Reading 2124 was a scene stealer

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Friday, May 15, 2020

Reading T-1 4-8-4 No. 2124 stands on her mark at Central of New Jersey's Jersey City Terminal during filming of From the Terrace in December 1959. Don Wood
I’m easily drawn to the intersection of railroads and movies, especially now with so much time at home. No NBA, no baseball, worn down by pandemic news — I’m ripe for seeing trains on the big screen. If it’s a film I haven’t seen before, even better.

That’s why page 9 in the May 1960 issue of Trains magazine caught my eye. Headlined “20th Century-Fox Stars 4-8-4,” the brief photo story shows the platforms of a big-city station and the arrival of Reading 4-8-4 No. 2124, there to perform in a scene from the new movie From the Terrace, a drama starring Paul Newman, Joanne Woodward, and Myrna Loy. More on the movie in a moment.

As you can see in the surrounding photos — taken in December 1959 by the inimitable Don Wood — the 2124’s appearance is interesting on several counts. For one thing, the story line places the action at Philadelphia’s Reading Terminal, although anyone who’s been to the real thing at 1115 Market Street knows these pictures were made somewhere else. Instead, the filmmakers were obligated to shoot at Jersey City Terminal, where more generous clearances allowed for the use of the fat-boilered 4-8-4.

Worth considering is the fame 2124 was enjoying at this point, deep in the twilight of its career. The Reading Company built 30 in the T-1 class in 1945–47, using repurposed boilers from I-10sa 2-8-0s, and the new engines became emblematic of the railroad. Four were saved, and the 2124 along with sisters 2100 and 2102 starred in the railroad’s Iron Horse Rambles, which ran all over the system from 1959 into 1964. No one could say the Reading didn’t drop its fires in spectacular fashion. The caption in May 1960 Trains said the 4-8-4 was scheduled for seven trips later that year. (The fourth T-1, No. 2101, wasn’t used on the Rambles, but fronted the American Freedom Train and Chessie Steam Special in the ’70s.)

Sporting a floral garland and a banner proclaiming her the 'Biggest Star of the Year,' 2124 poses with actresses Joanne Woodward (left) and Myrna Loy during a break in filming. Don Wood
I also couldn’t help but admire the way the 2124 held up that day in comparison to its two glamorous co-stars, Joanne Woodward and Myrna Loy, who climbed on the pilot beam and held the director’s clapboard under the flower-bedecked headlight. Miss Loy’s fur coat looks like it’s worth a fortune, but, in my mind, she’s upstaged by the T-1, wearing a fresh coat of its own in deep, shiny black.

Fans of the Reading 4-8-4s will be happy to know that the 2124 is practically the first thing anyone sees in the movie. The opening scene is at the station. But don’t look away, because engine and train are on screen for only a few moments. Note the way the production designer tried to disguise Jersey City for Philly, with its train board announcing the “Schuylkill Express” and a billboard promoting the Philadelphia Daily News newspaper. 

The engine’s all-too-brief appearance reminded me of other movies that offered only tantalizing glimpses of notable steam locomotives. I’m thinking here of Grand Trunk Western 2-8-2 No. 4070 in The Natural and Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 in Public Enemies. “Hey, hold it, more engine please!”

Back to the 2124: The promise of seeing the T-1 in this movie sent me to Amazon Prime, where you can rent From the Terrace for just $3.99.

The film crew installed train signs and advertisements to enable Jersey City to assume the role of Philadelphia. In casting a Reading engine as the power for a Pottsville–Philadelphia train, From the Terrace came closer to authenticity than some films. Don Wood 
How was it? Frankly, I found it tedious. The story is adapted from John O’Hara’s novel of the same name, tracking the fortunes of wealthy, upper-crust families whose adult children make an art form out of bad decisions, fueled by alcohol and implied sex. Nothing wrong with that formula — O’Hara wrote other similar bestsellers such as Appointment in Sumarra and Butterfield 8 — but in the hands of director Mark Robson, From the Terrace devolves into overcooked soap opera.

It’s especially hard to watch Woodward and Newman — actors of rare nuance and obvious chemistry — bludgeon their way through this script. If you love watching them work together, you’re far better off with Martin Ritt’s Paris Blues from 1961 or the Merchant/Ivory masterpiece Mr. and Mrs. Bridge from 1990.

Meanwhile, two other stars of From the Terrace are still around, which is a minor miracle. The Richardsonian Romanesque head house of Jersey City Terminal, a.k.a. Central of New Jersey Terminal or Communipaw, was renovated years ago and is incorporated into Liberty State Park. The station’s magnificent Bush trainshed still stretches out behind, although in a semi-derelict state.

And what of No. 2124? It’s doing fine, thank you, preserved as part of the collection at the Steamtown National Historic Site in Scranton. Its Reading Rambles sisters are extant as well, with 2101 at the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore, 2102 undergoing a restoration by owner Reading, Blue Mountain & Northern Railroad and the 2100 experiencing the same at the American Steam Railroad in Cleveland. With any luck, we’ll see the latter two in steam before long. Now that will be worth a movie. 

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