When our new 100 Greatest Train Movies special came out last week, I had to smile when I got to page 39 and reflected on the movie that ranks No. 47 out of 100. That’s Disney’s “Great Locomotive Chase,” and I have first-hand knowledge of it because I grew up listening to my mother tell stories about its filming in my hometown of Franklin, N.C., a few years before I was born. The subject of the 1956 movie is the capture of the Confederate locomotive “The General” just north of Atlanta in what is now Kennesaw, Ga., but at the time was known as Big Shanty. Union spies working to disrupt transportation and communications between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn., took the locomotive on a harrowing ride in 1862, but they didn’t count on Western & Atlantic conductor William Fuller, who chased them in another 4-4-0 “Texas.” After a lengthy cat-and-mouse chase, the Andrews Raiders, named for the leader of the group, James J. Andrews, were captured after doing relatively little damage.
Now when Disney wanted to film the chase, the only railroad he could find that still looked the part was the Tallulah Falls Railway, a 57-mile-long railroad between Cornelia, Ga., and Franklin, the end of the line. Mom recalled that the presence of stars Fess Parker and Jeffery Hunter caused quite a stir in town. She also recalled that the movie kept the railroad going a few more years —the TF, or “Total Failure” to the cynics, lasted only until 1961. It must have been a sight to see the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad Museum’s “William Mason” portraying the part of “the General” in those red clay hills of the Little Tennessee River valley. Today, if you drive along U.S. 441 from Franklin south to Clayton, Ga., if you’re careful you can spot portions of the roadbed. So much of it has been developed and built upon, but if you know where to look you’ll find the spot where more than 50 years ago a great railroad movie was filmed.
I used to spend part of each summer with my grandparents in Chicago and in June 1956 "The Great Locomotive Chase" premiered. I think some of the stars even appeared at the opening in downtown Chicago. Grandpa said the crowds would be too big so we had to wait awhile before finally going to see it. Fess Parker was at the height of his popularity, coming off the five-part Davy Crockett series on Walt Disney's TV show in 1954-55. There was even a "Behind the Scenes With Fess Parker" episode shown May 30, 1956, with much on the rail filming. At the time they said they couldn't use the real General 4-4-0 because of its age and condition. Then to everyone's surprise the L&N restored it for operation in the early 1960s for the Civil War Centennial. But the film really captured the look of the 1860s. I'm sure that was easier to pull off in the rural South of the mid-1950s than it would be today.