Bits of 1926 Hollywood train wreck are still in Row River
The movie was "The General," starring Buster Keaton; in the scene, a real locomotive is crashed through a real burning bridge into the river, at a cost (in 2010 dollars) of more than half a million dollars
A real locomotive plunges into the real Row River in the climactic scene
of Buster Keaton's "The General," in 1927. Bits of that locomotive are
still being picked out of the river where the bridge once was. (Thanks to
Cottage Grove Historical Society for making this image available. To see
many other historical photos, including several more from this movie,
By Finn J.D. John — February 14, 2010
Oregon has a reputation as a great place to make a movie – among other reasons, because it’s generally less expensive to film here.
But the most expensive scene ever shot in a silent movie was put in the can right here in the Beaver State – just south of Cottage Grove – 84 years ago.
A 1920s "Waterworld"?
That scene went into a movie that cost a then-staggering $750,000 to make – and went on to become a major money-losing flop at the box office, clearing roughly $500,000. (Remember, these are 1926 dollars. People were buying brand-new cars in 1926 for less than $300.)
But history has been far kinder to it than moviegoers were in 1927, and today, it’s widely considered one of the best movies of the silent era. Film writer Tim Dirks introduces it as “an imaginative masterpiece of dead-pan ‘Stone-Face’ Buster Keaton comedy, generally regarded as one of the greatest of all silent comedies (and Keaton's own favorite) – and undoubtedly the best train film ever made.”
The movie was “The General,” starring Buster Keaton – who also produced the film. (And if you’re from South Lane County, you already know this story by heart. You may even have a family member who was one of the hundreds of locals hired as extras for the picture.)
In the movie, a stubborn Confederate train engineer named Johnnie has his beloved locomotive, The General, stolen by Union spies (with his girlfriend on board). He pursues them and his train into Union territory, overhears a group of Union generals planning an attack across a certain railroad bridge, and decides to repossess his train and bring it and his girlfriend back south. A lengthy train chase ensues, with two Union trains chasing The General southward as Johnnie pulls telegraph poles down and leaves bits of his train behind to slow them. It culminates in a $42,000 scene (in 1926 dollars; in today's dollars, that's about $506,000) in which the pursuing Union train tries to cross a railroad bridge after Johnnie has set it on fire. The bridge collapses in the middle and the train – a full, working steam locomotive and cars, not a model – plunges into the “Rock River” below.
A half-million-dollar movie scene
In reality, it was the Row River, just south of Cottage Grove. And thousands of people came from all over the area to watch the scene being shot. It had to be done on one take – Keaton couldn’t afford to build a new bridge, buy a new locomotive and try again. It had to be perfect.
Most of the train is now gone, but Lloyd Williams of the Cottage Grove Historical Society told reporter Meghan Kalkstein in 2007 that bits of track and steel can still be seen in the river when the water level is low. Several years ago, a mural was painted on the side of the historic Cottage Grove Hotel downtown, commemorating the filming.
By the way, this isn’t Cottage Grove’s only claim to box-office fame. Among other projects, “Stand By Me” was filmed along some of the same railroad beds Keaton chugged along, and the parade scene from “Animal House” was filmed on Main Street there.
(Sources: Dirks, Tom. “AMC Filmsite” (www.filmsite.org); Kalkstein, Meghan. “Remains of ‘The General,’” KVAL-TV, May 23, 2007; Cottage Grove Historical Society)