G is for The Great Locomotive Chase


Blogging Through the Alphabet

For this week’s Blogging Through the Alphabet I decided to go with a Disney movie, The Great Locomotive Chase. This 1956 film starring Fess Parker had been high on the list for production ever since the Disney Studio began to make live-action movies according to Disney Historian Michael Crawford. Of course, this should come as no surprise given Walt’s personal fondness for railways.

I suppose I’ve always been in love with trains.

Walt Disney

Likely this love sprung from the days in Marceline when his uncle, a locomotive engineer, used to come by the Disney farm and regale his nephew with stories of the rails. My husband has been a locomotive engineer for almost 40 years and I can assure you the kids love to hear all about the trains and if they can get up close they are over the moon about it.

EJ in the cab of the engine on the Santa Train at the Nevada State Railroad Museum in Boulder with his papa of course

Walt’s Railway Project

As it turns out, my suspicion that Walt was behind the making of this movie was correct. I found the following video on YouTube about the making of the movie. In this episode of Disneyland, Walt himself speaks about finding The Great Locomotive Chase book, by William Pettinger in the family library. “A story about spies and trains,” he called it. He also pointed out that it was inevitable that his studio would make a movie about trains and that it would be “The Great Locomotive Chase”.

The video is about 40 minutes long but worth watching if you’d like to learn more about this civil war secret campaign. (There is a neat section about how they used 1956 special effects to create a second floor of the hotel.)

Video from YouTube of “Behind the Scenes with Fess Parker”
an episode of the weekly Disneyland television program

Where to Find a Railway

So the decision was made to shoot the movie but the original rail line had been straightened and improved to handle modern rolling stock so they had to find a suitable alternative. Of course, they needed something with twists, turns, and trestles to imitate the original from 1862.

Scouting the area, the studio folks located the Tallulah Falls Railway. This railway had been completed in 1907 and due to its location in a very rural area and its ongoing issues with funding, was in a suitably primitive condition to mimic the original Civil War-era rail line.

Here is a short video about the Tallulah Falls Railway

The Locomotives

According to an article on the Walt Disney Family Museum website, Walt personally selected the locomotives that were to star in the movie. The General was played by the William Mason, a 4-4-0 American built in 1856 and still in use today. This was borrowed from the B&O Railroad Museum in Baltimore long with another engine, the Lafayette ( a reproduction), two Civil War era coaches, two ammunition cars, and two ammunition cars. The Inyo was borrowed from Paramount Studios to play the Texas.

Walt on location on the Georgia-Carolina border. © Disney.
From the Walt Disney Family Museum

Walt the Engineer

As you can see, Walt was very hands-on with this film. He sent several weeks on the set himself and became a regular in the small towns in the area. Michael Crawford notes in his Walt Disney Family Museum article how well thought of he was in the area, even paying the train crews a large sum above their regular salary to run the trains and work on the film. He also tells us that Walt himself would run the engines during breaks in the filming.

There are still rumors around that Walt considered purchasing the Tallulah Falls Railroad but his offer was turned down due to the railway’s accumulated debt of $300,000. As it turned out, the Old TF (as it was known locally) was sold as scrap only five years later. Seems the Southern Railway management may not have made the best decision in turning down the offer. Having driven through the area a few times, including September this year, I can tell you it is beautiful and a scenic railroad may well have been a hit (in the hands of the right owner of course).

The Uptown Theatre

Continuing with his personal touch on this movie. Walt decided to hold its premiere in his old hometown of Marceline. It ran in the Uptown Theatre for hours, until 1:30 in the morning. Everyone in town was invited to view the new film for free! Sadly, the Uptown no longer shows movies. There was a big plush Goofy in the ticket booth the day we visited.

The old railway station in Marceline, MO
Home of the Walt Disney Hometown Museum.

If you have the opportunity to visit Marceline be sure to stop at the Walt Disney Hometown Museum. It’s an amazing place and you can see some pieces from the filming of the Great Locomotive Chase there.

So there you have it. A bit of the history of The Great Locomotive Chase a film that was clearly near and dear to Walt’s own heart.

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3 thoughts on “G is for The Great Locomotive Chase”

  1. Annette says:

    how very fascinating! I thoroughly enjoyed this post

  2. Kristen says:

    I don’t ever recall hearing of this movie before…I will have to keep an eye out for it.

  3. Lori says:

    I may have to go find the movie now. It sounds interesting. And the book, of course.

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