Midwest Hiawatha ‘Speed Train’ pulls into Perry station Monday

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Des Moines sculptor Jim Russell's "Speed Train," a stylized image of the Midwest Hiawatha passenger train that served Perry between 1940 and 1955, was placed Monday in advance of its July 9 unveiling at the intersection of First and Willis avenues in Perry.

An iconic image of Perry’s railroading history pulled into Perry Monday and took its appointed place at the intersection of First and Willis avenues as the third of the Art on the Prairie-sponsored Perry public art works.[wpedon id=”85410″ align=”left”]

The sculpture is a creation of Des Moines artist Jim Russell of Jim Russell Design. ThePerryNews.com caught up with Russell in his eastside studio last week for an exclusive interview, and he permitted us to inspect the 10-foot beauty now gracing the busy First-and-Willis intersection.

“Speed Train” is the name of Russell’s stylized image of an engine from the Midwest Hiawatha, the Milwaukee Road passenger line that served Perry from 1940 to 1955 on its trek between Chicago and Omaha-Sioux City.

Using a 1:43 scale model of the Hiawatha, Russell created a proportionally faithful but also highly selective impression of the original locomotive.

“Essentially, it more or less captures the essence of the train in a stylized way,” Russell said of “Speed Train,” “but without just literally recreating the thing. By capturing the most representative features, we feel like we’ve captured the essence of the train itself.”

A literal version of the Midwest Hiawatha can be seen on the wall of David’s Diner in the Hotel Pattee. Particularly prominent in Russell’s “Speed Train” are the Hiawatha emblem, the headlight and side lanterns and the in-your-face cow catcher.

“In the process of making something like this,” Russell said, “it’s important to try to key on the most representative features, the most recognizable features, and accentuate them more than necessary to really give them the most impact. Everybody knows the cow catcher and how important that is. That’s the kind of cultural imagery that stays with you, so we really knew that we had to make it a pronounced feature. And it almost has a living type of character, almost like teeth and a jaw coming from the front.”[wpedon id=”85410″ align=”left”]

As it foregrounds the striking features, so the rest of “Speed Train” is almost a mere suggestion, much as a caricaturist can create with just a few deft strokes a striking resemblance of a human face.

“It’s pretty cool to see how it evolves,” Russell said. “There’s this almost ghost-like character to it. It’s almost like a skeleton. It’s not a complete train. It’s not completely skinned, yet all the features are identifiable. So that ghost train imagery is important to this, I think, because there is really literally nothing left of the original train, only concept drawings and photographs. The rest of it has all been scrapped out scores of years ago.”

The Milwaukee Road’s original Hiawatha was the Twin Cities Hiawatha, which began service between Chicago and Minneapolis-St. Paul May 29, 1935. When the Twin Cities line was upgraded with new trains in 1938, the original 1935 Hiawatha equipment was reassigned to the Chicago to Omaha/Sioux City route, where it ran as the Midwest Hiawatha beginning Dec. 11, 1940.

“I think there were only four or five of them created,” Russell said, “and there doesn’t seem to be anything left of any of them. I think they all went to the scrapyard as soon as they their duty was done, which was pretty close to the mid-1950s.”

The Midwest Hiawatha ran between Chicago’s Union Station and Omaha, Neb., Sioux Falls, S.D., through northern Illinois and Iowa and South Dakota — including, famously, through Perry — until it made its final trip Oct. 29, 1955.[wpedon id=”85410″ align=”left”]

“The whole facade of this particular style of train was designed to cover the old steam engine but to still use the guts of the old engine,” Russell said. “It was designed to do two things: it streamlined the look for the railroad industry because they really needed a dramatic boost in terms of its visual image, but at the same time it also needed some streamlining to create the speed.”

Russell said he hopes his sculpture gives Perry residents an interest in their own historical inheritance and makes visitors aware of the central role the railroad played in the founding of the town in 1869.

“Hopefully, what we’ve done is captured that imagery effectively well to trigger greater interest and imagination in the part that actually is responsible for the growth of the community of Perry,” he said. “They tell me that Perry wouldn’t be there if it was not for the railroad lines that went through. So the railroad plays a pretty significant part in the history of the community, and it’s good to be able to pay tribute to that.”

Downtown Perry received its first boulevard sculpture last August, when John Brommel’s “Born of Fire” was erected to the honor of Perry philanthropist Dallas “Pete” VanKirk and to the industrial heritage of the town.

The second sculpture, Brommel’s “Iowa Girl,” was unveiled last November, a tribute to another Perry benefactor, Roberta Green Ahmanson, who restored the Hotel Pattee and other downtown buildings to their current glory.

Brommel said a commission intervened and prevented him from doing another sculpture for the downtown, but he said Russell’s “Speed Train” is an artwork worthy of Perry’s history.[wpedon id=”85410″ align=”left”]

Russell’s sculpture was scheduled to roll into Perry this week but as often happens with railroad trains, it is running a little behind time. The statue’s unveiling will take place Monday, July 9, a tribute to the original Hiawatha and to train traditions as fitting as the immortal song of Leadbelly, “The Midnight Special.”

When you get up in the mornin’ when that big bell ring,
You go and march to the table, see the same damn thing.
Knife and fork are on the table. There’s nothin’ in my pan.
And if you say anything about it, havin’ trouble with the man.

Let the midnight special shine the light on me.
Let the midnight special shine the ever-lovin’ light on me.

An official 1996 map of the Milwaukee Road routes shows Perry lying along the old Midwest Hiawatha line.

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