Well-known films helped capture RRs’ impact on Willamette Valley

While part of the movie “Stand By Me,” left, was filmed on the OP&E trackage in our area, the most iconic scenes were filmed outside of Oregon and the southern Willlamette Valley. The Columbia Pictures release came out in 1986.

Editor’s note: Part II of a two-part series.

In 1979-80, when we moved Bohemia Mining Days from downtown, it moved to the vacant Chambers mill site. It had been purchased by a California contractor, Alex Madonna.

There were three major movies made on the tracks of OP&E. The first was The General, starring Buster Keaton, which was filmed in 1926. The second was Emperor of the North, starring Ernest Borgnine, Keith Carradine, and Lee Marvin. Engine 19, the Blue Goose, was the major prop/showpiece. The film was popular and made money for 20th Century Fox. The filming was 1972 and the release date to the theatres was 1973. Twentieth Century Fox, through an agreement with OP&E, rebuilt the engine after filming was completed.

This writer had been asked to look at a job in 1972. My wife, son, and I were visiting from Everett, our hometown, sitting in the Village Green Cooper Rooster Coffee Shop when Ernest Borgnine and his wife walked in. 

Our table was next to the counter – as they walked by our table, Jean made mention – “thoroughly enjoyed your performance in Marty.” Borgnine had won an academy award in 1955 for his performance as Marty. Borgnine and wife had a quick lunch, and when they left, they stopped at our table, and Jean asked him for his autograph – he wrote it on a napkin. People who knew him always said he was very jovial and had a big smile.

The third major film on OP&E Tracks was Stand By Me, a 1986 release by Columbia Pictures. There were a few scenes filmed on OP&E trackage – namely, the steel bridge and shots of Engine 19. Most of the film was shot in the Brownsville, Ore., area. 

There is some misconception that the scene on the long trestle and the boys playing chicken in front of an oncoming steam locomotive was Engine 19. This is incorrect – the actual Engine was #25 out of Ukiah, Calif. The trestle was the Eagle Mountain Bridge in Purney, Calif. This film was also a money maker for Columbia Pictures.  

The 1926 General is the movie most talked about and written about in the Willamette Valley and throughout the world of history and entertainment. At the time of production, it was one of the most expensive films for its time. Unfortunately, it did not turn a big profit. This might be related to another magnificent film that lives on today – a film produced in 1946 starring Jimmy Stewart and Donna Reed, that was considered a flop at the box office. It was the first film directed by a major director after his service in the Armed Forces following WWII. The producer of A Wonderful Life was Frank Capra. Early in life, he had served in WWI in 1918. He was one of the most successful directors in Hollywood, and one of the first to enlist in the Army and served 1941-45, and mustered out as a Colonel.

Some of his early films: It Happened One Night, Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, Meet John Doe. He learned his craft as a movie producer and director at Hal Roach Studios as a writer for Our Gang comedies, and also worked as a director for Mack Sennett Studios. These studios are famous for the creation of the Keystone Kops.

Years later, the releasing studio for A Wonderful Life did not renew copyright. The film became public domain and was immediately distributed on VHS tapes. The times and the mood of the viewing public had changed. Today, A Wonderful Life is considered an all-time classic. It has been a standard at Christmas since it first appeared on the old VHS tapes and is shown numerous times during the holidays on television.

The General, in real life, was made famous in the civil war chase in 1864. It was chased by a like locomotive, The Texan. The two original engines are preserved in museums. The Texan is located at the Atlanta History Center in Atlanta, Ga., and The General is in Kennesaw, Ga., Museum of Civil War History.

The 1926 script for The General follows the storyline pretty well, though it is dramatized. Buster Keaton did much of his own stunt work, and it has been reliably reported that he did the stunts riding the cow catcher on The General. Keaton and many of his crew stayed several weeks in the Bartell Hotel, downtown Cottage Grove, which is now the Cottage Grove Hotel at 9th and Main.

The three general type locomotives were property of OP&E, and had been purchased and painted for the movie. Of course, the third one was destroyed in the collapse of the fire-destroyed bridge over the river. The remains of the engine lay there until the 1940s, when it was retrieved for scrap metal.

I had seen a silent version of The General in high school in Everett in my youth. So when Jean and I moved to CG, I was familiar with the movie, and was fortunate enough to learn the filming locations and the history of the production here in South County. In 1980, one of our exhibits for BMD was a two-day showing of The General at the Elks Club, in conjunction with a spaghetti fundraising dinner for BMD.

Many readers will remember that period of time – the 1970s and ’80s in American history. Pizza houses were showing two to three different silent movies on TV screens while you enjoyed pizza. So we showed a sound version of The General with spaghetti. When I say sound – it was musical accompaniment with sound effects. The print was Super 8, and it was from Blackhawk Films, Davenport, Iowa.

In 1956, Walt Disney Studio produced and distributed The Great Locomotive Chase, starring Fess Parker. I have not researched where Disney filmed it, but it was not in the Southern Willamette Valley.

This is a brief history of the railroads in our area and some of the motion pictures filmed through the years.

Upcoming writings will give short storylines on steam locomotives’ excursion trips within a day’s drive of Cottage Grove. There are three in Oregon.

All of these steam RR trips are educational, particularly for the youth. And they bring back memories for those of us who walked this earth in the 1940s and ’50s.



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