Iowa steam engine move caught in political storm

Tourist railroad GM concerned about fallout from banner displayed by moving company
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Boone and Scenic Valley Railroad logo

BOONE, Iowa – A planned move of a steam locomotive from one side of this small town near Des Moines became part of a political controversy last week, as the locomotive was decorated with banners calling for reelection of President Donald Trump during its move. The locomotive, part of the Boone Rotary Club’s “Welcome Train” project, suddenly became the subject of some not-so-welcome attention.

In the wake of heated internet debate over the move and the banner — almost inevitable in the current highly charged and partisan political environment — Travis Stephenson, general manager of the Boone & Scenic Valley tourist railroad, is concerned the railroad and town could be hurt by the incident, and explains that neither played a part in the banner display.

The move was to take former Crab Orchard & Egyptian Railroad 2-8-0 No. 17 from the railroad’s museum to a new display site at the corner of U.S. Highway 30 and South Story Street.

On July 23 the engine and tender were loaded onto trucks by Berghorst and Son, Inc. a heavy hauler from Hull, Iowa, and decorated with American flags — and two large blue banners calling for Trump’s reelection.

Stevenson said the banners were placed by the moving company early in the morning, before he and members of the Rotary Club arrived. “We both requested that the banners be removed, and explained that no matter what party they represent, we don’t get involved in politics,” Stevenson said. “They told us that they were waiting for a family member to come for a photo, and they would be removed after that before the move began. Several of us saw them remove the banners, but we didn’t notice that they left the one on the rear of the cab until things were moving. That flag was removed promptly upon arrival at the site.”

While the engine and tender came from B&SV, they were no longer the railroad’s property, having previously been donated to the Rotary Club and City of Boone. “We were not the ones paying for the move,” Stevenson said. “That gave us no legal or ‘remove it or you won’t get paid’ stance to pressure the removal of the flag.”

The negative online reaction has Stevenson “concerned about the idea that railfans will stop supporting our railroad preservation based on the actions of a group outside of the actual railroad museum. I hope they understand that the actions of others was beyond our control.

“Not visiting our museum due to the flag being on someone else’s equipment would be the equivalent of not purchasing a vehicle from a car dealer because you saw a vehicle with a bumper sticker you didn’t agree with that was purchased there,” he said. “We can’t let this cause the preservation of Iowa railroad history to fade, especially in these time of the pandemic where preservation groups are holding on by a thread.”

The locomotive involved in the controversy is a celebrity in its own right. Built by Canadian Locomotive Co. in 1940 for the  Roberval & Saguenay Railway Co. in Quebec, in 1975 it came to Illinois short line Crab Orchard & Egyptian. Begun as a tourist line in 1973, in 1977 the company began common carrier freight service using a 2-4-2 tank engine that had been converted to a traditional tender engine. After an overhaul, No. 17 began pulling freight trains in 1979. It remained in that service until September 1986, when the dry-pipe in the boiler collapsed and put the engine out of service. It went to Boone in 1987.

At its new display site, the locomotive will receive final painting and seal coat, which was delayed until after the move. It will be joined by a heavyweight Harriman-style passenger car which is also being refurbished.

The railroad is operating on new schedule because of COVID-19. Masks or face shields are required in the depot, museum, and common areas aboard the train. Trains are running Thursdays, Friday, and Sundays, including excursion, dinner, lunch and picnic trains with limited seating. A new exhibit, “Electric Railroads of Iowa” is open at the James H. Andrew Railroad Museum and History Center next to the B&SV depot. It is comprised of 19 four color, seven-inch display panels and covers such topics as the inception of Iowa’s trolleys and interurbans, their growth and declining years, and identifies Iowa’s major lines and trunk lines in eastern, central and western Iowa. More information is available at the railroad’s website.

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