Buster Keaton’s The General

For some time I wanted to visit the filming locations of Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General, if any of locations still existed. (One location used in the film is now underwater!)

The film was made during the summer of 1926 in and near the town of Cottage Grove, Oregon. The forested backgrounds and the tracks of the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railroad made Cottage Grove an ideal filming location to fill in as Georgia during the Civil War.

But was there anything still recognizable? Probably not too much but with the help of the book Silent Echos: Early Hollywood Through the Films of Buster Keaton by John Bengston, I could find a few reminders of those days in the summer of 1926.

A pre-trip sketch of a scene filmed on the double tracks near downtown Cottage Grove. In the background of this shot is Hansen Butte, which is still very much recognizable today (see featured sketch).

The General has long been considered a masterpiece of the silent film era and one of Buster Keaton’s best. In the Sight And Sound list of The Greatest Movies of All Time, The General comes in at number 34, the highest ranked silent comedy on the list. Orson Welles (whose own masterpiece, Citizen Kane, comes in at Number 2) once described The General as, “the greatest comedy ever made, the greatest Civil War film ever made, and perhaps the greatest film ever made”. Now that’s saying something!

The film is loosely based on a real incident known as the Great Locomotive Chase which occurred during the Civil War on April 12, 1862 in northern Georgia. It involved the theft, by a northern raiding party, of the locomotive The General and the pursuit by the locomotive The Texas for about to 90 miles.

On Main Street is the Cottage Grove Hotel where Keaton and the crew stayed during the filming. This hotel can be seen from the filming location which is now the Row River Trail. The hotel now sports a mural.

Many of the train scenes were filmed on a pair of parallel double tracks that ran for about half a mile on the former Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railroad. These tracks were appealing to the film crew because two trains could run parallel to each other, one train with the camera and crew, the other train, the subject of the shot and the actors (including Keaton). The tracks are now gone (the railroad was scrapped and removed in 1994), but you can now explore the former rail right of way by either foot or bike. The former railroad is now the Row River Trail.

The section with the double track runs behind a Safeway. While the area is completely changed since 1926, the hills in the background (Hansen Butte and Know Hill) are still the same (see featured sketch). I did walk down the path and did a sketch of the former filming location.

This is looking west down the former tracks of the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railroad used for filming The General.
Riding east on the Row River Trail, the filming location of many scenes in The General. The back of the Safeway is on the upper right. More about this cinematic bike ride in the next post! (No cyclists were injured in the taking of this photograph).

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