Summerville Steam Special 11-11-17: Southern 4501 in the Georgia Countryside

Veterans Day 2017 was another red-letter day for railfanning in my book: I finally checked another steam engine off my list. Southern Railway #4501 is 2-8-2 Mikado type engine, and was the first engine to pull excursion trains in the Southern Railways steam program that began in the late 1960s. When Norfolk Southern ended the steam program in 1994, engine 4501 returned to its home at the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum and operated for a couple more years until it reached the end of its FRA certification. Because the museum had two other perfectly functioning steam engines, overhauling 4501 was not a priority for well over a decade. However, in 2011, Norfolk Southern revived its steam excursion program, and sought the use of TVRM engine 630 as part of the lineup. Seeing the opportunity to run their larger steam engine, TVRM began work to restore 4501 in time to participate in the 21st Century Steam excursions, and the locomotive came back to life in late summer of 2014. The engine participated in the final year of Norfolk Southern's 21st Century Steam program (2015), and now lives a life of considerable leisure, hauling tourists on the 3-mile line within the museum grounds, and occasionally pulling longer excursions down the Chattanooga & Chickamauga Railway to Summerville, Georgia. Capturing one of these longer excursions was the main purpose of my trip to North Carolina and Tennessee in November of 2017.

From my hotel room across the river in Chattanooga, I could hear the mournful whistle of 4501 echoing across the valley. I knew that the train wasn't scheduled to leave until 9am, and these whistles I was hearing at 8am were merely the engine running from the shops at East Chattanooga to the boarding platform at Grand Junction, but I still raced through breakfast and hurried down to my first spot of the day: just outside the southern portal of the Missionary Ridge Tunnel, a pre-civil-war engineering marvel. I was joined by a handful of other railfans who had made similar multi-hour journeys to view this gorgeous steam locomotive in its natural habitat, and we were treated to an incredible show as the old Mikado blasted out of the tunnel.

Up until this point, my only experience with chasing steam excursions was with N&W 611, which runs the full 40mph permitted by Norfolk Southern for old equipment on their mainlines. As such, I raced ahead to my next spot on the southern edge of the Missionary Ridge. I waited for a few moments, and then became concerned that I had missed the train, and once again drove like a maniac to reach my third scheduled spot of the day in Rock Springs, Georgia... where I waited for well over half an hour for the train to show up. The line from Chattanooga to Summerville is fairly well maintained, but 4501 prefers to maintain a slower pace to give passengers a smoother ride.

Rock Springs is a popular photo spot thanks to the S curve ending next to an old abandoned house, and a grade crossing with two crossbucks instead of modern flashers and gates. This made a nice frame as the old engine roared through, with the whistle clipping the mic on my camcorder!

My game of leapfrog continued, and I landed at my fourth spot, south of Lafayette, Georgia. This location had a modern crossing system, complete with electronic bell; a sound which provided a stark contrast to the brass bell and steam whistle of the 4501. I was also able to pull off a zoom-shot of the engine approaching through a tree tunnel of sorts.

In the first picture, you can see an arm waving out of the cab of the engine. This is because some dingbat of a woman was standing IN THE GAUGE behind me to get her own shot. After the train had passed, she asked me about any good spots with tree tunnels and curves in the area. I had to reply that I didn't know, for two reasons: Firstly, because she was clearly an idiot for standing in the gauge and I didn't want to help her continue to be an idiot, and B: because I only had my spots for the day listed in my GPS as "Spot 1 South, Spot 2 South, Spot 3 South" and so on, and I had no idea what the next location actually looked like. However, it did turn out that my next spot had the two ingredients she was after: tree tunnel and a curve. And a crossing for some whistle action, to boot!

A couple of video-only locations later, I arrived in Summerville, GA, to a COMPLETE madhouse. There was some sort of Veterans Day festival centered around the arrival of the steam train, and I found myself trying to shoot video while surrounded by people who had zero respect for anyone with a camera. I could slightly sympathize as most of these people were....well, normies... not railfans, and therefore weren't familiar with concepts like the photo line. On top of that, the lighting was absolutely terrible while the engine was on the turntable. Given that I was hungry, and my truck was thirsty (and so was the steam engine, as it was taking on water from a fire hydrant when I left) I frequented the local Bojangles and gas station, then set up for my next shot at the bridge in Trion, GA. By this point in the day, the sun was almost directly overhead, and the lighting on either side of the bridge wasn't particularly good (note that the face of the engine is in shadow) so I took the opportunity to make a few roster shots of the historic passenger cars in the train.

I then, once again, overestimated the speed of the train, and found myself waiting in Chickamauga, Georgia with a fair bit of time to kill. I had thought my spot would be overrun with fellow photographers, but instead I only had two, both of whom made sure to stay out of my shot. The result is, I think, one of the best pictures I've ever taken:

After snagging this beauty, I made a couple of unscheduled stops; the first was a spot along Missionary Ridge that I had tried in the morning, but chickened out as I thought I had missed the train. The second was a crossing near the run-down industrial district of Chattanooga, where a nice open field provided a backlit shot of the engine nearing the end of its run.

Finally, I arrived back at the depot in Grand Junction, yet again a bit far ahead of the train. Thankfully, the depot is situated adjacent to a busy Norfolk Southern mainline, and I was treated to the passing of a couple of freights while waiting for 4501 to arrive. The engine spun its drivers a bit on the sharp grade at the east end of the depot, and immediately upon arriving, the museum's Tennessee, Alabama & Georgia Railroad GP38 went to work switching the passenger consist for the next day's steam special.

At this point, I was entirely out of camera batteries, my phone was almost dead, and I was unbelievably tired after 11 hours of train chasing. I stopped at a steakhouse on my way back to the hotel and had a very pleasant meal to cap off a wonderful day of railfanning.

The next morning, I had planned to actually visit the grounds of the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, but I arrived early for one more look at Southern 4501 before it departed for Summerville again. The TAG GP38 had clearly been busy with the coach consist, as the entire train was now Tuscan Red, rather than a mix of paint schemes. As much as I prefer a mis-matched consist on an excursion train, I was VERY tempted to chase the train through the rolling Georgia countryside again, but time would not permit it. So, I settled for a variety of close-ups on the engine, and a short video of the train departing Grand Junction.

As always, thank you for reading and enjoying the pictures and video!