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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

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Audio Field Recorder permalink
    July 21, 2011 3:45 pm

    I can just hear that lovely ‘barking’ sound from the locomotive as it hauls the loaded train up the grade…you make me so jealous – I would love to hear that audio recording!

  2. July 21, 2011 4:18 pm

    Have no fear, it’ll be on a CD from Diverging Clear (she winces).

    Seriously, the audio from that day in Knoxville along with audio from two weekends at the Monticello Railway Museum and the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum will make up a CD called “Sounds Of Steam, Volume 4.”


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