A century of steam: Rare locomotive built in 1911 has been reborn following three-year restoration

A century of steam: Rare locomotive built in 1911 has been reborn following three-year restoration

September 6th, 2014 by Lynda Edwards in Local Regional News

The 4501 steams up as it sits outside the shop at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum on Thursday. The restoration of this 1911 steam engine has taken years, and TVRM officials hope to have it in service for the first time since 1998 at Railfest this weekend.

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

Shane Meador, left, and Jason Sobczynski use a large wrench as they and other volunteers at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum put finishing touches on the 4501 on Tuesday.

Shane Meador, left, and Jason Sobczynski use a...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.

The number 4501 is seen on the hopper of the 1911 steam engine 4501 on Wednesday, Sept. 3, 2104, in Chattanooga, Tenn. The complete restoration of this 1911 steam engine has taken years to accomplish, and TVRM officials hope to have it in service for the first time since 1998 at Railfest this weekend.

The number 4501 is seen on the hopper...

Photo by John Rawlston /Times Free Press.


What: Railfest

When: 9 a.m.-5 p.m. today, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Sunday

Where: Tennessee Valley Railway Museum, 4119 Cromwell Road

Admission: $20 adults, $15 children per day (extra charge for some activities)

More information: www.tvrail.com


1911: The 4501 is built for Southern Railway to haul freight.

1948: Southern Railway sells the 4501 to the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway, which uses it to haul coal.

1961: Paul Merriman and David Soule found Chattanooga's Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum.

1964: Merriman buys the 4501 and brings it to the museum. Staff and volunteers rehab engine.

1967: The 4501 excursions begin. Chattanoogans and tourists visit Birmingham, Knoxville, Huntsville, Crossville, etc.

1998: Boiler certificate for 4501 expires and the locomotive is retired.

2003: Johnny Cash's dark and brilliant "Hurt" music video introduces the country legend to a new generation seven months before his death. The video features a clip of a younger, healthy Man in Black joyfully riding in the 4501 cab.

2009: A group of museum supporters pays $10,000 for a boiler assessment for 4501.

2011: Restoration begins

2014: Restoration completed. The rehabbed 4501 meets new and old fans.

Source: Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum spokesman Ken Freer

Like thoroughbreds, steam locomotives can trace their bloodlines back through history.

The 4501 is a mighty Mikado, a different sort of iron horse than those that American children know from "The Polar Express."

The 4501 does not sport a jaunty cowcatcher. Instead, it is armed with a metal wedge "pilot" designed for crushing stalled jalopies and debris such as fallen trees.

This locomotive is a sleek behemoth, built for power, not for speed, able to haul timber and coal across mountains and states at a time before paved interstate highways existed. It hauled Kentucky coal with exotic brand names like Golden Pheasant and Scarlet Tanager.

A local train buff saved the 4501 from scrap to gave it new life as an excursion train. Those 4501 day trips became favorite family treats for thousands of Chattanoogans. The locomotive was retired in 1998, left to bake in the sun and be battered by frost, wind and time.

But today, visitors can see the 4501 reborn as a Chattanooga tourist attraction at the Tennessee Valley Railway Museum's Railfest celebration. In addition to the restored 4501, there will be live music, magic shows, pony rides, model railroads, food vendors and a chance to climb aboard vintage passenger cars.

For the past three years, devoted staff and volunteers worked to restore the 4501 to its former splendor. On Thursday, they finished covering the train in onyx black paint with windows trimmed in crimson and a gold 4501 on the sides.

"The paints were duplicated directly from the 4501's original manufacturer's color card," said contractor Jason Sobczynski. "If workers from 1911 came aboard this 4501, they would recognize it."

There is one change that a former 4501 fireman would appreciate. Firemen once shoveled coal into the train's furnace to power the engine. Remember "The Little Engine That Could?" It was actually the fireman who did -- frantically shovel coal to get that little engine up a steep incline.

"We installed a mechanical stoker that was common in the 1920s," museum train repairman Mike Ray said. "It moves the coal; the fireman just sits in a chair and pushes some buttons."

As the 4501's new debut neared, volunteers toiled on the train in the museum's roundhouse where enormous fans barely dented the hot, humid, leaden air. Yet the men seemed as cheerful as kids awaiting birthday cake.

The "Trains Magazine Worldwide Webcam" sits in the corner, capturing every second of the days leading to 4501's Railfest unveiling. For rail buffs, the 4501 is a piece of romantic U.S. history, one of only eight surviving Southern Railway steam locomotives. (The museum also houses a Southern Railway 630, which is smaller than the 4501 and picture-book cute).

Southern Railway retired the 4501 from hauling freight back in 1948, and the Kentucky & Tennessee Railway promptly bought it to haul coal from mines. World War II made swift transport of troops and cargo so crucial, most railway lines switched over to diesel engines in the 1940s. But K&T used the 4501 until 1964, when it was rescued from the scrapyard by Chattanooga's Paul Merriman, a DuPont Chemical Co. engineer who co-founded the railroad museum in 1961.

Merriman loved steam locomotion so much, he built himself a small steam-powered fishing boat that he took out on rivers and lakes.

"Paul drove this old beat-up VW bug and didn't care about cars but, man, he loved that steamboat; that steamboat is where his heart was," museum staffer Steve Freer remembered, laughing.

When the 4501 rolled along the rails to Chattanooga back in 1964, Merriman was thrilled to see people lining both sides of the track, waving and taking photos. Soon the nonprofit museum and Southern Railway teamed up to create 4501 day trips to Huntsville to see the space rockets, to Oak Ridge to visit the atomic energy museum and Birmingham and Crossville for fall foliage leaf peeping.

Those trips were a beloved part of Freer's boyhood. His father would volunteer to shovel coal on the 4501 while he and his brother carried boxes of souvenirs through the cars for passengers to buy.

"Southern Railway retired from the excursions in 1994 but the museum continued to sponsor them until 1998 when the boiler certificate expired," Freer said.

The train sat at the museum until 2009, when a group of donors paid $10,000 to give the 4501 a boiler assessment, a complex process that involves sonar technology and federal inspectors. Museum supporters, with Southern Railway chipping in, agreed to pay for restoration. Veteran volunteers like white-haired John Boothby (who jokes that he devotes as many hours to the 4501 as his wife will allow) were joined by a new generation of railway buffs.

Travis Gordon, 20, was a teenage volunteer when he began helping restore the 4501. He proved so valuable he was hired as a staffer. He looked crisp and cool despite the hot Thursday weather in his historically accurate conductor's uniform as he helped tourists onto the museum's passenger train.

Even his accessories were accurate period pieces -- cap with brass nameplate, pocket watch and a small metal pin shaped like a steam locomotive. The pin is the size of airline pilots' wings and so detailed, it has a small steam cloud puffing from the smokestack. It was a gift from his high school band leader, whose father-in-law, a railway employee, won the pin for outstanding job performance.

"Some of the 4501's parts are no longer manufactured, so we had to make them in the museum's work shop; we examined them, then reverse-engineered them," Gordon said. "It was hard work but I loved learning about the 4501's history."

Today, the 4501 will meet potential new fans even younger than Gordon. Freer is bringing his 9-year-old son to Railfest. Other staff and volunteers are bringing grandchildren and kids.

And a new wave of Chattanooga children may be able to enjoy 4501 excursions next year. Norfolk Southern has promised to make 4501 day trips part of 21st Century Steam, its slate of steam locomotive day trips for wanderers who want to see mountains, rivers and forest you just can't glimpse through a car window.

Contact staff writer Lynda Edwards at 757-6391 or ledwards@timesfreepress.com.