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The silver screen has a knack for bringing history to life. In 1998, the story of Southern Railway’s 4501 was painted in vibrant colors and emotional drama with the release of “October Sky”, starring Jake Gyllenhaal, Chris Cooper, Chris Owen, and Laura Dern. The film, a poignant reflection of the 1950s era, blended the magic of cinema with the historic allure of our locomotives.

The Story Behind “October Sky

Set in the coal-mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia in 1957, “October Sky” offers a heartfelt narrative based on Homer H. Hickam, Jr.’s semi-autobiographical book, “Rocket Boys”. The plot revolves around a group of high school students who dream beyond their destinies of becoming coal miners. With their eyes set on the stars, literally and figuratively, they embark on a journey of self-education, constructing rockets in hopes of securing a win at the national science fair. Leading the pack is young Homer Hickam, portrayed brilliantly by Jake Gyllenhaal, with his gang Quentin Wilson (Chris Owen), Roy Lee Cooke (William Lee Scott), and Sherman O’Dell (Chad Lindberg).

Recreating the Past: 4501’s Role in the Film

The Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum (TVRM) was at the heart of the railroad sequences, providing the engine 4501, water car WT51, and the ex. Savannah & Atlanta caboose X-252. Completing the train’s makeup were ten coal hoppers from the Tennessee Southern Railway. Transported to Emory Gap, Tennessee on March 29, 1998, the 4501 underwent a cinematic transformation, bearing the logo of Norfolk & Western locomotive in alignment with the movie’s West Virginian setting.

An interesting tidbit for rail enthusiasts: one of the Tennessee Valley Authority’s (TVA) diesel engines that ushered the train into the steam plant was GP9 No. 028. This locomotive has a rich history, having once been the Seaboard Air Line No. 1912, and was eventually acquired by TVRM.

A standout scene from the movie features our young protagonists startled by the sound of a train whistle as they attempt to pull up abandoned tracks. Racing against time, they try to restore the tracks, only to discover the train charting a different course. The engineer in this iconic scene? None other than renowned railroad photographer, O. Winston Link.

After the Final Cut

Once filming wrapped up, 4501 journeyed back to Chattanooga. It reverted to its original Southern Railway branding, but its screen magic had come at the tail end of its active service. Within a few months, it retired, waiting silently with an uncertain operational future.

Accompanying this blog are captivating shots of 4501 during its “October Sky” days, a snapshot of the real Homer Hickam alongside Jake Gyllenhaal and Chris Owens, production notes, train orders, and some iconic stills from the movie. Special mention to Mike Ray for his exceptional photo of the train being towed out of Chattanooga and to Bo Ellis for the production notes.

The legacy of the 4501, interwoven with the dreams and aspirations of Hickam and his friends, ensures that both the locomotive and the movie retain their places in our hearts and history.