In 1999, Universal Pictures released this Biographical Film of Homer Hickman, who took up rocketry against his coal mining father, and eventually became a NASA Engineer. The movie is set in Coalwood, West Virginia, an unincorporated town in McDowell County, WV, where coal mining was the biggest employer, like many small towns of that region. In one scene, Homer and a couple buddies decide to steal some rail and spikes from an abandoned branch line that served Coretta #1 that shut down in 1951. After panicking and running towards the train, they see that the train is diverted onto another line and all they get is a friendly wave from the engineer, who is played by world famous Norfolk and Western Steam Photographer, O. Winston Link.
The locomotive in the film is another celebrity in the railfanning community. The locomotive is Southern Railway 2-8-2 “Mikado” type #4501. This wheel designation of “Mikado” came from when Baldwin built the first locomotives of this type for the Japanese National Railways, and the word “Mikado” is Japanese for “Emperor.”
Constructed by Baldwin Locomotive Works under the Builders #37085, the locomotive was the very first of 182 2-8-2 Mikado’s on the Southern Railway Roster. She was built in 1911, and during her career on the Southern, the locomotive was used on several of the divisions in the system. For the next 38 years, the locomotive toiled away on the Southern, working Manifest’s and local trains around the system. She was retired from the Southern Railway roster in 1948 when the railroad started to purchase Diesel locomotives to replace steam. After she was retired, the locomotive was sold to the Kentucky and Tennessee Railroad and became K&T #12. After spending another 15 years on the K&T, she was again retired. After he was retired for a 2nd time, Mr. Paul H. Merriman, bought the locomotive for The 4501 Corporation with $5,000 of his own money and restored the locomotive for excursion service. After restoration was completed, the locomotive was tapped by the Southern Railway for their new Steam Program that would also include some other Famous Locomotives (See List Below)
The Locomotive was used by the Southern Railway Steam Program as its main excursion locomotive through the 1960’s and 1970’s, but when the 1980’s came around, the Southern Railway returned the locomotive when a new locomotives came into operation, chosen Southern’s successor, the Norfolk Southern Corp, who restored Norfolk and Western Class J 4-8-5 #611. The 4501 was placed inside the Tennessee Valley Railway Museum, and even though the locomotive was not officially part of the program anymore, the locomotive was leased to the NS Steam Program to fill in for excursions. Her last outing for the NS Steam program was in 1993, when she pulled a section of the 1993 “Independence Limited” on the first part of its trip to the 1993 NRHS convention that was being held in Chicago, Illinois that year. The following year, Norfolk Southern announced that the Steam program was being discontinued after the 1994 season.
After NS Steam program was discontinued, the locomotive still service on the TVRM until 1998, when the locomotive was set aside after her boiler certification expired, and she has since been sitting under cover at the TVRM. The prospects of her running again in the near future where doubtful, until 2010, when, after 16 years, the Norfolk Southern Railway announced plans to re-establish the Steam Program, by selecting three TVRM locomotives, the Southern 4501, the Southern 630 and US Army 610. She is currently in the TVRM shop being completely restored and brought up to current boiler specifications.
Here’s a photo of the Southern 4501 in 1970 during the heyday of her Steam Program years: http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=375868&nseq=3
Here’s a photo of the Southern 4501 as she looked during the Filming of October Sky, at the TVRM: http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=305639&nseq=14
Here’s a photo of the Southern 4501 as she looked in April 2011, restoration in full swing: http://www.railpictures.net/viewphoto.php?id=360109&nseq=6
The engineer in the film is the late photographer, O. Winston Link. Link is well known with in the railfan community and the art community for his amazing shots during the final years of Norfolk and Western Steam Locomotives at night. In the 1950’s, Night Photography was virtually unheard of at that time. His photograph’s have been the subjects of Museum exhibit’s, books, calendar’s, crime, and now, his own Museum. In 1996, Link’s second wife, Conchita, was arrested for (and later convicted of) stealing a collection of Link’s photographs and attempting to sell them, claiming that Link had Alzheimer’s disease and that she had power of attorney. She served six years in prison. After being released, she again attempted to sell some of Link’s works that she had stolen, this time using the Internet auction site eBay, and she was sentenced to another 3 years in prison.
Mr. Link passed away of a heart attack while driving to a hospital from him his home in South Salem, New York on January 30th, 2001.
For all those who want more information on the engineer, the Late Mr. O. Winston Link, please visit the website to the O. Winston Link Museum in Roanoke, Virginia. http://www.linkmuseum.org/
I hope you enjoyed this presentation on the Southern 4501, O. Winston Link and this historical review from the Movie “October Sky.” If you have any suggestions, please learn how to contact me by clicking the “Submitting Ideas” tab under the CineTrains banner. Until next time, HAPPY RAILFANNING!