Notes from Train Festival: What you might have missed even if you were there

Posted by Jim Wrinn
on Tuesday, July 26, 2011

It's been a couple of days now since Train Festival 2011 concluded in Rock Island, Ill., and I finally have had time to adjust to not baking in 100-degree heat on a daily basis while thousands of people mill around hot, heavy metal and fawn over live steamers and model railroads. I've also become reconciled to fact that there's not a steam train running every afternoon at 2 p.m. For shame! So, from the air-conditioned, steam train-less comfort of my office, here are a few thoughts and observations on the biggest steam locomotive event in North America this year and the participants, both mechanical and human. 

 (Click an image for information)

First, let's talk about people, and start with Henry Posner, chairman of the Iowa Interstate's parent company, Railroad Development Corp. Simply put, Henry is a rock star in a bow tie. Whether he's alighting from the company's pair of Chinese-made 2-10-2s to announce to a group of fans at a grade crossing that a new world record has just been set for 21st century steam-hauled freight tonnage (as he did last Wednesday at North Star siding), walking the length of excursion trains to welcome passengers on board as your friendly CEO, or just wandering the festival grounds like a regular Joe, he is a genuine celebrity and a hero to many for saving a big piece of the Rock Island, as well as having enough sense of fun and the gumption to buy the QJs from China in 2006. One family that lives close to the railroad in Iowa City, Iowa, and admires Henry and his work, even made up a "Hi Henry!" sign as they chased the record-setting steam train. Henry seemed genuinely flattered. It's really great to see an American industry doing well, namely, the Iowa Interstate, and Posner is a great spokesman-boss for the railroad. At the festival's opening ceremony, he told reporters and spectators that railroad regulators didn't want to keep the Rock Island main line because they didn't see the need for an additional Chicago-Omaha route, but failed to note the potential local traffic, not to mention stack trains and ethanol, which didn't exist until just a few years ago. Of course, an eastbound Iowa Interstate freight with said traffic was rumbling across the Mississippi River bridge as Henry spoke ... on top of everything else, the man has incredible timing! 

Second, if you kept your eyes wide open at the festival, you saw an amazing cross section of the who's-who of today's U.S. steam locomotive preservation efforts. There was Steven Butler from Rio Grande Scenic running Dave Kloke's replica of the 1868 4-4-0 Leviathan; Dan Pluta of Western Maryland Scenic running a coal loader; Steve Sandberg of Milwaukee Road 4-8-4 No. 261 running a QJ in big, bright Elvis sunglasses; Robert Franzen, now in charge of the Iowa Interstate program; Dennis Daughtry, who retried from California State Railroad Museum, with the QJs; Al Phillips, from Tennessee Valley Railroad Museum, helping visitors tour the cab of a QJ; Bob and Ken Ristow, a father-and-son team from Wisconsin, working with the QJs and Nickel Plate Road 2-8-4 No. 765, respectively; John and Barney Gramling, another father-son duo from Indiana, with their two tank engines, Flagg Coal 75 and Lehigh Shaft 126; John Barnett from North Carolina Transportation Museum as well as the Norfolk Southern steam trips, helping with the Gramlings' engines; and John Charles, also from the Rio Grande Scenic, taking a turn at a QJ's throttle. The list was long. There was a lot of steam talent in one place at one time! And not all of it was of the metal variety.

Third, the award for the biggest smiles of the festival go to Kelly Lynch and Mark Perri. Kelly was fireman on the return leg of 765's trip from Rock Island to Bureau, Ill., when the word came down to get the train back in time for a 6 p.m. river boat cruise. For 765, rebuilt in 2006, this was her chance to pull a long (17 cars) train at speed (up to 50 mph), and she did it with class. Mark, who hales from Ohio's Cuyahoga Valley Railroad and is an Ohio Central alumnus, got tapped to run the Illinois Railway Museum's Burlington Route E5 with the Nebraska Zephyr train set on its own trip to Bureau when the regular engineer was suddenly unavailable. Look for both Kelly and Mark floating over Illinois and Iowa for the next two to three weeks, each on his own Cloud 9! 

Lastly, the humanity of the group came out on Friday night, the one-year anniversary of the death of Bill Purdie, the Southern Railway master mechanic of steam who made sure the railroad's steam excursions ran from 1968 to 1982 and then kept in touch with the steam world. Shortly before 7:30 p.m., the approximate time Bill left this world, the operators of the seven locomotives on hand opened their whistles in remembrance. In the cab of Nickel Plate 765 was Bill's son, Donald, his hand on the whistle cord. I was driving across the Mississippi River bridge enjoying the setting sun when I heard the chorus of steam locomotive whistles shout a message to this friend of so many in the steam fraternity.

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