BROOKSIDE — More than a century after she was built, Southern Railway engine 630 is still steaming along nicely, and sending the melodic sounds of a steam whistle echoing off hills in and near Brookside.
The Consolidation-class locomotive pulled about a dozen passenger cars on excursions between Birmingham and Parrish on Saturday and Sunday mornings, passing through Brookside and other parts of northern Jefferson County as part of Norfolk Southern Railway’s “21st Century Steam” program.
It’s the first time the line has seen a steam-powered train since at least the 1990s, when the Southern — since merged with the Norfolk and Western Railway to become Norfolk Southern (NS) — ran such excursions on a regular basis. The current program serves not only to display and maintain operating steam engines, but also to provide publicity for the railroad itself.
Last weekend’s trips ran from the site of the old Terminal Station, which was torn down in 1969, to Walker County on the NS line to Sheffield, Ala. and on to Memphis. Trips also ran in the afternoon from Birmingham to Wilton, a community adjacent to Montevallo. Rail lines in both Parrish and Wilton have “wye” tracks where the trains could be turned around.
The 21st Century Steam program is a return of a similar, larger steam excursion program operated by the Southern from the 1960s until the NS merger. The locomotives for that program were restored and maintained at a shop in the Ernest Norris Yard in Irondale, one of only three remaining steam shops run by freight railroads. Norfolk Southern stopped the program in 1994, and sent the steamers to museums.
But the railroad had a change of heart in 2010, and resumed a limited number of excursions with the help of the Tennessee Valley Railway Museum in Chattanooga, where some of the engines from the original program ended up. The program has since expended northward, after the NS acquired large parts of the old Pennsylvania Railroad.