The Passing of Carl Jensen – The Innumerable Caravan

The Passing of Carl Jensen – The Innumerable Caravan

Usually, I have very little trouble writing for this publication. But today, I am frustrated. It is always difficult to lose someone, especially someone you’ve known for close to 50 years. I learned of the passing of Carl Jensen on Monday, March 25, just a few hours ago, and many memories came floating back.

Carl and Carol Jensen in front of 2015 611 excursion train.
Photo: Jeff Lisowski
Carl and Carol Jensen in front of the 2015 611 excursion train. Photo: Jeff Lisowski

Carl, a familiar name to many, was the leader of the Norfolk Southern Steam Program, succeeding Jim Bistline in 1986. His leadership was instrumental in guiding the program to almost end in 1994. Carl’s role extended beyond the program, as he presided over the travels of the 611 and 1218, including the unforgettable 1987 National Railway Historical Society Annual convention in Roanoke. His association with the National Railway Historical Society (NRHS) was not recent but a commitment that began in the late 1950s when he joined the C.P. Huntington Chapter.

After graduating from his beloved Penn State University, Carl worked in various railroad locations. It was at Penn State he grew his love for the famed Pennsylvania Railroad, but history has a funny way of working things out. He was first hired out in June 1959 as a clerk in the General Agent’s office in Portsmouth, Ohio, and moved to Cleveland in February 1960. Carl became a traveling freight agent based in Chicago in 1963 before finally arriving in Roanoke in early 1965 as an industrial development department industrial economist and was then appointed assistant manager of special services late that same year. Not long afterward, Carl became assistant manager of equipment sales and then moved on to his longer-term home in the training department, where he rose to manager.

Carol and Carl Jensen on board a Southern excursion coach.
Photo: Dorr Tucker
Carol and Carl Jensen on board a Southern excursion coach. Photo: Dorr Tucker

It was Roanoke where he made his mark when the Southern was moving Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum’s No. 4501 back from operations in Virginia, including the 1966 NRHS Convention in Richmond, where W. Graham Claytor told attendees that “the steam locomotive is here to stay.” The 4501 was headed back to Chattanooga in October 1966 via Roanoke with some ferry move passengers. Carl was among a group of local fans who came out to see the locomotive as it overnighted in Roanoke. This event began a re-formed Roanoke Chapter NRHS, with its first organizational meeting a year later, leading to a formal organization in early 1968.

Carl was right at the center of the organization, becoming the new organization’s first Vice President, with George H. Kelch as the first president. Carl quickly became the Chapter’s President in 1969 and then became the Chapter’s long-serving National Director (or representative) in 1971. Carl was involved in many behind-the-scenes things, including acquiring the Chapter’s first passenger equipment in the summer of 1968. He also did a lot of mechanical work on the equipment and was growing prominent in the National Organization.

From left: Julien Sacks, Carl Jensen and David Helmer, counting tickets in car 1148. Photo: Dorr Tucker
From left: Julien Sacks, Carl Jensen, and David Helmer, counting tickets in car 1148. Photo: Dorr Tucker

Carl was a leader in all forms of his life, whether by example or direct leadership. He was actively promoting private passenger car ownership as he saw that the railroad’s passenger services and car ownership were declining by the late 1960s. Carl felt that the only way there might be excursion trains to run would be the privately owned cars. Carl was no stranger to physical labor either; he more than gladly got his hands dirty working on stubborn ancient passenger cars and spent an entire day spray painting the inside of a Chapter coach.

Carl was quite serious about the organization and its processes, seemingly all business, but to those who knew him, he had a great sense of humor and was a lot of fun to be around.

His rise in the NRHS National Organization continued as he participated in Roanoke Chapter management. Carl would work closely with the Claytor brothers to help make excursions happen on the N&W and lend his voice to assist in planning these trips. Carl would suggest to the Southern an operation of one-way ferry moves of the steam excursion train, which would be dubbed by Bill Carson the “Independence Limiteds,” with the Roanoke Chapter planning and operation. These trips first began in the early 1970s and ran most years up to 1993. They were a success due to excellent planning and railroad cooperation.

Imagine today, running a steam train on the mainline, with a bunch of open-window cars, stopping every 20-25 miles to handle passengers where no station or platform exists, running at reasonable track speed! Yeah, sure, that’s going to happen! But it did then!

Carl had worked closely with Jim Bistline of the Southern and was one of the significant leaders of the Roanoke Chapter in 1977, 20 years after the first one there. Thanks to the Chapter’s leadership, the National Convention of the NRHS convened in Roanoke, and it was a huge success.

Center from left, Bob Claytor, Jim Bistline, Carl Jensen, Chuck Jensen, August 1982, 611 trip home. Photo: Ken Miller
Center from left, Bob Claytor, Jim Bistline, Carl Jensen, Chuck Jensen, August 1982, 611 trip home. Photo: Ken Miller

Carl’s most extensive trial by fire was in June 1986, when a defective switch caused the train behind the 611 on an employee special out of Norfolk, VA, to derail, injuring many people and cars. Carl was fine, but in the days that followed, it was a circus, with stories circulating that this would be the end of excursion trains on Norfolk Southern. Only authorized representatives from NS were allowed to comment to the media. NS had Don Piedmont as the Public Relations head, whose favorite line was “No comment.” It was so representative of Piedmont that he had the custom license plate that read “NO CMNT.” So, the company said nothing officially about the accident and related stories.

The peak moment came one morning a few days later when WDBJ-TV station repeated a report from a Norfolk station, quoting an FRA spokesperson saying the injuries would have been much less severe if the cars in the train had not been wooden passenger cars! The story first aired at 7:15 that morning. I was working at Channel 7, so my phone rang at 7:30. Carl said, “You don’t know who this is, but that story, as you know, is totally wrong, somebody needs to correct that.” I was also livid, went to work, and immediately went to the newsroom to find a contact for the Associated Press to get a correction issued; I also took a reporter to show her examples of the cars and appeared on the news countering the story. Of course, AP issued a correction late that day! Carl was pleased that I had stepped up and spoken up, as nobody from NS would be able to. Fortunately, under Bob Claytor’s leadership, NS continued the program.

At the end of the 1986 season, Jim Bistline retired, and with a grand farewell banquet in Alexandria, Va., Bob Claytor named Carl his worthy successor.

Carl Jensen with excursion train. Photo: Dorr Tucker
Carl Jensen with excursion train.Photo: Dorr Tucker

At a Holiday gathering at Carl’s house in December 1986, a group of us were discussing what trips we might be able to do for the Convention. A suggestion was made to run the 611 and 1218 side-by-side for a run-by. We all laughed, but Carl thought it was an exciting idea and took it to Bob Claytor.

Carl had been a big part of the program’s success already, but 1987 would take it to new heights; first, four and a half years after 611 made its debut, the Class A, No. 1218, after multiple delays in restoration, came into service at the end of April, with its inaugural trip to Bluefield, WV in a flood condition and rain. The trip was quickly a test for all aboard, with downed trees, delays, and more delays. By the time the train was at the west end of Roanoke yard, it was almost 11:00 pm, and some high ballast knocked an air hose loose, causing an emergency application. When we got to the platform and were unloading passengers, it was 11:15 pm, and everyone, Carl included, was exhausted. Still, the riders kept us all going, none believing we could or would run an excursion in that kind of condition safely.

A few months later, the 1218’s debut was followed by the magnificent 1987 NRHS Convention in Roanoke, a decade after the last. The Convention featured 611 and 1218 and Southern FP-7s, but the most spectacular day was Saturday, August 1. The 611 had a packed passenger train and was leaving for Radford. The passengers knew something special was up, but nobody, except those running the show, knew what was in store. We passed the 1218 with a hopper train at Shaffers Crossing. At Salem, where I had picked the spot with Carl’s agreement, we unloaded and backed the 611 back, then with 1218 on one main and 611 on the other, both steamed past the crowd of people. But it was not over yet. We did it again on the grade above Elliston. Then Carl motioned me up into the cab of 611, where we ran side-by-side with 1218 to almost Walton. It is a remarkable memory, and I will never forget Carl for allowing me to experience what very few people did. The truly amazing experience of the best N&W steam locomotives running on the mainline like it had been thirty years before!

Dorr Tucker and Carl Jensen Ken Miller Photo
Dorr Tucker and Carl Jensen Ken Miller Photo

The 1987 Convention was an outstanding success, in no small part thanks to Carl for the splendid cooperation. One of my favorite memories was arriving in Roanoke with the inbound excursion train. As it happened, The Chapter and NS had not signed the contracts to run the Convention, so Carl and I signed the agreements in the lobby of Hotel Roanoke, with me using his back and him using mine! We were both hot, dingy, and dirty, but we knew it was going to be a huge hit.

Carl’s involvement with the Roanoke Conventions was certainly not his only connection. He served on the National Convention Committee and worked hard to develop procedures, plans, and guidance for any number of conventions.

Carl led the Steam Program, working hard to make it a success and make the cars and locomotives more reliable and able to keep running. A fine steam shop and crew backed him.

One of the more outstanding events of the Steam program occurred in November 1991, with a 25th Anniversary Celebration at the birthplace of the program, Chattanooga, Tennessee. It was a grand event with 611, 1218, and 4501 all participating, and the grand finale was a triple-header out of Chattanooga. The other highlight of the event was a banquet, with virtually all of the old-time steam people on hand. Carl was the host of the event and recognized those attending. It was a packed house, and the program was an elaborate audio/video slide show that I produced for the event. I was lucky; Carl had hired me to create this show, which was very timely, as my job with the TV station had been eliminated at the end of August. I am honored that Carl thought enough that I would get a show done, and he was thrilled with the result, which he only got to see the night of the banquet. That takes a lot of trust.

Unfortunately, the most trying time came in late September 1994, when the excursion train with 611 parked for the night in Lynchburg, Va., and a piggyback train backed into the standing excursion train. The 611 was untouched, but various cars were damaged, causing a need to replace equipment with rented passenger cars to work out the season. Carl rounded up equipment from several sources, but the derailment had only caused the cancellation of one weekend of trips.

Unfortunately, other forces were at work, and the decision was made by upper NS management that ended the program in late October. The program would run out the season, but no farewell trip was allowed; simply shut it down and go home. Upper management wanted to make no announcement of the end, but Carl pressed and worked hard to get a press release out and put as positive a spin as possible on the ending. The PR department sent out the release just after 5:00 pm on a Friday, then left for the weekend with no one to answer questions. It was a public relations disaster through no fault of the steam office.

Carl would leave the steam program and finish his career in the Safety Department as the program ended.

Carl’s involvement in the National organization led to what he might have been most proud of, he was a planner and instructor in the NRHS Railcamp, to bring young people into the hobby.

Even though Carl retired, he certainly did not leave the scene. He remained heavily involved in NRHS, both at the Roanoke and National levels, and was quite visible on the National scene.

He remained on the Roanoke Chapter Board until he decided not to run again in 2019, hoping for some new blood on the Chapter Board. He still attended Chapter Board meetings until most recently and remained a strong, positive influence on the organization.

Carl is survived by his wife Carol, sons Chuck and Ken, their spouses, children, and other family members.

Carl will be missed. His knowledge of passenger equipment and operations, as well as the most noted steam program, is almost legendary.

– Ken Miller

Carl (known to his family as Stony) was born on April 23, 1936 in Middletown, OH. He is survived by his loving wife of 64 years, Carol W. Jensen, two loving sons and their spouses, Charles C. Jensen, wife Virginia of Stroudsburg, PA and Kenneth E. Jensen, wife Shirley of Penhook, VA. Four grandsons: Daniel Jensen and wife Kendra of Manassas, VA, Samuel Jensen and wife Alyssa, of Leesburg, VA, Joseph Jensen of Roanoke and Keith Jensen of Tullahoma, TN. Stony is also survived by his twin brothers, David Jensen and wife Peg of Troy, VA, and Erik Jensen and wife Ilona of Mechanicsville, VA.

A celebration of his life will be held at Oakey’s North Chapel between 4-7 pm Sunday, March 31, 2024. The funeral will be held at St. Mark’s Lutheran Church on Franklin Rd. in Roanoke at 11am Monday April 1, 2024. Interment will be held after the church service at Blue Ridge Memorial Gardens, Airport Rd. Roanoke.

In lieu of flowers please make donations to St. Mark’s Lutheran Church, 1008 Franklin Rd, SW, Roanoke, VA  24016. Online condolences may be made at