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Southern Railway #4501

The ORIGINAL mainline steam excursion locomotive

Locomotive 4501 is very much the story of all steam -- the rail locomotion that overcame America's seaboard and riverfront isolation, created our cities, and hauled us through two world wars. For Baldwin-built No. 4501 was and is a typical workaday coal-burning, raucous-whistling engine -- the breed that urged farm boys to leave the plow and by which father set his watch. She (only the feminine gender is appropriate) hauled tonnage across the South for her owner Southern Railway for close on four decades, finished up her revenue life on a Kentucky short line, and would have been scrapped but for the intervention of a DuPont researchist who was determined that she bcome an antidote to the diesel. Because of him, and the railway professionals and the amateur train-watchers he enlisted in his cause, No. 4501 began life anew, discarding her black work garb for passenger green and gold, and going forth in 1966 to remind a region of the steam season when train time as the event of the day, when the depot was the only place to be.

David P. Morgan, Locomotive 4501, 1968

One could not be a railfan in the southeastern United States in the latter half of the 20th century and not be acquainted with Southern's well-traveled Mikado #4501. Following Paul Merriman's recovery of the locomotive from the Kentucky & Tennessee, John followed the progress of the little Mike during many of her earlier excursions--including an early trip from Stearns, Ky, back to Chattanooga after repairs and break-in runs. He road many trips out of Chattanooga, Huntsville, and Birgmingham in the years that followed her excursion debut. Later on, in the early 1980's, together we road several 4501 trips between New Orleans and Hattiesburg, Ms. For both us, this 1911 Baldwin and a half dozen heavyweight Southern coaches make for the quintessential deep south excursion train. Merriman's Mike set the standard for every other excursion performer -- even locomotives twice her size and much more sophisticated in design. She is a cornerstone in our railfan memories.


Southern Railway 2-8-2 Mikado #4501
Classification Ms (Mikado superheated)
Ms63 27/30 53.9
Builder Baldwin Locomotive Works
Configuration 2-8-2 "Mikado" type No. in Class 1 of 182 in class Ms
Cylinder size 27 x 30 inches Build date October 1911, Baldwin #37085
Valve gear Walschaerts type Retired 1963 (revenue)
1998 (excursion)
Driver size 63 inches Current owner Tennessee Valley Railway Museum
Fuel type soft coal/water Disposition Static display, serviceable


Southern Railway #4501 was built in 1911 by the Baldwin Locomotive Works of Philadelphia. The engine is a 2-8-2 locomotive of the Mikado type, inherited from Japan, and was the very first specimen of that wheel arrangement the railroad owned. For many years the Southern had relied heavily on the similar 2-8-0 Consolidation type, but 4501 and her class marked the transition to a heavier, more powerful hauler -- the one-axle trailing truck allowing for a much larger firebox. 4501 worked on many different divisions of the Southern Railway system from 1911 until her mainline retirement in 1948. Divisions included Tennessee, Virginia, Kentucky, and finally service in Indiana.

Kentucky & Tennessee #12In 1948, the short Kentucky & Tennessee Railway -- a coal-hauling shortline on the border of its namesake states -- purchased the locomotive and renumbered it as their #12. She was the largest and most powerful locomotive the shortline ever owned, spending fifteen years working the mine runs with heavy cuts of hoppers.

When #12 was retired by the Kentucky & Tennessee in 1963, a Chattanooga railfan with a keen interest in steam, Paul H. Merriman, purchased the locomotive with $5,000 of his own money. He created The 4501 Corporation and with much help from railfans and retired steam masters he restored the engine for excursion use on the Southern Railway System. As such, the 4501 launched the Southern Railway's well known and long-running steam excursion program, which operated across the Southeast for several decades until it was dropped in 1994 by Southern's successor Norfolk Southern. She headed up numerous trips from a number of bases, including some double- and triple-headed action with the larger locomotives at the end of the excursion era.

#4501 is currently owned by the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum in Chattanooga, Tennessee (which Merriman founded with Bob Soule), where she is stored for static display and possible rebuilding. The locomotive last ran in 1998, but remains on the National Historic Register of places and equipment.

Spotlight: Oakdale, Tennessee

all photos Oakdale, Tn / Nov 1968 / JCH

Ralph and 4501 Slow and Steady Wins the Race

Usually our machines simply do what we build them to do.
But every now and then, they remind us how to live.

Throughout the early 80's, the New Orleans chapter of the NRHS coordinated with the Southern Railway to operate several steam excursions between New Orleans, Louisiana, and Hattiesburg, Mississippi -- a 225 mile roundtrip. Like many in the hobby, I owe my deep love of trains to my father, and during my younger years we greatly enjoyed our riding together on these wonderful day-long steam marathons. While railfans across the southeast during this era benefited from frequent contact with the steam program's more robust and modern samplings -- the ubiquitous J class #611 and A class #1218 -- southeast Louisiana fans were not afforded those opportunities. The old Southern Railway trestle across Lake Pontchatrain was an all-wooden structure with low weight limits. We were always told that the high tonnage of the two N&W giants prevented their entrance into the Big Easy. As such, for several years we were treated to the smaller specimens in the stable: Canada's Royal Hudson on lease, Savannah & Atlanta's Pacific #750, and of course the classic Baldwin Mikado #4501.

Every trip during these years presented a challenge to its planners. The popularity of the voyage outweighed these locomotive's more limited drawbar pull. I can remember arriving at New Orleans Union Passenger Terminal to find a train of coaches that seemed as long as 20 cars -- too much for light Pacifics and Mikados in a solo role. As such, diesel-electric assistants were always called in for backing. Sometimes this would be as ordinary as a GP38-2 (as in 1984 when #4501 was beset with bad coal), but on several occasions, two of the green "Heritage" FP7's played the necessary second fiddle to the celebrity steamer. The tickets my father would purchase for us secured two seats in one of the old coaches, but we were never found there. We preferred the tail end of the movement, always claiming a spot in Lookout Mountain, the steam program's beloved open observation car that racked up thousands of excursion miles over the decades. From its spacious platform, this young kid watched many a mile slip away along the Southern's pristine, all-welded main line traveling northeast from the Crescent City. Lookout Mountain turned out to be the locale for one of my most vivid childhood memories.

It was the 1985 trip, featuring the much-loved #4501. During the lunch break in Hattiesburg, the crews turned the Mike on a nearby wye for the southbound flight home. Meanwhile, my father and I managed to gulp down the greasy box lunches that came with our tickets -- a meal always too cold and too meager. Soon the classy FP7's took there place in front of Man O War (another well known excursion car, always at the head end on New Orleans trips). After brake tests, the 4501 once again took her rightful place on the lead. Dad and I hustled our way back to our favorite spot on the rear, and with our comrades in the hobby, waited for our collective departure.

Now this is what I remember: The heavy man next to me, weighed down with multiple cameras and smelling of box lunch chicken, happened to have a radio scanner clipped to his generous belt. Suddenly it crackled to life. My young ears tuned in with great interest. It seemed the head end crew was experiencing a moment of spontaneity. "How about we let 4501 get us underway?" asked the engineer. A pregnant silence followed. The boss of the FP7's broke in with what seemed like hesitant agreement. The conductor's voice came next. His, the final word. Apparently he had no opinion on the matter, except that it was time to get underway. "Highball 4501."

Southern #4501My mind was electric. No one had to explain any of this to me. I knew exactly what all this railroad chatter meant. The classy little Mikado we all loved was being handed a great challenge: 16 over worn heavyweights, all loaded to the gills with railfan fathers and sons like us, and a few patient wives. This was to be a superlative moment. Feeling as though I had just broken the Enigma code, I quickly tugged at my father's sleeve. I felt he just had to know this news before any one else. No sooner had I finished uploading the information when we heard a whistle. Two breathy blasts from afar signaled the start of the fight. As the slack ran out and the drawbar tightened, the whole train lurched. Everyone was immediately quiet. In the absence of Lookout Mountain chatter, what I already knew now became clear to others: No EMD prime movers could be heard getting underway! Only the deep, throaty chug of a Baldwin stack drifted back to our ears. Inches turned to feet, each one a victory. Feet became yards, and slowly the city of Hattiesburg began passing us by. But still no noise that resembled FP7s. The message was now clear to all concerned: We were starting on our way home, with no help yet from anything that ran on diesel oil. It did not take long for our forward motion to apogee, a velocity I imagined to be no more than 8-10 miles per hour. Paul Merriam's old machine had managed to get this heavy train underway, all by herself.

My budding railfan imagination was now in full cutoff, working hard. Understand: Southern's 4501 had held in my callow mind the status of true hero for some time. To be sure, I was raised a Presbyterian, therefore taught well the dangers of idolatry. But this little Baldwin was a true temptress. My many indiscretions were obvious: I had memorized David Morgan's book. I was the only kid in my middle school who knew who Walter Dove was. I could recite light Mikado statistics to anyone who asked. (Painfully, no one ever did.) Given this adoration, I understood well that this feat now taking place before me was perhaps more than her Baldwin designers ever imagined, at least at her age. Even from the tail end of the train, my mind's eye could see every aspect her effort: Eight 44" drivers "digging in", Walscherts gear at full cutoff, sand coming down like rain. I could picture her fireman shoveling hard; her engineer, poised, simply hoping for one good grip after another. I had to imagine all of these sights, but I could feel their results. For what seemed like many a slow mile, as the city of Hattiesburg gave way bit by bit to Mississippi piney woods, the little Mike did her thing, and did it well. Nothing fancy, mind you. No speed to thrill a dynameter chart. No J class ease. But we were on our way, by golly. Sixteen or more coaches and two idled EMDs inching down the line. And just like me, those covered wagons were merely passengers on this ride. Their reversers in neutral, while the steam kettle they replaced slowly and steadily took care of business.

The end of this promethean struggle for acceleration was soon signaled by another crackle on my neighbor's revelatory speaker. "Engineer 4501 to engineer 3497, how about some help now?" At least, that's what I remember he said. Two blats from a Nathan 5-chime were quickly followed by the unmistakable resonance of 567 prime movers finally getting dressed for work. Another lurch—this time a little stronger—and the clickety-clacks soon picked up in rhythm the way a jazz trio gets its thing together. We were taking on speed, quickly now, making our way back home to New Orleans with a little help from the Electro-Motive Division. Sheer steam determination had, I suppose by necessity, given way to diesel-electric ease.

- - - -

As a Presbyterian minister now, I find I mostly view this life as a gift of immense grace to be received and responded to, not so much a thing to be conquered through sheer will or dogged grit. But even a theologian can concede that every now and then gritty determination has its place among the virtues. And what's more, sometimes even our machines teach us the dignity of staying in the fight.

Can staybolts and seams be our heroes? Does a boiler with brakes posses a will? I'm not sure. Is my memory of these moments a bit puffy with time? The details, distended in hindsight? Perhaps. But in my childhood memory there remain a handful of charmed minutes when an outclassed little steamer bravely took on weighty odds … and persevered. "Slow and steady wins the race," said the tortoise to the hare.

Slow and steady indeed.

written for the Blue Ridge Chapter NRHS newsletter, 2005


all postcards above RWH collection

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This page was updated on 2016-05-21