A tale of two Consolidations

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Friday, April 22, 2011

Once upon a time, two Southern Railway Consolidations escaped the torch when diesels came to replace them. One of them found itself on display in a park near the zoo in Knoxville, Tenn. The other went to work for a shortline railroad, and then its old railroad wanted it back as a rolling ambassador for the company on excursion trains. The one in the park weathered the years, a spectacle to those who came to visit but otherwise ignored, while the other one gained fame as a link to the past for those who rode or saw her. But, alas, this new life wasn't to last long: her keepers determined she was too small, too old, and mechanically too troublesome to keep running on the main line with regularity. Her former railroad loaned her and later donated her to a good home, Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn. The one in Knoxville, No. 154, got a second chance at running when the local shortline holding company, Gulf & Ohio Railways, struck a deal with the park two years ago to free her and restore her, which they did last July. The one in Chattanooga ran at the museum until 1989, then went into storage until the museum began her restoration 13 years ago. That engine, No. 630, rolled again under its own power last month.

On a recent weekend, I had the amazing good fortune to visit both engines under steam, No. 154 on a Saturday, and No. 630 on the next day. To a steam fan whose favorite railroad is Southern, these were two days on par with a Super Bowl, a World Series, or a Daytona 500. The sun shone on both these engines as they carried out different roles: No. 154 pulled a short chartered freight consist for a handful of dedicated photographers; No. 630 settled into her role as the sole steam power at Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, shuttling back and forth between the East Chattanooga and Grand Junction depots. 

No. 154 is an ancient engine, built in 1890 for a Southern predecessor from these parts, the East Tennessee, Virginia & Georgia. That predates the Southern's formation by four years. Today, she is modern and ancient at once: A brake wheel on the back of the tender, roller bearing trucks under the tender, and a 26 brake make her safe and reliable for operation, while she still sports a rectangular front number plate mounted flush against her smokebox door, slide valves, and a boiler that protrudes to the back of the cab deck. She looks at home on Knoxville's Three Rivers Rambler tourist train route that parallels the Tennessee River from Volunteer Landing in downtown Knoxville to an industrial park just north of town, passing over the line's trademark bridge the confluence of the Holston and French Broad Rivers, where the Tennessee River begins, thus giving the operation its name.  The engine runs at 150 pounds of boiler pressure and fires well with a slight heel in the back of the firebox, her crew says. 

No. 630 is a bit larger than 154 and a bit newer, a 1904 product of Alco's Richmond, Va., plant. She too got a handbrake (well hidden in the cab, I might add) on a new welded tender that cleverly sports fake rivet heads to maintain its historic look (the tender, by the way, is mounted on stablemate 4501's tender frame that came with the engine to TVRM in 1964). A 26 brake was set carefully into her cab, which is finished in varnished wood paneling. Temperature sensors will be installed to monitor the drivers, and an event recorder will be part of the package before the engine sees duty with Norfolk Southern as part of steam operations for the Class I railroad. The engine steams at 190 pounds of boiler pressure, and likes a horseshoe-shaped heel at the back of its firebox as well. In the time since No. 630 came out of the shop almost a month ago, TVRM has put nearly 200 miles on her with little trouble, a tribute to the craftsmanship of the museum shop forces, especially Shane Meador and Al Phillips. 

So, there's my Southern steam fantasy come to life. Some of the guys who were with me for the weekend were headed to Monticello, Ill., to the Monticello Railway Museum for a hat trick: To find Southern 2-8-0 No. 401 and keep the streak going. I guess you can never get enough of Southern steam. No, you can't. 

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