham Claytor arrived on the scene. The Cecil Doyle took onboard nearly 100 of the survivors. Then, disregarding his own ship’s safety, Capt. Claytor ordered his largest searchlight to shine skyward in order to signal other rescue ships of the location of the survivors. This also gave those in the water their first hope that rescuers had arrived. Only 316 of the 880 that went into the sea survived to be rescued. Many died from shark attacks, while others died from dehydration, hypothermia, and starvation.

For his actions, W. Graham Claytor is credited by the survivors as playing a major role in their rescue. This was further acknowledged by the 103rd congress on the 18th of November, 1993. In a Joint Resolution,

” . . . Whereas W. Graham Claytor, Jr., is credited with having saved almost 100 survivors of the sinking heavy cruiser U.S.S. Indianapolis, which had been torpedoed in shark-infested waters in the Pacific, by decisively changing the course of his ship, the U.S.S. Doyle, to rescue the survivors hours before receiving orders to take part in the rescue. . . .”

Mr. Claytor went on to become Secretary of the Navy and Deputy Secretary of Defense in the Carter Administration.

It is November of 1984, and we are rolling through the table flat and straight as an arrow Southern Railroad main line (Georgia Southern & Florida) between Jacksonville, FL and Valdosta, GA. The PA announcer reports that the 611, a N&W class J 4-8-4 that was pulling our train, was nearing a speed that the FRA would frown upon-100 mph! At the throttle was the president of Amtrak, W. Graham Claytor. Together with his brother, Robert, the president of the N&W, and 400 plus other railfans it was a day to show those in Florida and Georgia what the best of the Roanoke Shops could do. Graham’s love for steam was first shown back in 1966 when the Southern Railroad (the railroad that he would later become president of) first began to run steam excursions, behind Southern Railway 2-8-2 locomotive, number 4501. From that early beginning, the program grew to feature two of the finest steam locomotives ever built, the N&W class J-611 and N&W class A-1218, a 2-6-6-4. The 1218 was to become one of the largest steam locomotives ever restored.

Considered one of the best railroad men of the second half of the 20th century, Graham first took the reigns of the Southern railroad in 1967 as president. It was here that he became known as “the Employee’s President.” He would often ride Southern’s trains, allowing him to take a one on one approach with the train crews. It was under his leadership that the Southern would grow to be one of the most successful and largest railroads of that time (1967-1977). When Jimmy Carter (a Navy man himself) became the president of the U.S. he wasted no time in tapping a fellow navy man to become Secretary of the Navy, Graham said yes. It has been reported that as Secretary of the Navy  he loved to go out on one of the big Aircraft Carriers and in the middle of the night he would go up to the bridge and order the helmsmen to run her at full speed. There he would sit in the admiral’s chair with his feet up, enjoying every minute of the ride!  He loved ships as much as he loved those steam locomotives.

After his time in the Defense Department he was called back to the railroad industry, this time by Amtrak in 1982. This was not a good time for the passenger carrier; Ronald Reagan wanted to kill Amtrak altogether. Amtrak needed someone who could not only run a railroad but save it. Under his time Graham turned Amtrak into a viable efficient operation. His relationship with other railroads got Amtrak the cooperation it needed to run its trains on time. He was also able to make enough political friends in congress to keep Amtrak funded though the hostile Reagan years. Under W. Graham Claytor it became clear that Amtrak would remain an important part of our transportation system.  

But Graham’s love for trains themselves was not ignored. As president of the Southern railway he kept his passenger trains out of Amtrak. The Crescent Limited (New York to New Orleans) was upgraded both inside and out. Southern’s entire fleet of E-8 passenger locomotives (painted in the black and white freight or the tuxedo scheme) were repainted back to the original green and white passenger scheme. The Crescent was run the way railroads used to run their passenger trains, as an object of pride. Southern even took out ads in national publications promoting the service their passenger trains provided. It would be only natural that Graham’s Amtrak Crescent, as well as all Amtrak trains, would reflect that earlier philosophy.


Southern Crescent Diesel E-8 Photo by Rich Polk

Southern Crescent Diesel E-8 Photo by Rich Polk


It was during his time at Amtrak that the Southern Steam program had its most ambitious years. The Southern railroad never lost its enthusiasm for running the steam program after Graham had left in 1977. By 1981 Robert Claytor had become president of the N&W railroad. The N&W had not been very keen on running steam excursion trains on its rails, however, Robert was going to change that in a big way.

By 1981 Southern and N&W were seriously considering a merger, and Robert was right in the middle of those plans. He also knew he had two large N&W steam locomotives sitting in the Roanoke Transportation Museum. What a way to promote the cooperation between the two railroads than to restore the 611 & 1218. The 611 was the first out in 1981. She was sent to the Southern steam shops in Birmingham AL. for restoration. She was ready to hit the rails in September of 1982, and the 1218 would follow in April of 1987. Of course Graham was there for these events, but nothing would compare to the big show that was to be in July of 1987.

The Roanoke Chapter of the NRHS (National Railroad Historical Society) was to host that year’s convention in late July with both the 611 and the 1218 under steam. It was a show that would recreate everything that was special about steam locomotives and trains. The highlight of the convention was 611 with a passenger train and 1218, with a train of empty hopper cars, pulling their respective trains side by side up the Christian grade, a scene that recreated the famous Howard Fog painting that hangs in the Hotel Roanoke. The return trip back to Roanoke had both locomotives doubleheaded for the first time.

1218 and 611 running side by side. Photo by Tom Sink from

1218 and 611 running side by side. Photo by Tom Sink from


W. Graham Claytor retired from Amtrak in 1993 ending 11 years at the helm. Robert retired from the new Norfolk Southern Railroad in 1987. Robert died in April of 1993, and Graham passed the next year in May. Soon after Graham’s death, the Norfolk Southern announced it was terminating its steam program, ending 29 years of operation.

Here is a personal account of a conversation between W. Graham Claytor and a tower operator in Alexandria VA. This was one of 611’s first public trips, a three day Labor Day week end extravaganza. The first day was Roanoke to Norfolk with the second day Norfolk back to Roanoke and the third day Roanoke to Alexandria. All went well on the first and third day but Sunday was a bust. 611 got to Norfolk all in good order, but when they tried to turn her at Lambert’s Point Yard, they ran into problems. They had changed all the curve easements with the end of steam in the late 1950’s, therefore every time they tried to run her around the balloon track she derailed. They ended up towing her backwards all the way back to Roanoke; the excursion train got two N&W black C-30-7 diesel locomotives. 

I was with Morry Farcus of JMJ Productions and we were chasing the 611 on her first excursion trip on Labor Day weekend in September of 1982. The Monday trip was from Roanoke to Alexandria VA., a one way trip. We were racing to our last filming shot at a bridge just south of Alexandria. The railroad scanner came to life with the tower operator (AO) in Alexandria calling the engineer on the southbound Amtrak Crescent. He told him he had permission to leave Alexandria once all his passengers were boarded. Soon after those orders were given, a voice interrupted with this counter order: “engineer on train number 19, you are to hold your train at Alexandra until extra 611 north has arrived giving those passengers on extra 611 north a chance to make their connection with number19.” The Alexandria operator comes back with, “who is countering my orders”? The answer was; “W. Graham Claytor, Amtrak President!” This is just one example of the class the Claytors had. It is still sad to think they are both gone and that there is no longer a NS Steam schedule to look forward to every spring.

“NS=NO STEAM” Preston Claytor, at the last excursion trip in Chattanooga.

December, 1994.

Southern number 4501 Photo by David V. Leonard from

Southern number 4501 Photo by David V. Leonard from


Once upon a time!


Next time, part 2. Will Graham Claytor’s dream be realized?


—Ray Del Papa



  1. Robert Mohler on March 15, 2021 at 5:53 pm

    Mr. Claytor’s dream can be realized if there is enough coal on the former. N&W to fuel 611 and. 1218 for another 60 or 80 years. Is there enough N&W high quality coal to do that? The last USGS report said only 2.5 billion economical tons and I don’t know how much mining they/re doing on the Pocahantas division.

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