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To commemorate Buster Keaton’s 1926 filming of “The General” in Cottage Grove, the city commissioned a two-story mural on a downtown building. - Bill Miller

The General of Cottage Grove

The screams are silent, but they're still there.

Although spectators knew they were watching the filming of a motion picture, the innocent residents of 1920s Cottage Grove knew nothing of Hollywood special effects. They hadn't expected to see a train crash through a burning bridge and plunge into the Row River, its engineer trapped inside.

Only later were they able to dry their tears and laugh at themselves when they learned the engineer was just a dummy.

It was July 23, 1926, and for nearly two months Buster Keaton had been in the community south of Eugene filming "The General," a silent comedy with a dramatic touch, loosely based on a true Civil War story of Northern spies who steal the title character of the film, a Confederate railroad locomotive.

Destroying the locomotive for just a few seconds of film cost more than $42,000, which until recently was considered the most expensive single special effect ever attempted. In today's money, the effect would cost nearly a half-million dollars.

"Railroads are great props to play with," Buster told a reporter. "You can do some awful wild things with railroads."

He had planned to shoot in Tennessee using the actual Confederate locomotive, but when the locals found out he was making a comedy, he was forced to quickly relocate his filming to Oregon.

Near Cottage Grove, the rolling hills seemed to match the northern Georgia locations of the original story. While the South no longer looked the same, Cottage Grove was a perfect stand-in, still rural with a population eager to be extras in a Hollywood production.

When Buster needed an army, he telephoned Oregon Gov. Walter Pierce.

"Governor, I need the whole Oregon State Guard for the war scenes," he said.

When Pierce hesitated, Buster offered to pay the soldiers' salaries on top of their regular pay.

"All right, they're yours," said the governor.

In one scene, the 500 men might play Johnny Rebs, and in the next, Billy Yanks.

"I'd put 'em in blue uniforms and bring 'em goin' from right to left, and take 'em out," said Buster. "Then I'd put 'em in gray uniforms and bring 'em going from left to right."

The Oregon, Pacific & Eastern Railroad, a small timber railway east of town, was willing to let Buster use its tracks and agreed to sell him two vintage 1880 locomotives. The production crew modified the engines to look like the Civil War-era originals.

The trains served not only as stars of the film; each morning they carried cast and crew to that day's shooting location.

Buster left in mid-September 1926, the wrecked steam engine abandoned in the river. There it remained until the scrap-iron drives of WWII, when most of it was finally hauled away.

In Cottage Grove, Buster Keaton's three-and-a-half month visit is still a precious memory. The Cottage Grove Historical Society helps preserve it by periodically showing Buster's film to crowds of screaming fans. But unlike the screams of 1926, these are the happy screams of laughter.

Bill Miller is a freelance writer living in Shady Cove. Reach him at newsmiller@yahoo.com

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