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Celebrating Independence Day and 150 years in a big way in Oxford

Iowa Interstate Railroad’s (IAIS) locomotive 6988, a Chinese-built QJ Class steam engine, departs Oxford for the third of six passenger excursions to Iowa City and back on Thursday, July 4.

OXFORD– With two long blasts of the mighty whistle, and a plume of black smoke, Iowa Interstate Railroad (IAIS) locomotive 6988 started chugging east with a handful of vintage passenger cars filled with riders. The 6988, a Chinese-built QJ Class steam locomotive, was brought to Oxford on Thursday, July 4, to power six excursions to Iowa City and back as a fundraiser for the all-volunteer Oxford Fire Department held in conjunction with Independence Day activities and the town’s 150th anniversary (Sesquicentennial).
While the nation’s 243rd birthday is certain, Oxford’s depends on which reference source you look at as the town has been documented to have been plated in 1868, yet it’s Centennial was celebrated in 1969, for an 1869 founding. Regardless, a three-day festival was held Thursday, July 4, through Saturday, July 6, and kicked off with fireworks on Wednesday, July 3.
Without question the highlight was the steam excursions. Initially five trips were scheduled for July 4, and sold out quickly through online sales and in-person sales on Saturday mornings at the fire station, which then led to a sixth trip, which also sold out.
The locomotive itself, IAIS 6988, and her sister, the IAIS 7081 (both built in 1986) were the last two steam engines to haul a regularly scheduled freight train and a regularly scheduled passenger train, respectively. The railroad purchased the locomotives from the Chinese government in 2006 and had them rebuilt and retrofitted to operate on American rails with the intent to use them in special events. In July 2010 the railroad ran its first fundraising excursions for a volunteer fire department.
The Oxford Fire Department will receive 75 percent of the proceeds, which will likely go toward new Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus (SCBA), or “Air-Packs.” The remaining 25 percent goes to the Central States Steam Preservation Association, which maintains and operates the locomotives for the IAIS. The volunteer group, based in Newton, formed in 2013 when the railroad decided to divest the steam program.
The trips, although disruptive to the railroad (all other trains were held between South Amana and Iowa City for the duration of the runs), benefit the fire departments, and serve as a public relations and education venue for the railroad, according to Henry Posner III, the Chairman of the Iowa Interstate Railroad.
“Everyone (riding the trains) gets a message about safety around railroad tracks, in addition to what we’re doing to support first responders.” The excursions also might get kids and others thinking about a career with the railroad Posner said. “There’s a lot of benefits to doing these trips.”