Pete Felten’s train sculpture doesn’t have a name, but it’s modeled after the historic Union Pacific Locomotive 6072, a decommissioned coal steam engine on permanent display at Fort Riley.
This week Felten was putting finishing touches on it, having heard from friends that the buyer, Hays attorney John Bird, had donated it for installation at the Downtown Pavilion, 1200 Main, beside UP’s railroad tracks. It will be the latest sculpture to go up in town, where many of Felten’s pieces tell the story of Hays’ frontier history.
“I just finished it up,” Felten said Monday morning from his office, noting the piece had been in the works for several years. “It looked done, but there were some things I wanted to refine on it.”
Made from an old native limestone fence post like those common along the roadsides of Ellis County, Felten’s train weighs in at about 300 pounds, he said.
As limestone goes, the block was a nice piece to carve, with no quirks or surprises.
“It turned out to be a real good one, I didn’t have any problems with it at all, just a few fossil pop offs,” he said.
With two kinds of limestone used commonly around Hays, Felten explained that limestone was formed from shells accumulating at the bottom of the prehistoric sea that once covered Kansas millions of years ago.
“I can’t imagine a million years myself,” Felten said. “But it gets layer after layer, and all the pressure and the heat on it turns it into stone.”
Felten sculpted the train from an old slab of what is called Fencepost Limestone, which is harder and lighter in color than Fort Hays Limestone, so called because it was quarried in the 1870s from the bluffs near Fort Hays.
Both limestones were the common building material locally for schools, courthouses, hospitals and churches.
Fencepost Limestone is found about 15 feet beneath the surface, he explained in his workshop west of 6th and Main streets.
“It crops out here when you come to the Smoky Hill River by Schoenchen, and It’s called Fencepost, because it’s about 8 to 9 inches thick,” he said. “The pioneers had to keep their cattle in and the buffalo out, but there were no trees for fence posts. They found they could drill holes in this layer and break off these, and stand it up for a fence post.”
There isn’t much demand for it anymore, he said.
“It’s under the ground, all the way from Dodge City to Concordia,” Felten said, “150 miles by 50 miles.”
Thursday at the Hays City Commission work session at City Hall, 1507 Main, the city commissioners heard plans for installing the sculpture.
Downtown Hays Development Corp.’s Sara Bloom asked the commission for half the cost of pouring a concrete pad for the statue, about $5,420 of $12,420. DHDC will pay $6,500, with another $500 from the nonprofit Thunder on the Plains. The Pavilion park is already home to Felten’s Wild Bill Hickok.
It should be in place by May, Bloom said, along with two security cameras live-streaming the park on social media to deter vandalism. A plaque will thank Bird for the donation.
“There’s a good story behind that sculpture,” said Bird, who was at the meeting. “It’s actually an engine that used to pull through Hays … He really did an amazing job on the sculpture.”
When Bird was in high school, Felten allowed Bird and other kids to help on some of his projects.
“I didn’t get to help on this one,” Bird said, “but the help I gave was to purchase it and I’d rather have it available to the public.”
Felten did research to sculpt the engine and its coal car, of which there is a larger version he sculpted years ago for the Hays Regional Airport.
On Monday he described the parts as he looked at the sculpture, from the coal-oil lamp on the front so people could see the train coming, to the firebox, an exhaust pipe, and a floorboard along the side for a worker to stand on.
“And this is the exhaust for all of that steam, with screens, so cinders wouldn’t go out and fall in the grass and start prairie fires,” he said. “This is the bell they rang, and this is full of dry sand, comes right down here and goes right in front of the wheel in case it gets icy, or they have an extra-heavy load and the wheels are slipping.”
The limestone is smooth like iron.
“You just take sandpaper and sand it down or scrape it down with a knife,” Felten said. “You can’t polish this stone, it’s not dense enough, but you can smooth it down.”
The top of the coal car is textured and lumpy.
“I was trying to make stone look like coal,” Felten said. “That’s a good trick.”
His metal tools are cold in the wintertime, so Felten keeps a pair of gloves handy.
There is a rasp with teeth, what he calls “a fingernail file for an elephant.” There is a toothed chisel that made the base look furrowed.
“They’re real simple tools, caveman type,” he said. “Seriously, they haven’t changed since the caveman, except for they’re better steel now.”
Another one is just a pointed piece of metal.
“Something like this is what you start with,” he said. “You can take big chunks off. When you start you have to take the stone off you don’t want. And then when you get down here, you use finer tools, lighter tools.”
Little dark flubs in the stone are the occasional fossil, some of them loose, some of them extra tight. As long as there aren’t any big disfiguring ones, he can use the stone.
The stone itself gives him ideas for his work.
“What gets me going is the irregularity of the piece of stone,” Felten said. “I have stone laying around that I have to look at every day, like that one right outside there, that squarish one. It’s a nice piece of stone, it’s leftover from something else, and one of these days, I’ll say ‘that’s what’s going to go in that.’ If you put it back out of the way you’re going to forget it. So you gotta have it out and stumble over it a few times so you say ‘wait a minute, I can do something with that.’ ”