Another appointment in Anniston

Posted by Kevin Keefe
on Thursday, January 21, 2021

Thousands descended on Anniston, Ala., on November 2, 1969, for a unique gathering of iron horses: Southern 2-8-2 4501, Savannah & Atlanta 4-6-2 750, and the star whose visit inspired the event, British 4-6-2 Flying Scotsman. William J. Husa Jr.
The route for our road trip last week was straight and simple: head south from Milwaukee for Panama City Beach, Fla., stick to Interstate 65 most of the way, stay on schedule, no detours. 

Then I spotted a change in plan. There, 64 miles east of Birmingham off Interstate 20, sat the city of Anniston, Ala., glaring up at me from Google maps. I knew I had to make a brief stop. Surely our relatives in Florida would understand.

Anniston! That town has been calling to me off and on for 50 years, ever since I encountered one of Editor David P. Morgan’s more memorable alliterative headlines. I was a freshman at a small Michigan college, ensconced in my dorm room and reading the February 1970 issue of Trains. “Appointment in Anniston,” it said in script across pages 20-21.

What followed was a typically memorable D.P.M. story, part report from the field, part rumination on steam’s enduring appeal. He was covering the now-famous November 2, 1969, gathering at Anniston of three mainline steam locomotives: Southern Railway 2-8-2 No. 4501, Savannah & Atlanta 4-6-2 No. 750, and the true star of the show, London & North Eastern 4-6-2 No. 4472, better known by its name, Flying Scotsman. The latter was deep into its memorable tour of the U.S., organized by the engine’s owner, Alan Pegler, and hauling an exhibition train touting British exports.

Southern Railway boss — and dyed-in-the-wool steam fan —   W. Graham Claytor Jr. addresses the crowd from the rear of a business car during the event. Harold A. Edmonson
Much of the credit for the gathering goes to W. Graham Claytor Jr., then Southern’s president and, more importantly, the nation’s leading unapologetic champion of steam. Aware that the Scotsman would be using SR rails from Atlanta to Meridian, Miss., for one leg of its trip, Claytor decreed that Anniston would be the perfect place to make a little history.

The owners of the other two engines were more than happy to comply. So, over from Birmingham came the green-and-gold 4501, owned at the time by Paul H. Merriman of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM) and a regular performer on SR rails. The inbound trip was sponsored by the Heart of Dixie, Muscle Shoals, and Tennessee Valley Chapters, NRHS. Convoying with the Scotsman out of Atlanta would be the 750, then owned by the Atlanta Chapter, NRHS. (Remember when NRHS chapters sprung up across the south like kudzu?)

Anniston had never seen anything like it, judging by the photos taken that day. The three locomotives lined up in a staggered formation in the small yard, drawing thousands of onlookers. Dignitaries gave speeches from the back platform of SR business car 400, New River. Bagpipers piped and Alabamans served up barbecue. And there was nary a diesel in sight, thank you very much.

Morgan, a southerner himself, must have been in heaven that afternoon, especially in the company of his beloved 4501, about which he’d just written a book. But this time he saved his most pointed prose for the 4472. An Anglophile to the core, D.P.M. had a deep appreciation for the Scotsman, given its lineage as a product of the great designer Sir Nigel Gresley and the locomotive works at Doncaster. Morgan noted that 4472 was the first locomotive to “officially” break the 100-mph barrier, on November 30, 1934, “officially” having to do with the presence of a verifying dynamometer car.

London & North Eastern Railway 4472 Flying Scotsman steps through the kudzu en route to its appointment in Anniston. The LNER's green locomotives inspired the Southern to adopt the color for its own passenger power in the 1920s. Southern Railway
The Editor was aware that folks in Anniston might look askance at British steam, but he made his case eloquently.  

“To an American, the British 4-6-2 is too pure (read spartan), too ladylike, too foreign, if you will, for mechanical exploits,” he wrote. “Yet look again; for those 80-inch driving wheels once regularly ran off the 392.7 miles between London and Edinburgh nonstop. So never mind her invisible third cylinder, driving-wheel splashers, invisible sandbox and teardrop ‘banjo’ dome, and high-wheeled, rigid-frame tenders — the 4472 could and can turn it on.”

Having missed the big party and reading about it in Trains, I remember thinking how much I would have loved to be there, but I take some consolation in the fact that maybe, just maybe, the “Steam-o-rama,” as it was called, set the stage of further great gatherings of steam. I’m thinking here of Roanoke in 1987, or St. Louis in 1990, or Owosso, Mich., in 2009. I don’t know if Anniston truly was the first, but you could say it established the template. 

My stop in Anniston last week was anticlimactic compared to 1969, but the little town has its charms, notably the handsome Southern Railway depot on West 4th Street, still in use. The Classical Revival-style station was built in 1925 at a point known as Oxanna Junction, where the Birmingham and Mobile divisions met. It boasts tall, handsome triple-arch windows on each side of the waiting room, which serves patrons of Amtrak’s Crescent and Greyhound buses. 

Fifty-one years after the big event, Anniston's elegant station, restored for use by Amtrak and Greyhound passengers, is quiet in 2021. Kevin P. Keefe
The station looks good after a thorough restoration completed in 2008. Although the main entrance faces due north, the back of the waiting room opens out under a spacious platform roof. It’s an attractive place to watch trains on Norfolk Southern’s Atlanta–New Orleans main line. 

The human celebrities of that long-ago afternoon all have passed on. Morgan died in 1990 at age 62, Claytor in 1994 at age 82, and Pegler in 2012 at 91.

But the biggest stars of that show remain. The 4501 soldiers on, in its original gloss black, as part of the operating equipment at TVRM in Chattanooga. Although the 750 is unlikely to be operated again, it is displayed in pristine condition, under roof, at the Southeastern Railway Museum in the Atlanta suburb of Duluth.

Meanwhile, when it came to concluding thoughts about the Scotsman, Morgan was prescient: “I suppose one day she’ll wind up her days parked forever in the indoor quiet of one of those English museums where everything is done just so.”

True, D.P.M., to some extent. The Flying Scotsman is in the collection of the National Railway Museum at York, which sees hundreds of thousands of annual visitors, but the 4-6-2 is hardly quiet, having been recently overhauled for excursion service. She regularly takes to the main line, preaching the gospel of Sir Nigel Gresley and the London & North Eastern.  

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