Two Superstar Steam Locomotives and their new Documentaries

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, October 11, 2016

A recent Saturday morning was cloudy and rainy here in southeastern Wisconsin. It was the perfect morning to watch new documentary videos about two of the superstar mainline excursion steam locomotives of our time: Norfolk & Western 611 and Southern Railway 4501. Both locomotives are significant, and both deserve the kind of treatments that videographers Rex Teese (611) and Evan Lofback (4501) have devoted to them. I was glad I took the time to watch.

If you’ve ever wanted to follow a steam locomotive restoration from beginning to end, then Teese’s “611, American Icon” is an insider’s look at the process, details, and care that go into taking a modern 4-8-4 that was put away in good shape and bringing it back to life in under a year. That is still an amazing feat – No. 611 had gone out of service before the new 1,472-day inspection rules came into effect. And that is one big boiler. Thankfully, it’s an incredibly capable boiler. Professional videographer Teese intersperses No. 611’s history – its 1950 construction, 9-year passenger career, first excursion career (1982-1994) ­­­- with the story of the 2015 restoration. His camera crews were on hand for some of the most tedious work – Gary Bensman overseeing the installation of a rear tube sheet, Bob Yuill carefully checking and repairing superheater units, Tom Mayer firing up the engine for the first time, and the omni-present Scott Lindsay overseeing it all. I particularly loved the views from camera attached to the shop worker chosen to go inside the nosecone to attach it to the smokebox front because he was the smallest of the workers present. The “going home” theme resonates as 611 returns to Virginia and former Norfolk Southern Chairman Wick Moorman praises all of those responsible for the restoration. Roanoke, Va., craftsmanship is evident in scene after scene, and you can’t help but think that No. 611 is the right engine to tell that tale, and that that the Virginia Museum of Transportation certainly made a daring but right choice with its 2013 decision to rebuild the locomotive once again.

In “And Then There was One,” amateur video producer Lofback rises to the occasion to tell the story of Southern Railway’s first Mikado, No. 4501, the steam engine largely credited with launching Southern and later Norfolk Southern into steam-powered public relations. It’s the story of two men, Paul Merriman and Bob Soule, appreciating disappearing steam in the late 1950s and early 1960s and then making a fateful decision: We have to do something to save something and keep it running. Emphasis on the We … they were two lone horsemen with no pattern prior to them to guide the way. They just acted in the only way they knew how. So, Merriman buys the engine from the Kentucky & Tennessee short line with no idea how to get it home to Chattanooga, but then blunders into a major stroke of luck when Southern’s Graham Claytor Jr., then VP-law, intervenes to make the trip possible. Of course, the engine’s journey to its new home is just the beginning of the struggles, and the following 52 years are filled with hard work, the triumph of miles of smiles, more hard work on the part of owner Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum folks, more travels – from Jacksonville to New Orleans, to Wisconsin, and back to Alexandria, Va., more hard work and the 2011 decision to rebuild the engine. Again, TVRM made a bold decision, and we’re all the beneficiaries of it.

While No. 611’s video shines thanks to its highly professional polish, Lofback’s video also sparkles with its depth and appreciation for the subject. Neither videographer held back: No. 611 is 83 minutes, and No. 4501 is 93 minutes. I cannot blame them. Both locomotives have national and international followings, and both stories are worth telling again and again. When the history of American railway preservation is written 100 years from now, these two locomotives and these two documentaries will be held up as landmarks.  

You can watch the 4501 video in its entirety here: You can see a trailer for 611 here:

And you can buy copies from the gift shops at the respective museums, which supports the continued operation of both of these legends of steam. VMT also offers online shopping at A 611 DVD is $25 and a Blu-ray is $33.

And don't forget, another veteran of Norfolk Southern excursions, Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765, was the subject of an excellent 2014 documentary on the Berkshire that's been polishing eastern rails since 1980.

Check out its preview here:

And buy it here.



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