How Buster Keaton Filmed The General

Click to enlarge

Click to enlarge. Buster and crew stayed at the Bartell Hotel (1), steps from the Union Camp set (2) built north of the tracks and filmed looking north, (3) the half-mile length of parallel train tracks (dotted line) used for all of the tracking shots, all filmed looking south, (4) the open field (green outline) between Main Street and the tracks, used for the Confederate army retreat, filmed looking south, and (5), the Marietta and Chattanooga town sets, built south of the tracks and filmed looking south. (C) 2014 Nokia (C) 2014 Microsoft Corporation Pictometry Bird’s Eye (C) 2012 MDA Geospatial Services Inc.

I had the honor of introducing Buster Keaton’s 1926 masterpiece The General at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s inaugural “A Day of Silents Festival.”  Preceding the show, these informational slides (below) prepared by the festival’s Artistic Director Anita Monga, ran on a loop as people took their seats.  Although Keaton had to travel 900 miles north from Hollywood to Cottage Grove, Oregon to film The General, the vast majority of the location shooting took place just steps from the hotel where Buster stayed (above). My brief speech about how Buster had the time of his life making The General follows at the end of this post.

Update – the static slides appear further below, but here is my YouTube video showing how Buster made the film.















Video 01This brief video hosted by A.M.P.A.S. from a talk I gave there further explains how Buster filmed The General in Cottage Grove.  You can read all about filming The General in my Keaton film locations book Silent Echoes.


Please help support naming the Chaplin Keaton Lloyd alley in Hollywood by posting a review on Google Maps. Prototype alley sign design by noted Dutch graphic artist – Piet Schreuders. Download a 4-page brochure HERE. This video further explains the alley – if you can, please leave a thumbs up.

My introductory speech – Buster Had the Time of His Life Making The General. “Much has been said about Buster Keaton’s favorite movie, The General, long recognized as a masterpiece.  To begin, it’s an epic, fact-based, historical, action-adventure, romantic-comedy.  Almost purely visual, the story plays out as nearly one continuous chase, comprised of remarkably elegant tracking shots.  Buster wanted it to be so authentic that it hurts, and watching it is like seeing Mathew Brady photographs come to life.

But I like to think of just how much fun Buster must have had when making The General.  Buster loved trains.  As a child star in his family’s vaudeville act, Buster grew up traveling the country by rail.  Buster used trains in many films, and in his later years he built a model train equipped with special cars to run hot dogs and sodas from his kitchen out to the pool.

Buster filmed The General on location in Cottage Grove Oregon during the summer of 1926.  He’d been a feature film star for years, was at the top of his game, and was just 30 years old.  Buster spent that summer doing what he loved best; fishing, playing baseball, and making movies.

You can imagine how exciting it must have been for Cottage Grove, a small town, to host a major Hollywood production for an entire summer.  The majority of the filming took place just steps from the hotel where Buster stayed, so people were constantly stopping by to watch the filming.

Buster’s antics were well-documented in the local paper.  Described as a kindly monarch at work, and quick, nimble, and alert on the ball field, Buster played charity baseball games with several teams, both in town and in nearby Eugene, and would halt production for a quick game whenever he was stuck for an idea.  Buster’s co-star Marion Mack endeared herself to the locals by riding around town between takes on her bicycle, reportedly to maintain her trim figure.

Love blossomed during the production when a member of Keaton’s crew proposed to a local girl and they were promptly married.  During the reception Buster hid the couple behind a screen, and raised money for them by charging guests $.25 a peek to watch them kiss.

As filming wound down, the Lions Club hosted a farewell picnic and dance at the city park, lighted with Chinese paper lanterns.  So much home-cooking was provided that even a ravenous film crew couldn’t devour it all.  In turn, the cast and crew, many of whom were veterans of the stage, including Buster’s father Joe, entertained the crowd for hours with spontaneous songs and dance.  In an era preceding television, and even broadcast radio, it’s charming to imagine the town and crew sharing simple fellowship through music.

And lastly, with a display of orchestrated carnage that puts the Mythbusters to shame, Buster capped the production by building a special 300 foot long trestle just so he could crash a real locomotive through it.  The entire town closed down to watch the shoot, and when the complicated scene went off without a hitch, Buster was reported to be as happy as a kid.

So when I think about The General, I don’t think about the accolades, the top ten lists, the critical analysis.  As a fan I just smile, knowing Buster had the time of his life making The General that magical summer.”

Below, the Bartell Hotel building in Cottage Grove where Keaton and crew stayed during the production.

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34 Responses to How Buster Keaton Filmed The General

  1. Carrie Pomeroy says:

    Wonderful slide show! I especially love seeing the still-existent structures and knowing more about how Keaton and his crew re-created Civil War-era scenes so close to where they were staying. You and Ms. Monga made a good team.


  2. Lea S. says:

    A future pilgrimage here is my dream. Thank you for the excellent research (as always!).


  3. The collapsing bridge and locomotive is still a spectacular scene. On a contemporary note, isn’t Cottage Grove also the scene of the filming of “Twilight”?


  4. Another thought. I recall the scene where Buster tries to use a water tower to re-water his engine and how the pipe broke, dousing him and Marion Mack with a deluge of water. As I recall, the water surge was not only unplanned, but nearly washed Miss Mack off the engine, which would have likely resulted in her being killed or seriously injured. Keaton grabbed her at the last minute and prevented her fall.


    • It knocked her down a bit, but not towards the edge of the train. Yes, the story goes she was not in on the plan, and was pretty angry. In another scene, when Buster dumps her out of a burlap sack onto the floor of the rail car, you can see her ankle strike the edge of a crate. Mrs. Keaton pointed that out at a screening.


      • It was still a dangerous scene, though. Keaton was no stranger to those! Of course, everyone remembers that collapsing barn facade from “Steamboat Bill, Jr.”. I guess you had to be pretty rugged to be in a movie with him!


  5. Buster Keaton is my favorite silent film star. I love getting a glimpse into how he worked and where he filmed all of his greats! I own your book by the way and I think it’s absolutely fascinating and so informative! I really think it’s a must for any silent film fan!


  6. Dennis James says:

    Check out the Lily Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN. They have a collection of snapshots and albums of photos taken by local residents of Cottage Grove during the filming of THE GENERAL. I saw shots of such summer pastimes as the cast and crew of the film making up a baseball team playing against the locals in a jovial game. – Dennis James, Silent Film Concerts


  7. Dana Calderwood says:

    Thank you SO much for your books. I spent my teen years learning about Keaton, Chaplin, Lloyd, and my fascination with them has not abated 40 years later. Your books bring them to life for new generations to enjoy. I’m thinking of adding a trip to Cottage Grove to my itinerary in the future. The one “must see” site for me is where the bridge collapsed in “The General.” Can you tell me how to find the location of your “present day” photograph at the river?
    Dana Calderwood


    • Hi Dana – thank you for your kind words, they mean a lot to me. I haven’t been back to Cottage Grove in over 15 years. Things may have changed, but at the time I was there it was just west of the Culp Creek Post Office trailer. The site was near where Culp Creek joins the Row River.


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  10. Bart D says:

    Thanks for this website. Very interesting. I too wonder whether there’s anything left of the bridge. I read somewhere that remnants of the engine were there until World War II, when the metal was “recyled” for the war effort.

    I also wonder whether the bridge site is.


    • Hi Bart – a reader who visited the spot in 2015 wrote these very detailed notes about how to get there:
      Hello John.
      I make my home in London, Ontario, where one of my hobbies is a fairly extensive 16mm Buster collection, (which I show outdoors to friends and family during week-end evenings in the summer months).
      I am just heading home after a trip out west, during which I visited the Cottage Grove and Culp Creek film locations from “The General”, and wanted to say that your “Silent Echoes” was indispensable for locating and understanding the relevant film locations – – although I was also greatly assisted in making my way to the Culp Creek locations through assistance from Lloyd Williams, (from the Cottage Grove Historical Society, as you know).
      I explored the various sites thoroughly on April 20-21, 2015, and thought you might appreciate some updates since your last visit, (which I gather, from your other postings, was a number of years ago).
      Time and change have continued to work their erasures.
      Within Cottage Grove, while most of what you documented is still capable of being located and seen, there have been further changes, and the horizon sightlines have been complicated in a number of ways.
      Looking down South River Road, just across Silk Creek, (from the point where Buster is ejected from the recruiting office), the large white barn is no longer there. It apparently was the victim of a fire a few years ago. The foundation, however, is still there and marked.
      Standing just north of where the tracks used to be at the north end of N.14th street, looking south to where Buster shot the Marietta street scenes, (i.e., back towards Coiner Park), the view towards Hansen Butte is now blocked by an extensive addition to the western side of the Safeway store, turning it into a rather large mall. In other words, even more of the fields south of the double track portion now have been developed, making it that much harder to imagine the wide open spaces that once served as Buster’s background. One has to go around to the store parking lot to look at the southern horizon…which is now largely impossible to follow from the path of the tracks, (which I followed around to the Main Street crossing).
      At the same spot, (from where Buster aimed his camera south to shoot the Marietta street scenes), if one turns north, (where Buster aimed his camera to shoot the Union Camp scenes, etc.), access and sightlines now are prevented by the town’s construction of a city maintenance yard on the railway “triangle” location. The rather large buildings there, all behind tall and locked fences, now prevent one from seeing Mount David from the same angles. (It can be seen, but only by heading down the rail path in various directions for a fair ways, such that the sightlines are quite different.)
      (By the way – at the location of the tell-tale grove of trees you noted at the bend of the railway, there now is a MUCH larger and towering grove of trees. I’d like to think they a living link to 1926! Also, there still seems to be a remnant of the approach to the elevated spur, in the form of a rise in the land to the north of the tracks – – in the right location! – – on which a caboose now sits.)
      I spent a late afternoon and then a full morning at the Culp Creek site.
      In terms of directions, this is where Lloyd Williams was particularly helpful – and I gather from some of the other postings that others have similar challenges finding the location.
      As far as I could see, there no longer is any post office trailer at or near the site, so that marker is gone.
      I located the site by following the Row River Road east to Culp Creek, to the point where one sees the “Trailhead” sign on the left, (marking the terminus of the Row River hiking and biking trail). At that point, there is now an “official” looking gravel parking lot and washroom to the left (north) side of the road. There is also a de facto gravel parking lot to the right (south) of the road, along the top of the creek/river bank. I gather that is where the Anderson & Middleton bridge used by Kevin Brownlow used to be located – – although I could no longer see any of the concrete footings. (There seems to have been very substantial growth in the river/creek gorge since your photos were taken.)
      As per Lloyd’s recommendation, I did not descend into the gorge there, as one then has to follow the river east past two residential properties who apparently assert ownership of the land between their homes and the river.
      One instead parks in one of the two lots, walks east past the two houses along the river, (one older and white home, and other more modern and blue in colour), after which there is a safety railing running alongside the southern edge of the road. At the eastern end of that, there is a “path” (noticeable but not very well established, and certainly not for the unsure of foot), that descends to the river/creek. At that point, one is just east of where Buster had his camera pointed back (east) towards the specially constructed trestle, and it’s very easy to identify the locations using the prominent and distinct rock formations depicted in the photographs you’ve included in your book, (still from the film, and the photo from your visit).
      It is then possible – with difficulty – to walk east along the river to the site of the trestle itself – – the footing locations of which once again can be definitely sited using your photographs. However, the overgrowth is now VERY substantial, (nothing like the clear areas shown in the film in 1926), and because of the rock and river configurations, it is necessary to head “inland” a bit, (i.e., one can’t just walk along the side of the creek without going into water several feet deep). I would strongly advise anyone intending this to wear long pants and gloves (to grab and move the thorny overgrowth, etc.) Using a long stick also helps!
      At the trestle location, there is one rounded piece of rusted steel or tubing wedged at an angle into the rocks on the southern bank, (going down into the water) just at the rocks where the southern trestle poles began. It didn’t look like a rail, (although I am told by Lloyd and see from other reports that one is said to be there, perhaps under water during my visit). What I saw may have been associated with the mill that apparently was located on the southern side of the river/creek at that point, up until the forties or fifties.
      From that location, (i.e., the site of the trestle), I actually just went straight up (north) onto the road – – which, from the film, seems to be the descendant of the same road along which the Union troops come riding from the east.
      Easier said than done, (to make that ascent), as it is a fairly steep bank there….but the obstructions were floral, rather than trees or tributaries…and, again, use of a walking stick helped make the ascent. (It certainly was a more attractive option then heading back the way I’d came, through the same overgrowth!)
      This essentially was the same spot where the railway went out over the gorge/valley in the film – – and that part of the river/creek actually is still quite visible from the road. (It’s one of the few places on that side of the road that DOES allow an unobstructed view down to the creek, and those unable to descend into the valley might at least want to do that. One won’t see the same view as in the film, but at least one can see where the crash happened!)
      It was NOT possible to really look south/southwest up the Culp Creek Canyon, anymore. The growth and trees on the south side of the river/creek bank made that pretty much impossible, even in April, before the growth really filled out.
      Fyi – when I came up and out of the river/creek valley at that point, looking back, I noticed tattered remnants of what SEEMED to be a couple of “private land” and/or “no trespassing” signs….which I could not see when I ascended the hill from the river/creek running behind them. However, not one of the signs was intact or entirely legible, and it looked like they were posted many decades ago and then forgotten. Most of their lettering was gone or illegible. (One was just a blank and rotting piece of wood, nailed to a post!)
      Anyway – no one bothered or confronted me at all, during my visit, (although there were innumerable barking dogs as I walked along the road past the houses!), and I’m told the land by the river is, in fact, public land.
      One final note: visitors to the area may want to note that it IS remote, with no cellular phone service, and the four “nearby” residences that are not exactly within sight or earshot once one is down in the river/creek valley. (Two of the homes are quite distant, across the street.) Of necessity, I went there on my own. However, I would strongly recommend that visitors go there with others. The ground is very steep, uneven, rocky and, in many locations, one can not see exactly what is under the substantial undergrowth, in terms of hard/soft or even/uneven footing. Accidents could certainly happen – and someone alone and injured in the valley might very well be placed in an extremely serious situation, without any effective means of getting out or seeking assistance.
      In short, I’m very glad to have made it there – but also to have made it out safely.
      Anyway – hope this may be of some help to you and others, and thanks so very much for doing all the fascinating groundwork for the rest of the world’s Buster fans.
      Ian – London, Ontario


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  12. bryan says:

    My 4 year old son and I are huge fans of Buster Keaton, especially The General. Any idea what happened to the locomotive used in the movie? I’d like to take him to see it. According to Wikipedia’s articles on the true “General” locomotive as well as their article on the movie, the true “General” wasn’t used in the film because it was on display in a museum in Georgia. I could take him to see the real one in Georgia, but hopefully the one from the movie is closer to us. 🙂


    • Hi Bryan – the story goes that the engine lay fixed in the river bed at Culp Creek as a modest tourist attraction until it was pulled for scrap metal during WWII. One of the reader responses above has a very detailed description of how to reach the site. Keaton used local trains that were modified by the Hollywood folks to make them appear more authentic.


      • bryanz says:

        Thanks John. I had heard about the one engine being left in the river, but I’m curious about the fate of the other two used for filming. So far I haven’t found any hints online.


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  14. Brian Wells says:

    I understand that Buster would often participate in a game of baseball at Kelly Field when he needed a break and needed to wait for more inspiration to enter his genius mind!The Union general who accidentally burns a hole in the tablecloth with his cigar is played by Mike Donlin.Donlin,during the Dead Ball Era,was the best hitting outfielder in the National League.I`ve always wondered if Turkey Mike would join Buster and company at Kelly Field.


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  16. Dave Nelson says:

    I am quite a novice to all the silent greats , your dedication and skill is quite frankly mind blowing thank you for all your hard work


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  19. Laurence says:

    whoah this weblog is fantastic i love reading your posts.
    Stay up the good work! You understand, many individuals are hunting around for this info,
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  20. Scott Gavin says:

    Both the No. 5, the locomotive that went into the river, and the No. 3 were sold to the J. C. Chambers Lumber Company, and were worn out in logging service. I have pictures of each.


  21. Thanks Scott – have you contacted Lloyd Williams at the Cottage Grove Historical Society about this? I’m sure they’d be interested.


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