The Great Locomotive Chase Steams Forth

You’ve seen it on our puzzles, calendar, and prints! You’ve asked about it, and we listened! The Great Locomotive Chase is finally on display!

If you have been to Civil War Tails since 2018 or purchased that year’s calendar, you might know this photo, showing the locomotive General on a railroad track. But where was the General in the museum? The answer was “Nowhere”; it was in storage, along with the Texas and the rest of their diorama. Ever since opening in 2015, we have wanted to bring out “The Great Locomotive Chase,” but we could not settle on a good plan of how to display them.

According to our photo record, Ruth made the diorama sometime between July 2000 and August 2001, after reading about the Great Locomotive Chase. In August 1862, James Andrews and a small band of Union raiders stole the Confederate locomotive General in Georgia and steamed northward, damaging track and telegraph wires along the way. The General’s conductor pursued them, ultimately chasing them down in the Texas, in reverse. Ruth made our locomotives and boxcar from cardboard, paper, string, and wire. The track uses toothpicks for the ties, and cardboard for the rails.

The first photo of “The Great Locomotive Chase” diorama, taken Aug. 14, 2001.

Time can be rough on dioramas, and over the years, the reindeer moss “bushes” along the tracks were banged and bumped so much that by 2015, few remained, giving the track a plain, uninspiring appearance. The General lost a wheel, and we were always a little afraid to ask how much more damage might exist. Add to that the dilemma of how to display the fragile locomotives in reach of sight but not touch, and for the last eight years, we have been at an impasse.

In mid-March, after talking with a visitor who was very interested in the General, we began seriously pondering the logistics of making it happen. As we did so, we discovered the wall near the diorama of the ironclads. We had moved a clock, and now it seemed as if the empty wall were begging for the General and Texas to come out.

When we pulled the pieces of the diorama out of their storage trunk, we discovered that the Texas and boxcar were basically ready to go! One Confederate cat on the Texas had lost an arm, and it took us a while to find a spare arm for him (and the doors for the boxcar), but other than that, they were in perfect condition. Not bad for bumping around in a trunk for over 20 years. The General needed minor repairs, but nothing major—and yes, we still had the wheel that had broken off!

But what about the uninspiring track? We added “talus,” tiny fake rocks, which involved placing nearly every rock between the ties by hand, with tweezers. To keep us from growing bored while placing and gluing rocks, we listened to an audio CD of A. Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes adventure, The Hound of the Baskervilles.

Once the tedium of the talus was over, we added new reindeer moss bushes. We also used dried flowers to represent grasses, wildflowers, and undergrowth. Looking at the result, one would never know it’s just a plain toothpick track on a flat board!

Perhaps the trickiest part, believe it or not, was figuring out where to put which locomotive. With cardboard trains and an old track, the imperfectly aligned wheels did not always line up with the wavy rails where we wanted to place the engine. But there might be another section of track where the misaligned and the wavy matched. We tried the locomotives on this end and that, added the boxcar, sorted it all out, cut the board into two (a longer piece for the Texas and boxcar, and a shorter for the General)—and then when all was finished, both locomotives decided they didn’t like their designated ends of the track! So, we spent more time, putting the Texas on one end of its board, then the other, then farther forward, farther back, etc., and then repeating the process with the General. At last, we could glue the locomotives and boxcar permanently to the track.

In the meantime, we decided to spruce up the boxcar by painting its smoke. During the raid, Andrews’ men set the boxcars on fire when they uncoupled them from the General as obstacles for the pursuers. Our boxcar does not yet show visible damage from fire on the outside, so we chose to do very little in the way of flames. We painted its fluff as smoke with a little glow of fire inside.

With the finished diorama installed on the wall, it was time to celebrate! After waiting eight years, the 22-year-old locomotives had finally found their place in Civil War Tails. And what better way to celebrate than by watching Buster Keaton’s The General, a hilarious silent movie from 1926 showing a fictionalized version of the Great Locomotive Chase!

Next time you visit Civil War Tails, check out “The Great Locomotive Chase”!

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