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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!
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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

3 Comments leave one →
  1. permalink
    September 28, 2013 4:33 pm

    This is so true

    Sua Sponte


  2. Brigid permalink
    October 2, 2013 6:35 pm

    Thanks Mary Rae

  3. Norris Thompson permalink
    November 4, 2013 12:44 pm

    I wish you had time to do a story every week. Just reading your articles makes a person feel as though they are right there along side of you. And then you throw in the pictures which are fabulous.I really appreciate the time and effort that you put into this endeavor . Thanks again. An Old Railfan

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