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Saturday, December 7, 2013

A Return to Cottage Grove

Buster Keaton’s silent masterpiece The General was always one of my favorites and the bridge collapse and locomotive crash in the climactic scene at the end of the film (and the single-most expensive shot in the history of silent film) had always intrigued me.

The film had mostly been shot in the small Oregon town of Cottage Grove, and though I had never visited, when I was researching the story, the local library was kind enough to send me photocopies of some of the town’s newspaper coverage of the filming.

A Return To Cottage Grove was read aloud and displayed at the 2007 convention of The Buster Keaton Society, which took place at Cottage Grove. I was told they enjoyed it.

For years afterward, the train lay at the bottom of the river where it had come to rest after the bridge collapsed. Their curiosity aroused by the stories, people often hiked to the isolated spot, where they would stand silently and point at the wreckage, imagining the sound of the steam whistle hissing angrily as it struck the water. After all, they had seen the wreck dozens of times before in the movie.

I sat on the narrow bank of the Row River, some seventy years after the locomotive The Texas sank violently to the bottom of its waters and tried to recreate the scene in my mind. I could hear the sounds of the whistle screaming, of the timbers bending and snapping as the bridge collapsed, of the metal grinding and twisting, the train falling to its death.

The shallow waters of the Row ran smoothly, silently, flowing downstream around a gentle curve where the Oregon National Guard, dressed as Civil War soldiers had staged the greatest battle Cottage Grove had ever seen. Of course, the wreckage of the train was long gone; the scrap iron drive of the Second World War had claimed most of the usable metal and a junk dealer had taken the rest years later. The tourists had also faded with the passage of time and most of those who had actually been present had gone the way of The Texas, leaving only those of us who had heard the story to carry on the memory.

My grandfather had been eight years-old when Buster Keaton checked into the Cottage Grove Hotel, in town to film his silent epic “The General”. Like most of the citizens of Cottage Grove, young Vilas Samuals had gotten caught up in the excitement of having a real-life movie star come to his town to film a motion picture. He found himself hanging around the hotel, hoping to catch a glimpse of the famous film comedian and at one point even had the good fortune of obtaining Keaton’s autograph on a scrap of paper. The first thing that a person notices upon arrival to Cottage Grove, Oregon is the weather. Located in the heart of Northwestern lumber country, the air is crisp and clear and even on summer mornings there is often a light dew covering the grass. It was the weather and the beauty of the countryside that lured the Keaton Studio to Cottage Grove and I imagine that it was some of these same qualities that kept my grandfather in the town for all of his seventy nine years.

I drove to Cottage Grove after my grandfather’s death. It was late evening when I pulled up to the clapboard house where he had lived his entire life and the place I had spent most of my childhood summers. The old house was quiet and stuffy, so I turned on the lights in every room and opened the windows. It was warm and familiar, like the comfort of an old sweater, but at the same time, each room seemed empty without Grandpa Vi.

I saw bits and pieces of his life in every corner. There were the orange work caps with the soiled brims that he had worn to the mills. The pipes on the mantle still smelled of Prince Albert smoking tobacco and hung in the hallway was a yellowed piece of paper with Buster Keaton’s autograph, framed with a grainy 8x10 photograph of the dour-faced clown. Grandpa had often told me how they let school out the day Keaton filmed the great train crash at the Row River—the single most expensive shot in silent film history, they said. He said many people walked the entire twenty miles to the river’s banks to watch the filming. There had been an exciting, carnival-like atmosphere surrounding the event, with everyone watching in awe as Keaton put his guardsmen through their paces. Grandpa Vi and his brother Virgil had watched from the bank as the bridge was set on fire. The nervous hum of the crowd grew tense as people strained to see every movement on the bridge below.

Grandpa loved to describe the locomotive as it began to slowly crawl along the tracks. The bridge began to creak and moan. “Someone’s on the train!” a man screamed, pointing toward the bridge. The onlookers grew uneasy and Grandpa Vi watched—there was someone at the throttle! The Texas moved through the flames that licked at its sleek, shiny engine. Suddenly, the bridge collapsed with a thunderous roar and the crowd screamed as one, terrified for the unfortunate engineer manning the helm. The whistle’s tortured cry echoed through the surrounding forest as the bridge tumbled down around the fallen locomotive, steam spewing out of the churning water.

My grandfather used to take me to the place where the locomotive had fallen, to fish or picnic. Each time, I would beg to hear the story and each time he would oblige. When I was sixteen, Grandpa checked out a 16 millimeter copy of “The General” and a projector from the library and we watched quietly as the black and white images danced silently across the screen. As the flickering Texas fell into the water, my stomach flip-flopped and my mind imagined the death screams of the train’s whistle and the terror of the spectators just beyond the camera’s range. Of course, my grandfather explained, there had been no one aboard the locomotive—it had been a dummy that went down with the train. Nevertheless, I was thrilled to see the picture that had played such a memorable role in my grandfather’s childhood. I stole glances at him as he watched the screen intently, smiling as if he were viewing the film for the first time.

The night I arrived in Cottage Grove after his death, I slept in Grandad’s bed and thought of his life as the streetlights played shadows on the wall. He had worked in the sawmills until he was in his mid-sixties and based most of his attitudes, beliefs and needs on the cycles, history and activities of his community. He was a simple man from a small town who was never too busy to help a neighbor shingle his roof, or listen to a joke, poorly told, by a passing friend.

I could smell my grandfather in the room and could almost hear him whistling in the hall—but softly, as not to wake Grandmother. As I began to drift off to sleep in the security of his home, I suddenly missed Grandpa Vi deeply, not certain how to cope with the unsettling feeling of irreplaceable loss. Now, sitting on the bank of the river Row, I watched the water ripple over a rock, creating a whirlpool. For a moment, I thought I glimpsed a piece of rusted metal beneath the swirling current. I looked closer and it was gone, an illusion. Gazing at the river it was difficult to picture the bridge, the locomotive or the two thousand men marching its banks. But in the next moment, when I closed my eyes, I conjured up the picture my grandfather had drawn a thousand times.

It was a scratchy image, a black and white world with subtle shades of gray adding texture to the silent rumblings of the great locomotive. Buster Keaton, sad-faced and mournful, staring over the throttle of a steaming engine. My grandfather gazing longingly at the water, picturing the ghost of a memory passed, a memory forever alive in his heart.

The whirlpool twirled in an endless cycle, flowing gently over the rock and I found that if I squinted, I could see a rusted piece of The Texas. And if I cleared my mind, I could see the bridge, the men and the glorious battle of Cottage Grove. But the memory I could draw most vividly was the image of Grandpa Vi, smiling warmly, sitting on the bank of the Row, telling a young boy once again about the summer Buster Keaton came to Cottage Grove.

As the sun set over the Row Rover, I gathered myself up and prepared for the hike back to my car. I breathed a heavy sigh and looked out over the peaceful water. Just as the memory of a summer’s day seventy years ago had been etched into my Grandfather’s mind like a cherished photograph, I could never be without Grandpa Vi, the memories he had passed on to me, or our shared moments at the final resting place of The Texas.

From the book of short stories "Grainy Memories", available at

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