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Remember The Little Guys: Southern 630 Edition

September 28, 2013

One can be forgiven for forgetting the little guys… almost. The big boys of steam, literally in Union Pacific’s case with the pending return to steam of a 4-8-8-4, tend to grab the lion’s share of the headlines.

765 Tackles Horseshoe Curve!
261 Returns From Rebuild!
611 May Run Again!
844 And 4449 Take To The Mainline!

Yes the Big Boys, and the Northerns and the Berkshires, get most of the press. But let’s not forget the little guys.

It was with that thought in mind that I was standing alongside the former Southern Railway’s mainline from Chattanooga to Knoxville as the last gasp of the fading summer sent ripples of heat radiating from the white ballasted right of way.

In a world of big steam on the mainline and smaller power relegated to the rails of museums and tourist roads, a 1904 Consolidation almost seems an oddball on the high iron. I suppose perhaps she is, as Southern Railway #630 is likely a stopgap measure until Mikado #4501 rolls out of the Soule Shop in the near future. But it is nice to see an example of the locomotive builder’s art from the dawn of the Twentieth Century get a chance to kick up her heels.

Three cars and fifteen miles-per-hour need not be the lot of the little guys.

September seventh and eighth were the dates of Railfest at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, and on the schedule were a series of trips up the Knoxville line to Cleveland, Tennessee, hosted by Norfolk Southern under the banner of their 21st Century Steam program. The four trips would add up to 168 miles of mainline running. As for the diesel helpers…. what diesel helpers?

The line to Cleveland features a roller coaster profile with grades approaching one percent in both directions. No big deal for a well tuned 2-8-0 pulling 6 and 8 car trains.

This is railroading the old fashioned way; no sitting at the stoker controls or oil valve for the fireman. No, this old girl runs on muscle, sweat, and the clang of the scoop tossing black diamonds through the mouth of a Butterfly Firedoor from the dancing deck of an eight wheeled tender.

This is the sort of railroading that makes today’s diesel indoctrinated pilot engineer tell the dispatcher that he’s ready to turn the train on the day’s last run so they can put this “son of a bitchin’” engine away for the night.

At least one diesel man found out just how easy he has it!

The Black Fox Road crossing is just a few miles from Cleveland, and the sun was already beating down as the clock passed ten a.m. Cars filled the parking lot of a nearby country church on a Sunday morning, and the sounds of a lawnmower mixed with the voice of an elderly woman calling out to a neighbor: “That passenger train is coming!”

Well, not just yet; I got there early to get my cameras set up and the shots blocked out.

Ever notice how looks run the gamut when you’re sitting trackside? Everything from a smile and a friendly wave to a sour, disapproving glare that makes you sarcastically think “that must be that famous Southern hospitality we hear so much about.”

Then someone stops, takes note of the cameras and says “what you takin’ pictures of?”

“Oh, a train’s coming in a bit.”

I learned early not to mention the steam part of it, as neither Canon or Nikon have yet to introduce a serviceable people filter.

After a while, a car with a couple of guys toting cameras pulled up.

“Hey! We saw you from the train yesterday. You were everywhere!”

Interesting, is it not, how a steam locomotive brings forth folks with cameras regardless of previous indoctrination to the language of four exhausts per revolution of drivers or the song of a chime whistle and the lingering smoky breath of the stack?

Before long, the sound of a six chime whistle drifted in from the west as the 630 crossed the Old Chattanooga Pike a mile-and-a-half distant. Momentarily a puff of smoke appeared as the approaching special neared the crest of a hill down the long straightaway.


Slowly she appeared; the stack, the silently swinging bell, the shimmering headlight on the silvered smokebox door. A cloud of steam erupted as she topped the hill, the sound of the whistle following moments later. Starting down the hill, the exhaust a gray haze as the engineer eased off on the throttle. She drifted downgrade, silently from our vantage point, until the train reached the bottom and again started to climb.


Fully into the hill, the stack erupted with sound as the engineer gave the 630 her head. With 57 inch drivers pounding and rods flailing, she stormed past with a roar of exhaust and a whistle screaming as if to say to the big boys “I was out here on the front lines long before YOU were even born, you young whipper-snappers!”


In a moment she was gone, a haze of coal smoke lingering lazily in her wake as a handful of fans sped away to catch the train in Cleveland.


630 passes through McDonald, Tennessee, with the last of four Cleveland bound trips.


Returning to Chattanooga with Saturday’s second train, 630 passes through a cut near Collegedale, Tennessee.


630 near Collegedale.


Coming right at you! 630’s last train of the weekend crosses Old Chattanooga Pike near Cleveland, Tennessee.

Story and photography by Mary Rae McPherson

Copyright 2013

Something Akin To A Visitation

October 26, 2012

It occurs to me that there is something inherently sad about a steam locomotive going cold for the last time.  Such a machine is as close to a living, breathing, entity as humanity has managed to piece together.  And when one of these magnificent creatures falls by the wayside, it is almost (pardon me for using one of the most overused words in vogue today) tragic.  The fire that is the life’s blood of such a creature is extinguished, and she slowly grows cold; the spark of life going out and leaving so much dead steel behind.

I was not around for the last gasp of steam in the old days.  I wasn’t there when the last New York Central Hudson ran its last mile, or the last Union Pacific Big Boy thundered out of Cheyenne, or the last Norfolk & Western Y filled the hollers of West Virginia with coal smoke and the song of a hoot whistle.  I may have missed the great extinction, but I have seen my share.

There were the ones that I missed.  I never got to see Norfolk & Western 611 in her excursion days, though she came painfully close to my neck of the woods.  I missed steamers on the French Lick, West Baden & Southern and the Whitewater Valley Scenic.  They fell by the wayside, almost before I knew they existed.

Then there were the ones of my acquaintance; locomotives I did manage to see before the spark of life that was a fire on the grates was extinguished.  I rode behind and chased Norfolk & Western 1218.  I spent a day in an almost futile attempt to keep ahead of the Cotton Belt 819 on Union Pacific’s racetrack down the Mississippi Valley in southern Illinois.  And of course, there was the Frisco 1522; the loudest locomotive I ever had the pleasure of listening to.

They all still exist, though stuffed and mounted they are a shadow of what they were.

Such things were on my mind as I pulled into Boone, Iowa, on an afternoon in May.  Near the depot and museum on the property of the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad is the resting place of the first steam locomotive to make my acquaintance; Crab Orchard & Egyptian #17.


#17 slumbers in the engine house at Marion

I was a youngster of ten when we first met.  She was slumbering that day, parked in her berth in the engine house in Marion, Illinois.  Those drivers looked HUGE through the window, and an employee was kind enough to open the doors so I could get a photo of her looking out.

I saw her run for the first time on my tenth birthday, and again twice more before I turned thirteen.  Of course, at that age things will always continue as they are.  Or so it seems.  A year and a quarter after I last saw her run, #17 lost that spark of life; a victim of a mechanical failure that would cost more to fix than the railroad was willing to spend on her.  But I never saw her before she left Marion.  My last image of her was of her sitting in front of the engine house, trailing a light haze of smoke into the late afternoon air of a warm June day as she waited to be bedded down in her stall for the night.


One of my first shots of steam in action: #17 switching cars in Marion on July 22, 1983

It was nearly twenty-seven years later that I pulled into the parking lot of the B&SV, pulled a camera out of the truck and walked to her resting place.  It was something akin to a visitation; there she lay looking something like she did in life but missing that essential spark that transformed her from an inanimate object into something more.  It was sad, really.  I had seen pictures of her on display of course, but they were not reality.  Well, not mine anyway.  No longer.  That last view of her, hot with fire in her belly and a haze of smoke rolling lazily into the sky, was now that of the lifeless shell of her former self.


#17 as she sits today; a lifeless shell of the locomotive I knew

I visited her for a while; remembering the deep steamboat whistle and the ever clanging bell as she shuffled cars around the tiny yard at Marion.  Remembering the day my grandmother and I stood behind the house and listened to the distant moan of the whistle on a winter day.  Noting some of the quirky modifications the C.O.& E. had made to the locomotive; things I had missed as a child on the cusp of adolescence.  Noting a few pieces of coal that had fallen between the tender and the locomotive.  Perhaps they had fallen from Chuck Roehm’s shovel all those years ago; he is now gone too, missed by those who knew him.

I wallowed in the melancholy for a bit, thinking back on days gone by as I stood next to the body of a long lost friend.  Much has transpired in the ensuing years, but there is nothing like the first experience of youth when everything is new and unexplored.  Sometimes it is good to reflect on such things.

Eventually I left the museum and headed to the hotel for the night.  By the next evening I would be in the cab of another steam locomotive; this one very much alive and one I had wanted to see since the time that I first made #17’s acquaintance.

I’m glad I got to stop by to see an old friend, but I rather think I would prefer to remember that last look at her decades ago when she was still animated with that spark of life.


In better days: C.O.& E. 2-8-0 #17 whistles for a crossing near Crainville, Illinois, in June, 1980 – George Redmond photo


Photos by Mary McPherson unless noted

Copyright 2012 – Mary Rae McPherson

Railroad Days In Monticello

September 20, 2011

In 2010, I visited the Monticello Railway Museum for the first time.  The attraction was the return of an operating steam locomotive to the museum’s stable of operating vintage power.

During that first visit, I shot the footage that would comprise the DVD “Southern Railway 2-8-0 #401: Return To Steam.”  Since then, I made two more visits while shooting sequences for another DVD called “Southern Steam Returns.”  I was so busy taking care of business (i.e. setting up shots, filming, setting up recording gear, etc.) that I may as well have watched the action on television.  Pretty much all the action was seen through the monitor on the camera.

This year’s Railroad Days in Monticello took place the weekend of September 17 and 18, and I had planned to go months in advance.  I had also been determined to NOT see the action through the backside of a video camera.  I wouldn’t be going without ANY gear of course; the trusty Cannon SLR would be my companion for this event.

Saturday morning, #401 backs away from the Nelson Crossing depot on the museum grounds.  You could say I paid for this shot… the blast of steam from the cylinder cocks as the engine backed by got my left side sopping wet and nearly blew my hat over the fence!

Later in the morning, #401 is backing through the yard near the Nelson Crossing depot and past an appreciative audience.

Four trains were running throughout the weekend.  One of the trains was a freight train with a pair of cabooses (cabeese?) for riders.  On the head end was Illinois Central GP11 #8733.  Passing I.C. SD40 #6071, the pair of black diesels brought to mind the railroad I lived along throughout the 1990s.

Wabash F-7 #1189 has just backed by with a train of heavyweight passenger cars.  The switch has been lined for the mainline and #401 gets underway for downtown Monticello.

The former Illinois Central trackage curves around the Camp Creek Yard.  Rounding the curve is Wabash #1189.

The cool thing about events like this is that you can find a spot, sit back, and watch the trains pass.  Rounding the curve and headed for Monticello is #401.  The shot was achieved by shooting at 1/15th second while panning with the front of the locomotive and backing off on the zoom lens.

From a dirt pile across the track from the museum’s Camp Creek Yard, Wabash #1189 heads toward Monticello.

Not long after, the freight train headed by Illinois Central #8733 passes.

In another action shot from the dirt pile, Southern Railway #401 passes on the way to Monticello.  From the looks of it, the train could be moving considerably faster than the 20 miles per hour it was actually doing.

Even at a museum, safety is paramount.  A few crew members felt the frog on a switch rode a bit rough.  During a lull between trains, a few museum members work on the offending frog.

Frog adjusted, a pair of volunteers watch closely as the first train backs over the switch.  It’s all good.

As the afternoon’s shadows begin to lengthen, the last steam train of the day heads toward downtown Monticello.

Here’s one for the museum volunteers who put in so much of their time to pull off an event like this.  In addition to the crews who run the trains and keep the track and equipment up to par, there are also those who work the gift shop and sell concessions to hungry and thirsty visitors.  As the last trains of the day return to Nelson Crossing, volunteers stand by for stragglers who may stop by for one last bag of popcorn; one last hot dog or another soda.

Congratulations to the folks in Monticello for another well run event.


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson.

Copyright 2011 – Mary Rae McPherson

Knoxville Time Warp

May 31, 2011

Southern Railway 2-8-0 comes to life

Fascinating it is when you find yourself in a situation where you cannot be totally sure you haven’t stepped into some sort of time warp.  I found myself in just such a situation Mother’s Day weekend.

I was in Knoxville, Tennessee, shooting video for a DVD on the three restored Southern Railway 2-8-0’s that have been returned to service in the last year.  Knoxville is home to the Three Rivers Rambler, which restored 1890 built #154 last summer.  #154 was under steam for the Saturday runs, which kicked off the 2011 operating season.

#154 moving through Knoxville

I drove down from Dongola first thing Friday morning to give myself a chance to scout the line before Saturday’s shoot.  That plan proved fortuitous for after scouting the line east of town, my downtown explorations were interrupted by the surprise arrival of #154.  It turned out the crew had decided a shake down run was in order, and I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

#154 makes a shake down run with freight cars tied to the tender... the right place at the right time

By the next afternoon, I had shot the unscheduled run and two regular runs.  There was still one shot I wanted to get; in the woods near the top of a 2% grade.  The location I was concentrating on was between the Riverside Drive overpass and a gravel crossing outside a small business.

The view from the Riverside Drive overpass

Having already checked with the crew about my intentions, I set off up the track with a back pack full of audio gear, two tripods, a camera bag and the hi-def video camera.  Doing my best pack mule impression, I crunched the ballast around the curve until I was about half way between the overpass and the gravel crossing where I had parked.

Knowing I had plenty of time to set up, I set a secondary camera on a tripod on the outside of the curve.  The primary camera went on another tripod inside the curve, while a third camera was mounted between the rails for an old-fashioned “suicide shot.”  Finally, the sound recording equipment went about twenty-five yards further around the curve; just far enough to avoid both the ill-timed crunch of a footstep or an unwanted on camera appearance.

Setting up the "suicide" camera

It wasn’t long before the sounds of #154 began to drift through the woods from downtown Knoxville.  Let it be said that #154 has one of the prettiest three chime whistles you would ever want to hear.  Let it also be said that the engineer this particular day knew just what to do with that whistle.  The sound of that distant whistle echoing through the hills was one that would bring a tear to your eye… assuming you are one to be moved by such things.

It was after hearing the whistling from downtown Knoxville that I realized that I was hearing nothing but the birds in the trees and the wind rustling through the leaves.  In today’s world, the sounds of modernity are so pervasive that they only seem to become notable in their absence.

Standing there in the woods along the jointed rail, there was nothing to stamp the moment as being 2011: no automobiles; no loud music; no buzzing electric lines or transformers; no jet planes; nothing but the sounds of nature and the occasional wail of the whistle.

At such times it is easy to think that this is exactly what I would have experienced had I stood in this same spot seventy, eighty, ninety years ago.  The realization is one that is very special for someone with a keen sense of history.  Even the intrusion of a single propeller airplane on approach to the nearby university runway doesn’t quite kill the mood: it could have happened.

But then before long the sound of #154 attacking the hill interrupts the daydream and it is time to get back to work; after all there is a video to shoot.  It’s back to the 21st century as I fire up the camera to nail one more scene for “Southern Steam Returns.”

#154 working upgrade in the woods near the top of the hill

And We’re Back

May 31, 2011

I went through a period of becoming somewhat prolific as a writer; the fruits of that often ending up on this site.  That mostly came to a screeching halt last July, when I decided to revive Diverging Clear Productions.

Diverging Clear had been dormant for several years due to a number of factors, and I had been considering the re-launch for some time before taking the plunge.

Suddenly the time I previously would have used for writing for “Along The Rails” was occupied by planning, shooting, writing and editing video and audio productions.  I set “Along The Rails” on the back burner, not wanting to use the blog as some form of shameless self-promotion.

Upon further review however, it seems to me that some of the projects I have been working on could prove to be fertile ground for “Along The Rails” without becoming little more than an overblown advertisement.

Recent trips have found me shooting steam in central Illinois and Tennessee, and more steam is in the immediate future.

Yes, I do believe that the two can not only co-exist, but can compliment.

Of course, if it drums up a little interest in a DVD or CD or two, I won’t complain.

Mary Rae McPherson

Special Edition: Video Of Southern Railway #401

October 31, 2010

A few weeks ago, I wrote about the return to steam of Southern Railway 2-8-0 #401. In addition to still photography, I spent the majority of the weekend shooting video for a project slated for release next year.

Here is a bit of a preview.

Mary Rae McPherson

Union Pacific In North Platte

October 23, 2010

Western Nebraska is sparsely populated. The Sand Hills in the north and the plains to the south are full of small, dusty towns; many of them not far removed from the image of the frontier cow town. Most of them serve as place to buy goods for those who live and work on the surrounding ranches and farms.

Many of these towns feature little more than a gas station / convenience store, a small grocery and general goods store, a post office, and a population somewhere in the low to mid hundreds.

Most of these towns grew up along the railroad; some along a mainline but many along a lightly trafficked branch. Most of those branches are long gone, a dusty trail choked with weeds in the center of town the only reminder of what was.

And then there is North Platte.

Chance has been good to North Platte. Its central location along the first transcontinental railroad made it the choice location when the Union Pacific Railroad needed to build a division town. Unlike many such towns throughout the years, North Platte only grew in importance as traffic boomed on lines to Chicago and Kansas City, the junction of which is located not far to the east.

The proximity to lines fanning out in multiple directions to the east, as well as the mainline and the coal line to the Powder River Basin diverging to the west, has kept traffic increasing over the years to the point that North Platte is now home to both the largest and busiest freight yard in the world as well as the busiest freight mainline on the planet.

Not bad for a hastily built tent city thrown up as “hell on wheels” passed through in the 1860s.

With good reason, Union Pacific is proud of North Platte. The railroad has long been aware of its unique place in American history, and has long been the most active Class I when it comes to preserving its own place in history. A pair of city parks make that case in fine fashion. Cody park is home to one of the railroad’s massive Challenger type steam locomotives.

4-6-6-4 #3977 is well cared for, dressed in the Greyhound passenger colors a number of oil burning Challengers wore when they worked in passenger service on the line to Portland, Oregon. Inspecting the locomotive up close, it appears an oil fire in her belly and water in the boiler would be all she needs to join sister #3985 out on the mainline; an illusion maybe, but it is a nice thought.

Next to #3977 is another Union Pacific icon, DD40AX “Centennial” diesel #6922. Named and numbered for the 100th anniversary of the completion of the transcontinental railroad, these eight axle, 6600 horsepower locomotives were only found on the Union Pacific. The unique design of these locomotives was also their undoing; being the equivalent of two locomotives on one frame resulted in the loss of two locomotives every time one was in the shop.

South of the railroad and in another city park, a second preserved locomotive rests behind a chain link fence. 2-8-0 #480 last ran in branch line service in Nebraska in the late fifties. Union Pacific saw fit to preserve this locomotive; giving a nod to the smaller power of an earlier era as well as the giants the railroad became known for in later years.

West of town lies Bailey Yard. Alongside is the Golden Spike Tower & Visitor Center. As you reach the edge of town, this tower looms in the distance above the cornfields that line the railroad. Even without directions it is easy to find; there it is, just drive that-a-way.

The center is owned and operated by a non-profit with the support of the Union Pacific. Admission is quite reasonable, giving access to the museum on the ground floor. Also on the ground floor is a gift shop chock full of Union Pacific related knick knacks, books and DVD’s (I left considerably poorer than when I entered).

The highlight of the center is found up in the tower. On the top floor is a glassed in viewing area overlooking the yard. The floor below that features an open air deck offering the best seat in the house to watch the goings on in the world’s largest freight yard.

The huge engine shop is located just west of the tower.

Northwest of the engine facility is the hump for eastbound traffic.

North of the tower is the westbound hump. In this photo, a loaded eastbound coal train passes nearest the camera. Behind that is a westbound empty coal train, a cut of yard power waiting to shove a cut of cars over the hump. In the background are runaround tracks for westbound coal and intermodal trains.

After visiting the tower, I headed to the west end of the yard. A public road crosses the tracks here, and as the sun set a westbound manifest passes below the signal bridge spanning the main tracks.

As the manifest begins its westbound trek into the sunset, another eastbound coal train approaches North Platte.


Author’s Note: This photo essay is another entry from my August trip through Nebraska and South Dakota.


Photos by Mary Rae McPherson except as noted.

Copyright 2010 – Mary Rae McPherson