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Iowa Railroads: The Essays of Frank P. Donovan, Jr.

Iowa Railroads: The Essays of Frank P. Donovan, Jr.

by H. Roger Grant, Frank P. Donovan

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University of Iowa Press
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Bur Oak Books Series
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IOWA RAILROADS The Essays of Frank P. Donovan, Jr.
By Frank P. Donovan
University of Iowa Press Copyright © 2000 University of Iowa Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-87745-723-7



Iowa had long dreamed of a north-and-south main line. Back in pre-Civil War days that prince of pioneers, Josiah B. Grinnell, headed a company to fulfill that mission. But the war came and the project was dropped. Later an energetic twosome composed of David Morgan, a New Sharon schoolteacher, and Peter Melendy, a Cedar Falls newspaper editor, gave much zeal and some capital to the enterprise. Considerable grading was done between Albia and Oskaloosa, between Cedar Falls and Toledo, and also in the vicinity of Tama, and then, because the money ran out, the undertaking languished. What was termed the "Grandest Railroad Project of the Age" turned out to be a fiasco. It looked as if the longitudinal rail line was an empty dream. Such, however, was not the case. Today the main stem of the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway cuts right through the midriff of Iowa from the Minnesota border to within a few miles of the northern rim of Missouri.

The story of the Iowa Central Railway, which eventually became the M&StL's main line in Iowa, is the old dream with new twists: a different group of backers, an altered route, and an exceedingly humble beginning. And for some forty years this section of the road was independent of the M&StL. Here's how it started.

When coal was discovered in the vicinity of Eldora, the problem of cheap transportation became of paramount importance. This led to the formation of the Eldora Railroad and Coal Company on February 7, 1866, to build a railway to Ackley, sixteen miles north. At Ackley the Eldora road would connect with the east-west road which is now the Illinois Central. By July 1868, the new road was completed, but its connection with the outside world was not entirely satisfactory. It was finally decided to build twenty-eight miles south from Eldora to tie in with the east-west line of the Chicago & North Western at Marshalltown. A new company, the Iowa River Railway, headed by Charles C. Gilman (who was also president of the older road), took over the Eldora line on September 1, 1868. Just before completion, on September 30, 1869, to be exact, the River Railway became the Central Railroad Company of Iowa. Now it threw away its mantle as a purely local road to carry on the tradition of Morgan and Melendy and become an important north-and-south route.

Marshalltown welcomed the formal opening of the new road by a gala celebration on January 7, 1870. Indeed, the shops and general offices were to be removed later from Eldora to Marshalltown, and the latter town had reason to be proud. The road athwart central Iowa would be operated from central Iowa at Marshalltown. Great things were expected of the new company, for the cross-state vertical line was to become-and finally did become-a reality.

Physically, the north-and-south route from Mason City to Albia was completed in 1872, but it was many years before it came into its own economically, financially, and strategically. For the next three decades the road was to remain in precarious financial condition, with a round of receiverships, shifts in management, and constant name-changing. During the mid-seventies Isaac M. Cate succeeded Gilman to the presidency, and shortly afterward Josiah B. Grinnell was appointed receiver. Grinnell's hectic trusteeship lasted only about two years, when he was superseded by H. L. Morrill. Finally, on May 5, 1879, the road emerged from the court's hands as the Central Iowa Railway.

The Iowa road was dubbed the "Hook and Eye" because in the early timetables the initial "C" was placed on its back across the top of the "I" so that the former initial resembled a hook and the latter an eye. The railway continued to expand during periods of solvency. Apparently the charter forbade building branches, for all the offshoots from the main stem were constructed by separate companies and then sold to the Central Iowa. Most important of these additions was the New Sharon Coal Valley and Eastern, incorporated January 29, 1880. By January 7 of '82 the name was changed to the high-sounding Chicago, Burlington and Pacific, and on April 1 of the same year the road was sold to the Central Iowa. Eighteen eighty-two also saw the completion of the road from Oskaloosa to the west bank of the Mississippi opposite Keithsburg, Illinois.

Meantime dirt was flying in Illinois. The old Peoria & Farmington Railway (chartered March 27, 1869) was purchased by the Central Iowa Railway (of Illinois), and it was pushing westward to the Father of Waters. In 1883 the Central Iowa of Illinois line started operating from Peoria to Keithsburg, eighty-eight miles.

To cross the Mississippi a small paddle-wheel steamer, the William Osborn, churned its way from shore to shore with its quota of four freight cars. When the river was frozen-well, passengers either walked across or they, together with freight, rode on sleighs. At least one winter, however, when navigation ceased, the pioneer railroaders constructed a temporary wooden trestle. When the ice melted in the spring, the jerry-built trestle was removed so that river traffic could be resumed. The first permanent bridge was completed at Oakville in 1886. It had eight spans of through-truss design and a 362-foot swing draw.

Here, then, was the Central Iowa's route very much as it is today: from Mason City through Marshalltown and Oskaloosa to Keithsburg and Peoria in Illinois. The northern terminus, as we have said, was at Mason City, but this was later extended northward to Manly in Worth County. The gap between the latter town and Albert Lea, Minnesota, was closed in 1877 when the M&StL and the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern (now the Rock Island) finished a joint line linking the two communities.

By the mideighties all the branches had sprouted and grown and were duly absorbed by the Central Iowa. They included the twenty-two-mile Belmond line veering off the main stem at Hampton; the thirty-four-mile Story City branch running westward from Minerva Junction (near Marshalltown); the twenty-six-mile State Center feeder from Newburg; the fourteen-mile stub out of the old Grinnell & Montezuma to Montezuma; and finally the twenty-eight-mile branch to Newton running north-northwest from New Sharon. All and all, the Central Iowa had a system of nearly five hundred miles, less than a hundred of them outside the Hawkeye State.

Such a railroad patrimony purchased and absorbed throughout the years needed a coat of arms or a trademark to lend prestige and distinction. So thought H. P. Nourse, the general passenger agent. Action followed inspiration, and the road's official emblem made its debut in the May 1887 timetable. Like Mark Twain's map, it was truly the only one of its kind.

Under a hodgepodge of arms, hands, circles, and bands came this descriptive gobbledygook: "An escutcheon, inverted, or PER PALY BENDY, AZURE, Nebuly on an annulet sable, between four hands gules, One hand rampant gardant, three hands grabant, and all hands around. Our motto will be, 'The Handy Line'-(Battle cry Hi! Hi! Hi!, the last syllable prolonged)."

It took the foreclosure of 1888 to get rid of this nonsense; and the Iowa Central Railway, the new company, henceforth operated without a coat of arms or a battle cry. Incidentally, this was the last name-change the road had as an independent company.

To recapitulate, the lineage of the Iowa Central begins with the Eldora Railroad and Coal Company, which in succession became the Iowa River Railway, Central Railroad Company of Iowa, Central Iowa Railway, and finally the Iowa Central. Another Iowa road, the Chicago, Burlington and Pacific, came into the fold in 1882. About the same time the Peoria & Farmington (an Illinois road) came under Iowa Central interests and was soon completed from Peoria to the Mississippi at Keithsburg.

In common with most roads near the end of the nineteenth century, the Iowa Central was quick to make traffic alliances at terminals. These alliances depended on the road's presidents who came and went with the ups and downs of management. When Cate ruled at Marshalltown-and he held office for about a dozen years-the Milwaukee Road was the favored route from Mason City to the Twin Cities. Cate's short-term successors, Alfred Sully and Elijah Smith, made little change, but when A. B. Stickney gained control he promptly made the northern connection his own Minnesota & Northwestern, now the Chicago Great Western.

The Iowa Central had long pioneered in through passenger trains, and its Twin City-St. Louis service, in connection with the Milwaukee on the north and the Wabash on the south, achieved considerable popularity. But Stickney did more. Being an audacious and independent thinker, and above all an individualist, he had his own ideas. They were, to say the least, far ahead of his time. Today we think of through sleepers from the east to points west of the Mississippi as being the brainchild of Robert R. Young of the Chesapeake & Ohio. Not so. In the mideighties Alpheus Beede Stickney inaugurated cross-country "Woodruff Chair and Sleeping cars" from the capital of Minnesota to the capital of Ohio.

Before me I have a yellowing timetable dated November 7, 1886. It shows Train No. 4 leaving Minneapolis at 6:30 p.m. (St. Paul at 7:05) and arriving at Columbus, Ohio, at 4:10 a.m. two days later. The routing: Minnesota & Northwestern and the Central Iowa to Peoria, Illinois, thence the Indiana, Bloomington & Western (now the New York Central) to destination. Returning on No. 1, passengers left the Buckeye capital at 9:00 a.m., and at 8:30 on the evening of the second day they arrived in Mill City.

When Russell Sage, the New York financier, replaced Stickney in 1890, the northern connection reverted to the Milwaukee. Sage and General Francis M. Drake, onetime governor of Iowa, were active in the management of the Centerville, Moravia & Albia Railroad, which the Iowa Central operated until 1910. This road, which linked all the towns in its title, was subsequently electrified and is now an interurban freight line controlled by the Iowa Southern Utilities.

The Sage regime, although not outstanding in itself, produced some very able railroaders. General Manager C. H. Ackert in later years left the old Hook and Eye to head the Southern Railway, and Master Mechanic John Player went from Marshalltown to a similar position on the far-flung Santa Fe system. Although with "home guards," the Iowa Central always had a large quota of "boomers." Indeed, it is said with a measure of truth that one "never saw the same crew twice." Itinerant railroaders from coast to coast often took a hitch on the Hook and then settled elsewhere. Never a wealthy road and at times run-down, it did the best it could with the equipment at hand. If a man passed muster on the Iowa Central he was trained for the exigencies of railroading almost anywhere.

When Sage relinquished the presidency in 1897, he was followed by Horace J. Morse and then a year or so later by Robert J. Kimball. In the coming era of big business and consolidations, the Iowa Central would have to buy or be bought. Clearly the former was out of the question. That was the status of the "Marshalltown Route," as Iowans affectionately called their home road, as the new century dawned.


When Edwin Hawley became president of the Minneapolis & St. Louis in 1896, that road was little more than a local enterprise. When Hawley died sixteen years later, the M&StL had become an important midwestern carrier, serving four states, and had quadrupled in mileage. The very backbone of the enlarged M&StL was, and is today, the mileage in the Hawkeye State, more than half of which was the Iowa Central.

Hawley was quick to sense the importance of the Iowa Central as a complement to the "Louie," as the M&StL was nicknamed. Both roads as separate units were relatively weak. United they would have considerable economic and strategic value. By 1900 fifty-year-old Edwin Hawley, a New Yorker, had acquired control of the Hook and Eye, and not long afterward key M&StL executives held similar positions on the Iowa Central. Incidentally, up until the turn of the century Hawley was unheard-of as a railroad officer and financier. After heading the Minnesota and Iowa roads, however, he became known in business circles and on the street as a shrewd, practical railroader. And well he might, for in a dozen years Hawley and Hawley men controlled the Alton, the Toledo, St. Louis & Western, the St. Louis-San Francisco, the Missouri-Kansas-Texas, and the Chesapeake & Ohio. Indeed, at the time of his death he is said to have amassed a fortune of $30 million. But the fact remains: it was the Louie and the Hook which gave him his start to fame and fortune.

Unlike Russell Sage, Hawley was a builder, for every property under his control was improved. The Iowa Central was no exception. One of the first major improvement jobs of the new management was the grade relocation on School House Hill. Today one can still see remains of the old right-of-way between Searsboro and Oak Grove just east of the present track. Again modern (at that time) motive power was purchased and the passenger service speeded up. Hawley sensed the importance of Peoria as a gateway to bypass the congested Chicago terminal area.

During Hawley's administration the second (and present) Mississippi River bridge was built. The old structure was far too light for the increased traffic and heavier equipment. Furthermore, it required the tedious business of spacing engines several cars apart in a train rather than coupled together when double-heading. In this way the weight was more evenly distributed and the pioneer bridge given a reprieve. But the old span had to go, and it, along with a nearby bridge across Blackhawk Chute, was replaced during 1909-1910. The structure across the main channel of the Mississippi, extending from Blackhawk Island to the Illinois shore, is 2,304 feet in length. A lift-span, on the Keithsburg side, permits passage of boats and barges. The smaller bridge from Blackhawk Island to the Iowa mainland measures 1,506 feet. Total cost of the entire project was $725,000. Some piers of the old bridge may still be seen about 60 feet downstream from the present Mississippi structure.

Even though the actual merger of the Iowa Central with the M&StL did not take place until 1912, the two roads were operated very much as if they were one system. Hawley, a laconic, aloof individual, had his equally terse and down-to-business lieutenant, L Ferman Day, boss the Iowa Central. (Day, whose first name was just plain "L," always insisted that it be unadorned by a period.) He for many years was vice president and general manager of both the M&StL and the Iowa Central. "LFD" became to all intents and purposes chief of the combined roads, since Hawley spent most of his time in New York looking after other properties.

A word, now, about the other M&StL lines in Iowa. Back on July 22, 1876, some farmers and other local folk incorporated the Fort Dodge and Fort Ridgeley Railroad and Telegraph Company to lay rails from Fort Dodge to the northern boundary of Webster County. Meantime, an M&StL-sponsored road, called the Minnesota and Iowa Southern, was building south from Albert Lea, Minnesota, to meet the Fort Ridgeley line. Finally, on April 20, 1881, both companies were merged into the M&StL, making a through line linking Albert Lea with Fort Dodge. The next year the Louie built what was jocosely called the Old Mud Line from Fort Dodge to Angus. It was so named because the track was built right on the prairie with God's brown earth as ballast. Unfortunately, the once-thriving mining operations in Angus had already started to decline when the Louie made its southern terminus there. A miners' strike in 1884, followed by the panic of '93, just about decimated the population. At the present time Angus is very nearly a ghost town, and all mining operations have long since been abandoned.

At Angus the M&StL connected with the Des Moines and Fort Dodge Railroad and had trackage rights over it to the state capital. The DM&FtD, by the way, was a successor to one of the earliest roads in Iowa: the Keokuk, Fort Des Moines & Minnesota Rail Road, incorporated in 1854 and later known as the Des Moines Valley Rail Road.


Excerpted from IOWA RAILROADS by Frank P. Donovan Copyright © 2000 by University of Iowa Press. Excerpted by permission.
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