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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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Cinema’s Bikeway: Row River Trail

The Row River Trail has a rich Oregon film perigee. I have previously posted about the railroad being used in Buster Keaton’s masterpiece The General. This location, then the Oregon, Pacific and Eastern Railroad, was used again in the summer of 1985 for a classic coming-of-age story.

But first, to really explore the trail, I needed a bike. And so it was that I stood before Rainy Peak Bicycles, five minutes before 10 AM, waiting for the shop to open. The shop, on Main Street, is a mere five blocks from the start of the Row River Trail. The shop mainly repairs bikes but because of the popularity of the Row River Trail, they have a side hustle renting bikes.

But before I go on any great, or not so great, undertaking, I draw a map. In this case, the first ten miles of the Row (rhymes with “cow”) River Trail. Here I have noted milage and some of the locations I wanted to see, such as the location collapse of the train trestle from The General, which was the single most expensive shot in silent film history. Unfortunately getting to the spot requires trespassing on private property so I was not able to sketch the scene (and I did not want to get shot in the attempt).

I started off on the trail and it was easy going because it was a railroad grade and relatively flat. The first mile or so was used for a large number of the shots in The General. The next landmark I was looking forward to seeing was at milepost 3: the Mosby Creek Bridge.

The Mosby Creek Bridge was where the adventure begins in Rob Reiner’s classic film Stand By Me (1986). Back when the movie was filmed, railroad tracks spanned the bridge that crosses Mosby Creek and the four boys walk onto the the tracks here, and cross over the bridge on their journey to look for the body of Ray Brower (the film is based on Stephan King’s novella The Body). The bridge looks very much the same as the day when production occurred here in the summer of 1985. Today the rails have been replaced with asphalt and it is now a popular hiking and biking trail.

After crossing the bridge, the Row River Trail heads east in a straight section. It was along this straight section of the railroad that the first train dodge scene was filmed in which the character Teddy Duchamp (Corey Feldman) attempts to dodge an ongoing freight train.

I pulled over and pulled out my sketchbook and pencil bag. I stood in the middle of the the trail, assuming the perspective (and camera angle) of Teddy Duchamp, played by Corey Feldman. In 1985, he was looking down the rails to an oncoming steam freight train. The locomotive used in the shot was a 2-8-2 #19 which was built in 1915 and at the time was leased from the Yreka Western Railroad in Northern California. Luckily Teddy was pulled from the tracks by Chris, played by River Phoenix.

Riding a bike on the Row River Trail was one of the highlights of my summer break. The freedom of self-propulsion, the surrounding cinema history, and the beautiful scenery made this a memorial experience.
These Oregon Film Trail signs were a great help. This one is alone the shore of Dorena Lake near where the campfire scene was filmed in Stand By Me. Oh and later that day I did visit Brownsville, filling in as the fictional town of Castle Rock.
This the the bridge featured in the end of Stand By Me. This leads to the town of Brownsville, or which stood in for the town of Castle Rock in the film.
This perspective of Brownsville, is seen at the beginning of the film when Gordie Lachance (played by Wil Wheaton) walks down the street.