A bright future for Nashville’s “Dixie” 4-8-4

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, April 19, 2019

Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis 4-8-4 576, now undergoing an improbable restoration after decades in a Nashville park, looked like this when it was built in 1942. George Witham
There are so many large steam locomotives being restored today, it’s enough to make your head spin. Maybe that’s why I felt a bit light-headed this week as I veered off I-26 in Nashville and took the exit for Hermitage Avenue. I was on my way to see what, for my money, is one of the more promising such projects: the revival of Nashville, Chattanooga & St. Louis 4-8-4 No. 576.

It didn’t take long to find the engine, safely ensconced inside an open-sided shelter on the grounds of the Tennessee Central Railway Museum. Here, the engine’s owners, the Nashville Steam Preservation Society, Inc., have a safe, secure, and spacious facility to pursue a dream.  

My host was Joey Bryan, the Society’s communications manager. He’s a young guy who missed the heyday of the NC&StL 4-8-4s by several decades, but his dedication to the cause was palpable. His Dixie Line bona fides are pretty good, too — his great-grandfather, Robert Williams Orr, clerked in the railroad’s general offices. 

During our short visit, Bryan and I chatted about the Society’s vision for restoring and running their 4-8-4, a project that likely will take anywhere from three to four years. They’ve already made a fair amount of progress after removing the 576 in January from Nashville’s Centennial Park, where it had been on display since 1953. On the way to being towed to its current site in March, the engine made a brief stop adjacent to the Nashville Union Station hotel for some memorable photographs.

Progress on the 576 is visible, thanks to an unusually large group of volunteers. Even on a Thursday morning, more than a half-dozen showed up for work. Evidence of their efforts are visible everywhere: the cab has been removed, likely to be replaced with a new one; boiler jacket sections have been numbered, to be used for patterns for a new jacket; most of the engine’s appliances are off for repairs; the stoker has been removed and the engine and tender separated. 

The 576 restoration team has chosen royalty, or more accurately perhaps, royalty chose them. “Royalty” might sound like an exaggeration to those who admire larger 4-8-4s — these engines were among the smallest of the wheel arrangement built in the U.S. — but the 20 members of NC&StL’s J3 class were successful by any measure. 

By the time the NC&StL retired its last remaining Dixie type to Nashville's Centennial Park in the 1950s, the engine had lost its running board skirts and nose cowling, but its boiler retained its uncluttered appearance. Bob Krone
I became fascinated by these machines decades ago when I picked up an old copy of Trains and stumbled across one of David P. Morgan’s more memorable steam stories, “Gliders, Yellow Jackets, and Stripes,” a full-dress study of the J3s in December 1963. Morgan was a southerner, of course, and might be expected to hold these engines in high regard, but he made a convincing case for what were known as Dixies; in Tennessee, the usual 4-8-4 designation “Northern” just wouldn’t do.  

Morgan’s main thesis was that the Yellow Jackets and Stripes — the two nicknames corresponded to two iterations of modest “streamstyling” — were quintessential war machines, born in the crucible of World War II. As the conflict descended on the U.S., NC&StL concluded it could keep up with surging traffic only by acquiring more power, despite the fact the railroad already had 10 J2-class 4-8-4s from 1930. President Fitzgerald Hall decided the need had become desperate, so he appealed to NC&StL’s owner, Louisville & Nashville. 

Hall got the OK he wanted from L&N. Arriving during 1942-43 in two orders from Alco, the J3 engines performed heroically. There’s no other way to put it. They were quintessential dual-service machines. With their 70-inch drivers, they could dig into any kind of freight train NC&StL was running, but also perform effectively in passenger service. 

Morgan’s research yielded two impressive facts: the first group of J3s, which includes the 576, doubled NC&StL’s 1940 ton-mile production and quadrupled its passenger miles. Their impact was especially critical along the 151.7 miles of the Chattanooga Division, between Nashville and Chattanooga, including the 1.5 percent grade over Raccoon Mountain and a 2.5 percent grade over Cumberland Mountain. As Morgan put it, “NC required locomotives which would work freight and passenger trains interchangeably, make time, and keep their feet in the mountains.”

The Dixies also benefitted from a host of refinements that had come along since those first 4-8-4s of 1930, including one-piece cast engine frames with integral cylinders, roller bearings on all axles, and lateral driving boxes on the first two driving axles. Engine crews grew to love those driving boxes so much they called their charges “Gliders,” for the way they slid into the NC&StL’s countless curves. 

Nashville Steam Preservation Society Communications Manager Joey Bryan (right) and Volunteer Coordinator Jeff Brisendine stand by the pilot beam of No. 576. Kevin P. Keefe
There’s another thing striking about the 576 and her sisters: that smooth, clean boiler, nearly bereft of most of the usual pumps, pipes, and other appurtenances. This was the brainchild of NC Superintendent of Machinery C. M. Darden, who dictated that the engine frames include brackets to carry below what otherwise would have been external piping up on the boiler. Wrote Morgan: “Darden believed that a boiler should be just that, a steam generator — not a wall to tack on everything including the kitchen sink.”

Darden’s approach was clearly visible as I strolled around the 576. The boiler is amazingly smooth in appearance, almost British. As I peered down below it and saw evidence of all the semi-internal piping, I couldn’t help but wonder why more railroads didn’t take the same approach. All those clean lines served to highlight the 576’s handsome set of Boxpok drivers. 

The Nashville Steam Preservation Society has a long road ahead. The boiler must be rebuilt, the running gear refurbished, all those parts and appliances repaired or replaced. There’s a ton of work waiting for volunteers and, no doubt, some contractors. Fund-raising will remain Job One for quite some time. 

Still, the Society can be proud of what they’ve accomplished so far, negotiating the acquisition of the 576 from the city, getting it moved, and nurturing good relationships with both their landlord, the Tennessee Central museum, and their presumptive operator, the short line Nashville & Eastern. On top of that, the city of Watertown, located 42 miles east of Nashville on the N&E, was the recipient of a surprising bit of largesse from CSX — donation of a 110-foot ex-NC&StL turntable from Atlanta. The 576 must have ridden that very same table hundreds of times, and it may yet again. 

The pieces are in place. The strategic mission makes eminent sense. The engine is a beauty. When I compile a list of all the locomotive restoration projects worthy of support, I’m compelled to put the Nashville Steam Preservation Society and 4-8-4 576 near the top. 

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