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Southern Railway 4501: a 2-8-2 steam locomotive legend

By Jim Wrinn | December 1, 2021

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Front view of steam locomotive under blue skies.

Southern Railway 4501. You could write a book about this locomotive, and indeed one has been done. If it were a fable, it would be the story of a commoner becoming royalty. This is a brief look at a once-ordinary, freight-hauling 2-8-2 made into a legendary excursion locomotive.

Front view of steam locomotive under blue skies.
Southern Railway 4501 rides the turntable at Summerville, Ga., in October 2018. Jim Wrinn photograph

Southern 4501 history

Baldwin built No. 4501 as Southern Railway’s first Mikado in 1911. It was Ms Class, for Mikado wheel arrangement, superheated. The engine spent much of its life in obscurity. In the 1940s, it began to show up and be documented on Southern’s lines out of Princeton, Ind. Quickly pushed aside in freight service from mainline to local service as bigger and more modern power came along, No. 4501 received a number of upgrades during its operating life.

In 1948, the engine was set aside and purchased by a short line called the Kentucky & Tennessee, which hauled coal to an interchange with Southern at Stearns, Ky., in the central part of the state, just north of the Tennessee border. No. 4501 and other steam locomotives spent the next years lugging black diamonds until diesel locomotives took over in 1963. As the number of steam locomotives dwindled in the U.S., enthusiasts found railroads like the K&T and spent time riding and photographing the locomotives in their last years, so it is not surprising what happened next.

No. 4501 in excursion service

In 1964, Chattanooga, Tenn., enthusiast Paul Merriman purchased the locomotive, and he and his friend, Robert Soule, and made a deal with SR Vice President of Law W. Graham Claytor Jr., to move the engine to Chattanooga under its own power. The favorable public reaction to No. 4501’s 150-mile trip prompted Claytor to organize company support for an overhaul and for excursions using the engine starting in 1966. Merriman and Soule launched the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, so No. 4501 had its own permanent home.

Claytor would have liked to have had one of SR’s passenger locomotives to do the honors, but No. 4501 would have to do. When the engine debuted in the summer of 1966, it was painted in SR’s passenger colors of green and gold. The ordinary freight engine shed its working outfit for special garb reserved for the best of SR steam passenger power.

For the next 28 years, Southern Railway 4501 and a host of other steam locomotives powered Southern excursions across the system, from Washington, D.C., to Jacksonville, Fla., to New Orleans, St. Louis, and Cincinnati. On occasion, the locomotive pulled excursions on other Southeastern railroads. Sometimes it ventured off line, traveling as far north as Wisconsin to pull the annual Circus World train, and pulling excursions on the Rock Island and other Midwestern and northeastern railroads. The engine appeared in numerous movies, among them “Fool’s Parade” and “Eleanor & Franklin.” In a 1994 corporate decision, Norfolk Southern decided to end its steam excursions, and No. 4501 retreated to the Tennessee museum, where it operated in its original black freight paint scheme until its flue time was up in 1998.

Steam locomotive pulling excursion train with caboose and passenger cars next to line of trees.
Southern Railway 2-8-2 No. 4501 leads an excursion from Chattanooga, Tenn., to Summerville, Ga., at Rossville, Ga., in April 2018. Jim Wrinn photograph

Norfolk Southern’s second steam program

The engine was placed on display until 2011 when NS revived its steam excursions, and TVRM began overhauling the engine. Two significant upgrades happened during this rebuild. One, the engine got a stoker, and two, it got a feedwater heater, discreetly placed at the top of the smokebox. No. 4501 was completed in 2015 and pulled excursions that summer and fall. Sadly, that year concluded Norfolk Southern’s 21st Century Steam mainline excursions.

Since then No. 4501 and Southern Railway 2-8-0 No. 630 have pulled TVRM’s on-site train and also excursions on its shortline partner to Chickamauga, Ga., and Summerville, Ga.

Oh, and about that book. Long-time Trains Editor David P. Morgan prepared it in 1968, called “Locomotive 4501.” You can still find it at book resellers, and it is a delightful read and chronicle of this amazing engine.

For many fans, No. 4501 will always be steam royalty, whether it is dressed in black or green and gold.

One thought on “Southern Railway 4501: a 2-8-2 steam locomotive legend

  1. While there have been steam locomotives in my life both here and overseas 4501 reigns Number One , thanks for the fine tribute to a great locomotives and to the many who have kept her running all these years.

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