WWII Steam Locomotive in Centennial Park Will Carry Passengers
The engine was number 576.
Dark and sleek, they nicknamed it “The Stripe” after the narrow yellow mark on its side.
He hit the slopes for the very first time in 1942 – the same month and year that Tom Knowles was born.
Eleven years later, the day the locomotive was retired to Centennial Park, Knowles got to see the great war machine in person. It changed his whole life.
“It was a wonderful thing to get up close and climb on it and let your imagination run wild,” Knowles said.
Now Knowles is an essential part of the crew who want to get that engine working again.
After more than two years of fundraising and thousands of volunteer hours, the Nashville Steam Preservation Society will begin the multi-year comprehensive overhaul that will bring the 77-year-old locomotive back to life.
On Sunday morning, the 300-ton engine traveled nearly two miles through some of the city’s busiest streets en route to the live tracks and its restoration home at the Tennessee Central Railway Museum.
About 1,000 spectators lined the road, Nashville Steam spokesman Jay Sheridan said. The relocation went smoothly, he added.
It will remain at the museum for the long term. The project will take about four years and between $1.5 and $2 million. But, when complete, the goal is for the engine to pull passenger excursions from the Riverfront Station in downtown Nashville.
When that happens, it will be the fulfillment of a 40-year-old dream for Knowles — a dream that would make his mom proud.
The thrill of the locomotive
Knowles’ father, a musician who worked for WSM radio, thought his son should learn to play the piano. But the boy loved tinkering with lawn mowers and other things that made noise, noise and boom.
By the age of 3, he was already drawing pictures of trains, his little fingers marking the differences between diesel and steam. Her mother encouraged the fascination with machines on wheels, as they were also special to her.
She grew up as an orphan and grew up at the Tennessee Baptist Children’s Home until she was 16. Outside the building where she lived, a railroad stretched long and mighty, running back and forth between Nashville and Birmingham.
“In the mundane life of an orphanage, the most exciting thing in the world was a train going by at 120 km/h,” says Knowles.
“She started sharing that with me at an early age, and that made me happy too.”
So it only made sense that mother and son would be there to see engine #576 as it arrived at Centennial Park.
The young mother often took her children for a day of shopping downtown, stopping at the park to let them play. Sometimes they would splurge on a bag of Krystals for lunch, but usually she would pack tuna sandwiches for a picnic.
Knowles does not remember all the details of that day in July 1953, except that being able to see, touch and climb on this locomotive “cemented my interest in trains”.
“At that time, steam engines were working almost everywhere,” says Knowles, a historian who now runs the Cowan Railroad Museum in Franklin County. “I didn’t realize they were disappearing from the landscape.”
In fact, “The Stripe” was special, rescued from the torch of the scrapper that decided the fate of many similar J3-class war engines – a herd of stripped-down “yellow vests” cut to pieces after their usefulness had been exceeded at the era of diesel.
The Tennessean newspaper then reported: “His whistle is silent forever and his great driving wheels will never again spark cold flight all night. But that will not matter to the thousands of young people who will gaze upon his wonder. as she stands in her permanent station in Centennial Park.”
Johnny Cash, Marty Stuart and More ‘Listen to the Coming Train’ Musicians
In the years that followed, Knowles visited the engine whenever he had the chance.
He was not alone in his fascination.
The locomotive carried a rich history.
Designed at the Nashville headquarters of the NC&StL railroad, it hit the tracks in 1942, just in time to transport troops, oil and supplies during World War II.
For 10 years he racked up hundreds of thousands of miles, carrying passengers after the war and connecting the musical triangle of Atlanta, Memphis and Nashville – bringing together rock, blues and country.
When he retired in 1952 and moved to the park a year later, the engine became a photo backdrop for these musicians.
A 1969 cover of LIFE magazine featured Johnny Cash, guitar in hand, leaning against one of the wheels of the locomotive, a construction so massive it stood almost as tall as Cash himself.
Country music stalwart Marty Stuart — who once played in Cash’s band — has this very guitar, a gift from the Man in Black himself.
Stuart grew up in Mississippi, near the railroad tracks. At night, as he cuddled up in bed, it looked like the train was going through the house — “and I loved that,” he says.
“My childhood dream was to get on the train and take it to Nashville where I could play guitar,” Stuart recalled.
He traveled to Nashville, and at age 14 began playing professionally as a sideman in Lester Flatt’s bluegrass band. The band went to Centennial Park one afternoon and took pictures around the locomotive. It was the first steam engine Stuart had ever touched.
“I remember thinking how pretty that whistle must sound,” Stuart says. “How lonely that must have sounded.”
He adds: “In any kind of music, the main thing is that everything comes back to the sounds of the train”, says Stuart. “That’s where you’ll find your heart.”
Claiming to see ‘The Stripe’ running full speed
Now a dedicated team of train enthusiasts wants to bring that sound back to Music City.
It took many engineering experts to pull the locomotive out from under its shed in Centennial Park and load the huge machine onto multi-wheeled trailers.
On Sunday, the locomotive resumed the historic path back on the rails.
Then the curators will focus on raising funds for the monumental million-dollar restoration, an intensive process that will require forklifts and cranes and a bit of skill.
Knowles is confident that behind the dedication of the Nashville Steam Preservation Society, “The Stripe” will one day run at speeds of one hundred miles an hour again.
When it does, he says, “I think I’ll be moved to tears of joy to see it happen.”
Contact Jessica Bliss at 615-259-8253 and [email protected] or on Twitter @jlbliss.
Watch the movement of the historic locomotive
On Sunday, the Nashville Steam Preservation Society hauled the 77-year-old train engine nearly two miles through some of Nashville’s busiest streets en route to its restoration home on the tracks near the Tennessee Central Railway Museum.
It will travel on multi-wheeled trailers specially equipped to get there — and offer Nashvillians a glimpse of the historic journey. The public is invited to follow.
The engine is expected to leave Centennial Park at 9 a.m.
It will move east on Charlotte Avenue and north on 12th Avenue N.