Todd DeFeo

The Great Locomotive Chase: 20 minutes until infamy

The General locomotive as seen on Nov. 27, 2011, at the Southern Museum of Civil War & Locomotive History in Kennesaw, Ga. (Photo by Todd DeFeo)

KENNESAW, Ga. — The morning passenger train wound its way through the rural Georgia countryside as Engineer Jeff Cain blew the locomotive’s whistle to signal that Big Shanty was approaching.

“Big Shanty, 20 minutes for breakfast,” Conductor William A. Fuller said.

In the early morning hours of April 12, 1862, the morning passenger train pulled by the General steamed into what was then Big Shanty. As the train eased into the station stop, most passengers and the train crew, exited the train and made their way into the Lacy Hotel for breakfast.

Before too long a group of 20 men — Union spies — made their way to the front of the train and uncoupled the locomotive and three boxcars. The group, led by James J. Andrews, planned to steal the train at Kennesaw and destroy the Western & Atlantic Railroad between Atlanta and Chattanooga, Tenn.

Four of them climbed into the locomotive; the rest hopped into the boxcars. Without warning, The General steamed off, marking the official start to The Great Locomotive Chase. They succeeded in commandeering the locomotive, but the plan ultimately failed.

The Andrews’ Raid, as the episode is also known, lives on in present day Kennesaw. In addition to a number of monuments dedicated to the raid located in downtown Kennesaw, The General itself is on display. Here is a brief overview of some of the sites associated with that fateful day 153 years ago.

Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History, Kennesaw

The General steam engine, the star of the Andrews’ Raid, is the centerpiece of The Southern Museum of Civil War and Locomotive History. Beyond its extensive raid-related collection, the museum is home to many war and railroad exhibits. It’s also home to a display about Glover Machine Works, a local engine builder. The Glover exhibit gives museum goers a look at how steam locomotives were built and what a factory of that era would have looked like.

Atlanta Cyclorama & Civil War Museum, Atlanta

Located in Grant Park, the Cyclorama is best known for its painted depiction of the Battle of Atlanta on July 22, 1864. The theater rotates in a 360-degree circle, allowing the audience to see the entire 42-foot-tall painting. There’s also narration on each part of the scene as the room rotates. While visitors are waiting to view the painting, they have the chance to see the locomotive Texas, the engine that ultimately caught up with the General to help end the Great Locomotive Chase.

The Cyclorama and the Texas locomotive are relocating to the Atlanta History Center this year.

Historic Western and Atlantic Railroad Tunnel, Tunnel Hill

Perhaps the most impressive sight along the route isn’t a museum. Rather, it’s the 1,477-foot tunnel through the Chetoogeta Mountain, which was completed by May 9, 1850, when the first train passed through it. The tunnel has been out of use since 1928, when a larger passage through the mountain opened, but the old railroad right of way and tunnel remain today. Even though it is no longer in use, the old tunnel remains an impressive sight and can be toured for a small fee.

Adairsville Rail Depot Age of Steam Museum, Adairsville

Just south of Adairsville, the raiders stopped to tear up the track, prohibiting their pursuers from continuing the chase in a locomotive. At this point, the pursuers abandoned their second locomotive — the William R. Smith — and continued on foot. Minutes later, they commandeered their third engine. They ran the Texas in reverse for the remainder of the chase. Today, a small museum located in the historic 1847 Western & Atlantic depot interprets the city’s role in the Great Locomotive Chase and features a number of exhibits related to the town’s history.

About Todd DeFeo
Todd DeFeo loves to travel anywhere, anytime, taking pictures and notes. An award-winning reporter, Todd revels in the experience and the fact that every place has a story to tell. He is owner of The DeFeo Groupe and also edits Express Telegraph and Railfanning.org.