As far as steam engines go, the scrappy Southern Railway 630 locomotive is on the small side, but from 1904 to the 1960s, it was prized for its ability to keep rolling over hills, through tunnels and across shaky bridges.
But the little engine that could has seen better days. Mothballed for nearly 20 years, its flat-black boiler no longer bubbles, its headlight is off and its whistle is quiet as it sits beneath humming fluorescent warehouse lights at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.
But old No. 630 won't be silent forever. Every day -- one piece at a time -- Shane Meador and a crew of seven or so men bring the locomotive back to life. The work is tedious. Volunteers and experts like Meador and his crew have rebuilt nearly every part of the 100-year-old engine, and they hope to power it up for tourists by spring.
Staff Photo by Angela Lewis/Chattanooga Times Free Press David Pugh, left, and Charles Walker walk past a steam-powered locomotive while working on it Thursday at the Tennessee Valley Railroad shop.
"For me, it sometimes seems like the work is going slowly, but when you come in and see progress and you see the train coming together, it's a real motivation to keep going," Meador said.
In truth, work on the train has been going on for 10 years or more. No. 630 needed massive repairs to everything from the frame and running gear to the boiler and even the lighting. In all, the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum expects to spend $500,000 to get the steam engine back on the tracks.
The work is being paid for by museum donors and visitors. Norfolk Southern donated the antique locomotive and gave Meador a leave of absence from his full-time job as a Chattanooga-based railroad machinist to work on the engine.
Once work is complete, the commercial rail line plans to borrow No. 630 for special events, but the locomotive mostly will be used in Chattanooga for tourist excursions from the museum.
"Steam engines are noisy and big; they're romantic and they draw a crowd," said Bill Schafer, director of strategic planning for Norfolk Southern, who also sits on the museum's board. "We are proud of our railroad, its history and employees. We want to showcase that."
At one time, there were more than 2,000 Southern Railway steam locomotives on tracks all over the region, Schafer said. There were more than 200 just like No. 630 in the railway's fleet.
But most rail lines switched from steam power to diesel in the late 1950s and 1960s, and almost all steam engines were scrapped. Southern Railway and Norfolk and Western Railway merged in 1982.
Today, there are fewer than 15 surviving Southern Railway steam locomotives as well as 400 other older rail cars and equipment, according to the Southern Railway Historical Association. The Southern Railway 1401, a glossy green locomotive with gold trim, is on display at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.
Steam locomotive engines gave way to diesel in the 1950s. Now only eight Southern Railway coal-powered engines are on public display.
No. 154: Chilhowee Park, Knoxville
No. 401: Monticello Railway Museum, Monticello, Ill.
No. 542: North Carolina Transportation Museum, Spencer, N.C.
No. 630: Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, Chattanooga
No. 722: Great Smoky Mountain Railway, Bryson City, N.C.
No. 1401: Smithsonian Institution, Washington, D.C.
No. 1509: Southeastern Railway Museum, Duluth, Ga.
No. 4501: Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, Chattanooga
Source: Southern Railway Historical Association
Restoring No. 630 comes at a good time. The museum's No. 610 steam engine, a former U.S. Army locomotive, has only days before it must be retired for repairs. Federal law requires that steam engines be used for only 1,472 days before having the boilers broken down for repairs.
Once No. 630 is in service, crews will turn their attention to a third steam engine, No. 4501, which needs repairs, too, said Steve Freer, a spokesman for the museum.
"In a perfect world, we would work on the 610, too, and have them all in service for our 50th anniversary next year," Freer said.
Last week, Meador and his crew finished insulating No. 630's boiler. Previously, the steam-powered engine underwent pressure testing with the Federal Railroad Administration standing by.
The museum had hoped to have the engine in service by this winter, but the work has taken longer than expected, Freer said. It should undergo final tests after the holidays and be ready for tourists no later than the spring, he said.
The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum owns the largest collection of former Southern Railway cars, engines and cabooses, according to the Southern Railway Historical Association. And when No. 630 goes back into service, it will enter a small club of working steam engines.
"There just really aren't that many running around the country," Freer said. "That's why we are so excited to get this running again."
Contact staff writer Adam Crisp at acrisp@timesfree press.com or 423-757-6323. Follow him on Twitter at twitter.com/adam_crisp.
Adam Crisp covers education issues for the Times Free Press. He joined the paper's staff in 2007 and initially covered crime, public safety, courts and general assignment topics. Prior to Chattanooga, Crisp was a crime reporter at the Savannah Morning News and has been a reporter and editor at community newspapers in southeast Georgia. In college, he led his student paper to a first-place general excellence award from the Georgia College Press Association. He earned ...