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

Southern Railway 4501. You could write a book on this locomotive, and indeed one has been made. If it were a fable, it would be the story of a commoner who became king. Here’s a quick look at a once-ordinary, freight-hauling 2-8-2 transformed into a legendary tour locomotive.

Southern Railway 4501 rides the hub in Summerville, Georgia in October 2018. Photograph by Jim Wrinn

Southern History 4501

Baldwin built No. 4501 as Southern Railway’s first Mikado in 1911. It was class Ms, for the overheated Mikado wheel arrangement. The engine has spent much of its life in obscurity. In the 1940s it began to appear and be documented on southern lines out of Princeton, Ind. its lifespan.

In 1948 the engine was put aside and purchased by a short line called Kentucky & Tennessee, which carried 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 few years dragging black diamonds until diesel locomotives took over in 1963. As the number of steam locomotives dwindled in the United States, the Enthusiasts found railroads like K&T and spent time riding and photographing the locomotives in their later years, so it’s no surprise what happened next.

N° 4501 in excursion service

In 1964 Chattanooga, Tenn., enthusiast Paul Merriman purchased the locomotive, and he and his friend, Robert Soule, and struck a deal with Law W. Graham Claytor Jr. SR Vice President, to relocate the engine in Chattanooga under his own Power. Favorable public reaction to No. 4501’s 150-mile journey prompted Claytor to organize company support for overhaul and excursions using the engine beginning in 1966. Merriman and Soule started the Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, so that No. 4501 had its own permanent home.

Claytor would have liked to have one of SR’s passenger locomotives to do the honors, but No. 4501 should do the trick. 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 has ditched its work attire for a special suit 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 southerly excursions through the system, from Washington, D.C., to Jacksonville, Florida, to New Orleans, St. Louis and Cincinnati. Occasionally the locomotive pulled excursions on other southeastern railroads. Sometimes he ventured offline, traveling as far north as Wisconsin to pull the annual Circus World train and arranging trips to Rock Island and other Midwestern and Northeastern railroads. The engine has appeared in many films, including “Fool’s Parade” and “Eleanor & Franklin”. In a 1994 corporate decision, Norfolk Southern decided to end its steam excursions and No. 4501 retired to the Tennessee Museum, where it ran in its original black freight paint scheme until its burn time ran out in 1998.

Steam locomotive pulling an excursion train with caboose and passenger cars beside a row of trees.
Southern Railway 2-8-2 No. 4501 conducts an excursion from Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Summerville, Georgia, to Rossville, Georgia, April 2018. Photograph by Jim Wrinn

Norfolk Southern’s second steam program

The engine was on display until 2011, when NS relaunched its steam excursions and TVRM began to overhaul the engine. Two significant upgrades took place during this rebuild. One, the engine has a heater, and two, it has a feedwater heater, discreetly placed on top of the smoke box. #4501 was completed in 2015 and has run tours this summer and fall. Unfortunately, that year ended 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 in Chickamauga, Ga., and Summerville, Ga.

Oh, and about this book. Longtime Trains editor David P. Morgan prepared it in 1968, called “Locomotive 4501”. You can still find it at bookstores, and it’s a delightful read and chronicle of this incredible engine.

For many fans, #4501 will always be the Queen of Steam, whether dressed in black or green and gold.

Jose P. Rogers