Iowa's Railroads: An Album

Iowa's Railroads: An Album

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by Don L. Hofsommer

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At one point in time, no place in Iowa was more than a few miles from an active line of rail track. In this splendid companion volume to Steel Trails of Hawkeyeland (IUP, 2005), H. Roger Grant and Don L. Hofsommer explore the pivotal role that railroads played in the urban development of the state as well as the symbiotic relationship Iowa and its rails shared.


At one point in time, no place in Iowa was more than a few miles from an active line of rail track. In this splendid companion volume to Steel Trails of Hawkeyeland (IUP, 2005), H. Roger Grant and Don L. Hofsommer explore the pivotal role that railroads played in the urban development of the state as well as the symbiotic relationship Iowa and its rails shared. With more than 400 black-and-white photographs, a solid inventory of depots and locations, and new information that is sure to impress even the most well-versed railfan, this detailed history of the state's railroads—including the Chicago&North Western, Cedar Rapids&Iowa City, and the Iowa Northern—will be an essential reference for railroad fans and historians, artists, and model railroad builders.

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Indiana University Press
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Railroads Past and Present
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Iowa's Railroads

An Album

By H. Roger Grant, Don L. Hofsommer

Indiana University Press

Copyright © 2009 Donovan L. Hofsommer and H. Roger Grant
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-253-01376-7



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Much of the history of Iowa is associated directly with the Railway Age. No one would deny that the railroad evolved into a magnificent means of long distance transportation, both for freight and passengers. The process began in the United States at about the point when the first Euro-American settlement occurred in the future territory and later the state of Iowa. By the time residents gained admission into the federal union in 1846, the railroad had emerged from its initial demonstration period. Notions about roadbed design and rails had been largely established, and motive power and rolling stock resembled equipment that for decades would dominate rail operations. As the state matured, so too did railways. On the eve of the Civil War railroad mileage in Iowa had reached 655 miles, but by 1890 trackage had soared to an astonishing 8,366 miles that fully covered the state.

Iowa was well suited for railroad construction. The general terrain in this "Beautiful Land" between the mighty Mississippi and Missouri rivers offered no major impediments for shaping paths for the iron horse. Of course, not all of the state was as flat as a floor, but the hills of the northeast, the "pot and kettle" sections elsewhere, especially in the southern tiers of counties, and the steep loess hills along the banks of the Missouri did not make for painfully difficult and costly construction, conditions that often confronted railroad builders in other sections of the country. After all, crossing the spine of the Allegheny Mountains, for example, had been time consuming and expensive, forcing such roads as the Baltimore & Ohio and the Pennsylvania to drive and maintain costly tunnels, deep cuts, and monumental bridges.

Moreover, Iowans wanted—even demanded—the "steam car civilization." The existing means of transportation left much to be desired. While geography blessed the state with navigable rivers, most notably the Mississippi and Missouri, other natural waterways were problematic, including the Cedar, Des Moines, Iowa, and Sioux but especially the Maquoketa, Skunk, Wapsipinicon, and several of the lesser streams. Most farms and settlements were too far from flatboat, keel-boat, and most of all steamboat travel. The fact that a shallow-draft steamboat, propelled by a small high pressure engine, once reached the present site of Fort Dodge on the upper stretches of the Des Moines River really did not mean much for those who complained about the tyranny of isolation.

Roads, too, were hardly an acceptable solution to problems of inadequate transportation. The frequently vicious and viscous Iowa soil did not make for easy, inexpensive roadway construction and maintenance. Residents might joke that during wet weather their roads were as deep as they were wide, but that was also the painful reality. Such conditions made travel by animal-powered carts and wagons slow if not impossible. The several efforts before the Civil War at building graded and planked roads were not particularly successful and, like water transport, ultimately gave way to railroads. It would not be until the twentieth century that a good roads movement took hold in Iowa, but only after a revolution had occurred in vehicle technology and highway building techniques.

The all-weather railroad wholly met the transportation expectations of Iowans and in time altered their views about time, distance, and convenience. Furthermore, the iron horse seemed wonderfully suited to what that perceptive French visitor of the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville, aptly called the "restless temper" of Americans. Iowans considered themselves to be movers and shakers and they wanted to exploit their opportunities. To be successful, good, dependable, and inexpensive transport was essential.

For Iowans the coming of the rails was surely too slow, but at mid-century concrete action took place. On September 1, 1853, the beginning of what would become an amazingly dense network of railroad lines ceremoniously began in Davenport, when backers of the Mississippi & Missouri Rail Road (M&M), a future component of the sprawling Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad (Rock Island), broke ground for construction. But earth moving did not mean rapidly arriving railroad service. It would not be until July 19, 1855, that the first steam locomotive, the popular American Standard type with its 4-4-0 wheel arrangement, appeared on state soil. By the end of August travelers could take the cars between Davenport and Walcott, a distance of only a dozen miles. Quickly, though, the M&M laid more track and by the end of the year operated nearly seventy miles of line that extended to Muscatine and toward Iowa City, Iowa's capital until 1857.

While in time the Rock Island, successor to the M&M, would operate more miles of railroad than any other company in Iowa, there would be competitors. Not only did the desire exist to have railroad service in a transportation-starved region, but Iowa was ideally positioned for important trans-state routes. After all, the first transcontinental railroad, the famed Union Pacific–Central Pacific system, had its easternmost point on the Iowa side of the Missouri River at Council Bluffs. President Abraham Lincoln had specifically named that settlement as the starting point for the "Pacific Railroad." Understandably, railroad promoters pushed their projects across Iowa to connect with the Union Pacific, and by 1870 affiliates of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (Burlington), Chicago & North Western (North Western), and Rock Island had reached that strategic destination. The state emerged as a vital part of what were expected to be busy corridors of commerce.

Backers of the Dubuque & Pacific Rail Road (D&P), too, participated in the earliest building. Sioux City, not Council Bluffs, was the objective. With the first shovel of earth turned at Dubuque on October 1, 1855, this road became an operating reality, although the company struggled to reach its destination. In time, new financiers took over the D&P project, reconstituted as the Dubuque & Sioux City Railroad, and in 1861 the iron horse reached Cedar Falls. Later, in 1870, under the control of the Illinois Central Railroad, this northern trans-Iowa route opened.

Still another trans-state carrier appeared, eventually serving both the Council Bluffs and Sioux City gateways. The Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway (Milwaukee Road), either directly or through affiliated companies, first served Sioux City by way of a connection with the St. Paul & Sioux City Railroad (later the North Western) in 1878, and four years later the carrier's second cross-state route opened between the Mississippi River community of Sabula (opposite Savanna, Illinois) and Council Bluffs.

As the Railway Age progressed, Iowans saw the Burlington, Illinois Central, Milwaukee, North Western, and Rock Island lace large parts of their state with secondary and branch lines. Each railroad thought that it had a sphere of influence in the state. The Burlington and the Rock Island, for example, extended only branch lines toward their rival's core route, explaining why Griswold, in Cass County, had a Burlington spur from the south and a Rock Island appendage from the north.

At times the large trunk roads might take possession of independent railroads, large and small. The Rock Island, for one, absorbed in 1903 the 1,310-mile Cedar Rapids–based Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway, allowing the new owner to penetrate not only additional portions of northern and central Iowa but also southwestern Minnesota and eastern South Dakota. Railroad leaders worried that these unaffiliated properties might be taken over by a competitor and muscle in on their preserves.

It was also common for these bigger roads to swallow up some of the several independent narrow-gauge railroads that appeared throughout Iowa in the 1870s and 1880s. Although during the Civil War the U.S. Congress mandated standard gauge (4 feet, 81/2 inches) for the Union Pacific–Central Pacific transcontinental system, a national craze for constructing railroads to a slim-width gauge (usually 3 feet) spread widely during the Gilded Age. Advocates erroneously believed that such pikes would offer low cost rail transport, in part because construction costs would be reduced (shorter tie lengths and smaller locomotives, for example) and a fleet of narrow-gauge equipment would have a more favorable ratio of cargo and passenger capacities to tare weight. Roads like the Bellevue & Cascade; Burlington & Northwestern; Burlington & Western; Des Moines North Western; Des Moines, Osceola & Southern; St. Louis, Des Moines & Minneapolis; Des Moines & Northern; and Waukon & Mississippi appeared. While most operations sputtered, they usually found an extended life as standard-gauge segments of such carriers as the Burlington, North Western, and Milwaukee Road. Only the Bellevue & Cascade Railroad, which the Milwaukee Road came to control, remained a narrow-gauge operation until its abandonment in the 1930s.

And other trunk roads emerged. Two comparably sized carriers, each with about 1,500 systemwide miles, were the Chicago Great Western Railway (CGW), handiwork of St. Paul, Minnesota, entrepreneur A. B. Stickney, and the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway (M&StL), initially a project of millers from the Twin Cities. The CGW, which grew out of the Minnesota & Northwestern and the Chicago, St. Paul & Kansas City railroads, became yet another trans-Iowa carrier, stretching from Chicago through Dubuque and Oelwein to Council Bluffs, and from St. Paul through Oelwein and Des Moines to Kansas City. For a time this road became known as a "rate slasher" and also as a company that for much of its corporate life achieved a high degree of customer satisfaction. The M&StL, which also possessed various predecessors, assumed its modern form in 1912 when it acquired the Iowa Central that had its operational center in Marshalltown. Like the CGW, the M&StL provided good service to patrons along its principal routes that stretched from the Twin Cities through Mason City, Marshalltown, and Oskaloosa to Peoria, Illinois, and from Albert Lea, Minnesota, through Fort Dodge to Des Moines.

Even after most people thought that the railroad map of Iowa had fully jelled shortly after the dawn of the twentieth century, additional railroads appeared and more construction by existing carriers took place. As for the former, a half dozen or so shortlines, averaging about twenty-five miles in length, began operations. In 1913, for example, the twenty-one-mile Creston, Winterset & Des Moines Railroad (CW&DM) opened between Creston, a thriving county seat served by the main stem of the Burlington and two Burlington branch lines, and Macksburg, an "inland" village in Madison County. The CW&DM never reached either Winterset or Des Moines, or a connection with another railroad, although its owners, most of whom were local farmers, desperately sought to achieve these objectives. The company never turned a profit and after a failed receivership became so much junk in 1920. A successful contemporary construction project, however, was the building in 1911 of sixty-four miles of track between Carlisle, near Des Moines, and Allerton by the St. Paul & Kansas City Short Line Railroad, a Rock Island satellite. This well-positioned line gave the parent firm the most direct route between Kansas City and the Twin Cities.

While most Iowans probably did not think too much about corporate strategies, except that they wanted at least two and ideally more railroads, they benefited from thousands of miles of rail lines with their interconnected nodes and segments. In 1914 steam railroad mileage peaked at 10,018 miles, two years before trackage reached its national zenith. Few other states had a comparable density of rail lines. It was commonly said that no place in the Hawkeye State was more than thirteen miles from a railroad, and even small communities might have the services of three or more carriers. Lohrville (1910 population of 674), located in Calhoun County, for example, claimed three railroads, the CGW, Milwaukee Road, and North Western.

Although Iowans developed extraordinary contacts with the iron horse, their overall relationship was not always cordial. Residents complained repeatedly about freight and passenger rates. In the early 1870s, the Granger movement gave the state some of the most stringent rate control laws in the United States. Spearheaded by a coalition of angry farmers, joined by merchants and commercial groups, these Grangers sought to reduce rates and end long- and short-haul discriminations. They likewise pressed hard for the creation of regulatory machinery that would guarantee their statutory triumphs. Additional concerns resulted in more reforms, most notably property tax adjustments made during the Progressive Era of the early twentieth century. Yet railroads were not too pleased. "The general impression is that railroads have been great money-makers, without much, if any risk, and that their rates are too high and their taxes too low," wrote retired Burlington executive Charles E. Perkins to the Des Moines Capital in 1904. "The truth is, men who bought land west of the Des Moines River forty years ago have made more profit than men who put their money into railroads." Throughout the Age of Steam citizens also complained about poor service, dirty and unattractive depots, and other consumer-related matters. From the public perspective, however, usually acceptable resolutions followed formal complaints.

A critical aspect of the Age of Steam involved the ever-changing railroad technology. After all, the little "teakettles" of pioneer times gave way to much larger and more powerful steam locomotives. For example, in 1910 the CGW purchased ten giant 505,000 pound 26-6-2-type locomotives known as "Mallets" for use in heavy freight service, mostly on its main line east of Oelwein. And coal superseded wood as locomotive fuel. Other substantial improvements took place. By the early twentieth century automatic couplers had replaced the old (and, for railroad crews, potentially dangerous) link-and-pin couplers, and air brakes had become nearly universal except on some vintage pieces of freight equipment. Larger pieces of rolling stock, including passenger cars that might include luxurious features, became common. Moreover, there was a second building of portions of Iowa's railroads. Double-tracking of the busiest routes occurred. Between 1903 and 1905 the Burlington, for one, added a second track to a large portion of its main line through the southern part of the state and undertook several important line relocations. Block signals for controlling train movements also often appeared on major arteries, including the raceway of the North Western between Clinton and Council Bluffs that formed the eastern component of the famed Overland Route between Chicago and California.

The Age of Steam held other meanings for Iowans. The steam locomotive, whether attached to a freight or passenger train, symbolized power, speed, and excitement. It was no wonder that people, especially children, paused from their immediate activities to watch a passing steamer. In some communities residents gathered at the depot to observe a particular train speed by or to stop. For generations of Ottumwa residents, Thursday was payday at the local manufacturing plants and downtown merchants kept their establishments open until 9:00 PM to take advantage of shoppers' dollars. This timeframe allowed people to stroll over to the Burlington depot to watch Exposition Flyer pay its 9:42 PM call, a tradition that continued into the era of the diesel-powered Zephyr streamliners.

And a train ride, especially on a limited, offered true excitement and created lasting memories. In her memoir titled When We Went First Class, writer Ellen Douglas Williamson recalled the details of a childhood trip onboard the North Western's all-steel Overland Limited:

It was 2:30 in the morning, Tuesday, January 15, 1918, and the Douglas family, as usual, was leaving Cedar Rapids to spend the rest of the winter in California ... The trunks had gone the day before, and the most exciting moment of all had arrived. Here we were with several friends to see us off, presents in our arms, luggage piled up on a cart beside us, standing in the freezing cold at this startlingly late hour of the night, and suddenly we heard the familiar far-off cry of the arriving train. It thundered into the center of town, stopped with steam and snow swirling about it, the porter of our assigned car descended, put down his familiar little yellow step, and up we climbed.

Most Iowans were intimately familiar with the rail road corridor and the artifacts that sustained the iron horse. Water tanks, coal chutes, and engine houses were common sights throughout the Hawkeye State. And virtually everyone, even a child, could find the depot. But probably fewer people knew the whereabouts of those sometimes feared "hobo jungles" that sprang up at junctions, terminals, and other trackside locations. In the Albia area, for example, the long-lived jungle flourished northeast of town near Maxon Tower where the M&StL crossed the Burlington and where after the early twentieth century the "Cutoff," designed to reduce an eastbound grade, rejoined the main Burlington line. During periods of hard times when men (and occasionally women) desperately sought to find work but lacked money for travel, such sites with their fire pits and tin cans for cooking became especially active. Jungles became havens for those adventurous souls who rode the rods.


Excerpted from Iowa's Railroads by H. Roger Grant, Don L. Hofsommer. Copyright © 2009 Donovan L. Hofsommer and H. Roger Grant. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

H. Roger Grant is Kathryn and Calhoun Lemon Professor of History at Clemson University. He is author of 25 books, including Visionary Railroader (IUP, 2008). Grant has written company histories of the Chicago&North Western, the Chicago Great Western, the Erie Lackawanna, the Georgia&Florida, and the Wabash railroads. He lives in Central, South Carolina.

Don L. Hofsommer is Professor of History at St. Cloud State University and president of the Lexington Group. He is author of Katy Northwest (IUP, 1999) and Steel Trails of Hawkeyeland (IUP, 2005). A native of Iowa, he now resides in St. Cloud, Minnesota.

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