Volunteers perform restoration on locomotive
By Mark Brown
N.C. Transportation Museum
SPENCER — The new cosmetic restoration of a classic steam locomotive was unveiled at the N.C. Transportation Museum in a ceremony May 21. The Southern Railway No. 542 has more than a century’s worth of history as a working locomotive, a display piece at one of the Triad’s largest parks and an appearance three years ago in the George Clooney-starring movie “Leatherheads.”
The May 21 rededication of the Southern Railway No. 542 took place at the Bob Julian Roundhouse officiated by Chief of Museum Services and Education Larry Neal and museum volunteer John Barnett, who helped organize the restoration. As the engine rolled out of the roundhouse and onto the turntable, all the volunteers who contributed long hours and hard work to the restoration were recognized.
The No. 542 was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Works in August 1903. Classified as a 2-8-0 Consolidation, the locomotive operated in North Carolina on the Southern Railway around Statesville and Winston-Salem. Similar class 2-8-0 locomotives were extensively used by the Southern to pull freight trains throughout the entire system. The Southern owned only 90 of this rare type J-class locomotive. The No. 542 was part of a series numbered 505-548. During its time in operation, repairs and regular maintenance to the No. 542 were performed at Pomona Shops in Greensboro and Spencer Shops, now the site of the engine’s home, the N.C. Transportation Museum.
The engine’s working career lasted until 1954. But while the engine would never run again, the No. 542 has had a very active retirement.
Upon its removal from service, Southern Railway donated the engine to Tanglewood Park near Clemmons. It would remain on display for visitors, a fixture at the park for 37 years. The locomotive also served as an early part of the park’s now well-known Christmas light displays.
In 1991, N.C. Transportation Museum officials came to an agreement with the park, trading an ex-Illinois Central locomotive for the No. 542. A grant from the Winston-Salem Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society funded the locomotive’s move. As the final remaining J-class locomotive used by the Southern Railway, the piece was an important part of Spencer Shops’ history and the N.C. Transportation Museum. The locomotive was displayed in the Roundhouse for many years to follow.
In 2008, Hollywood came to the N.C. Transportation Museum. The site and several pieces of rail equipment were chosen for use in “Leatherheads,” which Clooney starred in and directed. While the engine was cosmetically restored for the movie, something was missing.
The No. 542’s tender, pulled behind all steam locomotives to carry water, fuel and coal, was in rough condition. Museum volunteers, however, had just put the finishing touches on their restoration of the tender for the No. 604 steam locomotive. The decision was made to use the No. 604’s tender and change the No. 542’s designation — the numbers painted on the side — to No. 604.
Following the appearance in “Leatherheads,” the No. 542, still bearing the numbers 6-0-4, was featured at the museum, primarily on the display track near the Master Mechanic’s Office.
This recent cosmetic restoration, however, puts each piece back into its rightful place. With museum volunteers Barnett and Robin Eanes overseeing the project, the locomotive’s original tender has been restored and reattached and the designation has been returned to 5-4-2. The locomotive has had the proper air compressor installed. All the piping and handrails have been placed back on the locomotive and new jacketing has been fabricated and installed on the backhead.
A grant from the Greensboro Chapter of the NRHS helped to fund the cosmetic restoration over the last several months. All in all, the engine now looks like it appeared serving the Atlantic and Yadkin Railroad in 1947, if not better. It will be displayed in the Bob Julian Roundhouse and remain a treasured part of the museum’s rail collection for many years to come.