The Iowa Route: A History of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railwayby Don L. Hofsommer
The Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway was an important part of the commercial life of the upper Midwest during the age of railways. Don L. Hofsommer uses the BC&N as the vehicle for his investigation of the birth, evolution, and disappearance of an important regional carrier, offering an inside look at the struggles of a small railway to stay relevant
The Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway was an important part of the commercial life of the upper Midwest during the age of railways. Don L. Hofsommer uses the BC&N as the vehicle for his investigation of the birth, evolution, and disappearance of an important regional carrier, offering an inside look at the struggles of a small railway to stay relevant while railroad empires were being built. More than a bit player, the BC&N might have become even more important had plans gone forward to utilize its rails in a campaign to reach the Pacific. The struggle of the Cedar Rapids road and its corporate ancestors to place Minneapolis–St. Paul and St. Louis in competition with Chicago via a north/south route forms a major part of the book’s narrative, and the book also offers a history of the company's three-state service territory (Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota) from the dawn of the age of railways into the 20th century. The book includes more than 200 photographs selected from Hofsommer’s extensive library of historic photographs documenting the history of the BC&N Railway.
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The Iowa Route
A History of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway
By Don L. Hofsommer
Indiana University PressCopyright © 2015 Don L. Hofsommer
All rights reserved.
A GRAND IRON HIGHWAY from ST. LOUIS to ST. PAUL
The people all rely on early railroad approaches, and among the many that are now pressing forward from the Mississippi, they hope soon to hear the notes of the locomotive.
KEOKUK DAILY GATE CITY, MAY 26, 1857
Iowa and Minnesota must be joined together before many years, and it will not be long till we can be united with St. Louis.
ELDORA LEDGER, FEBRUARY 20, 1867
A MAJOR BY-PRODUCT OF AMERICA'S WAR OF Independence was creation of a huge domain west of the Appalachian Mountains to the Mississippi River. Before 1800 new states of Kentucky and Tennessee were carved out of that area; Ohio followed in 1803. Then came the Louisiana Purchase. President Thomas Jefferson saw in that mostly untapped expanse west of the Mississippi a potential giant Indian preserve and eventually a rich hinterland into which yeoman farmers could pour as the ratio of man to land in the East demanded it. Yet not even the prescient Jefferson could foresee the rapidity with which the westering process would roar. New states reflected as much: Louisiana (1812), Indiana (1816), Mississippi (1817), Illinois (1818), and Alabama (1819). Missouri in 1821 became the first state fully carved from the Louisiana Purchase; Arkansas followed in 1836, Iowa in 1846, Wisconsin in 1848, and Minnesota a decade later. All of it was mirrored by a dramatic shift in the nation's center of population, which in 1790 had been 23 miles east of Baltimore, but in 1860 the demographic center was a tad north of Cincinnati.
Several variables collectively explained this astonishingly swift development. Chief among them were seminal alterations in transportation devices in the years following the War of 1812 to the 1860s. Indeed, argued historian George Roger Taylor, this transportation revolution was so profound that the colonial economy was swiftly and completely transformed into a national economy – creating an integrated economic platform blending city and countryside as one.
Changes in transport included improved roads, privately owned and operated turnpikes, strengthened bridges, plank roads, canals, and the application of steam to vessels on internal waterways. The vast drainage area of the Mississippi River above St. Louis was a microcosm of the broader pattern. Iowans, for example, like kindred souls elsewhere, devoted themselves to improved roadways – often ill-starred "plank roads" or "corduroy" projects. It was much the same in Illinois, where several ventures radiated north, south, and west from infant Chicago.
Utilization of rivers and streams – "natural highways" – had greater attraction. Trappers, traders, farmers, and merchants used the Mississippi and its tributaries to move food products, whisky, and miscellaneous lading inbound from St. Louis and New Orleans and furs, grain, and other commodities outbound. In this they had employed rafts, canoes, keelboats, and flatboats. Then, in 1823, the steamboat Virginia, upbound from St. Louis to Fort Snelling, spewed its hot breath abroad the upper Mississippi to introduce that revolutionary technology to the area. Steamboat activity grew steadily thereafter, although rapids at Keokuk and Rock Island remained a headache. Elsewhere, much attention attached to the Des Moines River, which flowed diagonally from the northwest across Iowa before emptying into the Mississippi below Keokuk. Steam made its introduction there in 1837. Navigation on the Iowa and Cedar Rivers was more problematic, although one vessel made 21 round trips between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo in 1859.
By 1841, St. Louis was second only to New Orleans in river traffic. Upstream trading partners were as distant as Pittsburgh on the Ohio, Fort Snelling and St. Paul on the Mississippi, Pekin on the Illinois, Fort Des Moines on the Des Moines, and Fort Leavenworth on the Missouri. Shipments moving beyond St. Louis had to be transshipped there, however, because large vessels could not ply the upper Mississippi, the Missouri, or the Illinois. It made for vigorous activity along the levees at St. Louis, but it also added to transit time, loss and damage, and expense.
Urban development on the Mississippi above St. Louis mirrored the rapid movement and settlement by Euro-Americans to the interior. Nascent villages soon became small cities along the western banks of the great river in what became the state of Iowa – Burlington, Muscatine, Davenport, Clinton, and Dubuque among them. Farther north on the opposite bank in the eventual state of Wisconsin, Prairie du Chien and La Crosse sprang to life, and St. Paul, just short of the falls at St. Anthony in the future Minnesota, seemed assured of prominence as the head of navigation on the Mississippi. All of these – and their respective hinterlands, too – were tied ever so tightly to the powerful mercantile instincts of St. Louis.
There could be no doubt as to the impact of steam-boating on transportation practices of the new nation. Yet the steamboat – like all waterborne commerce and transit – was subject in northern climes to clutches of the "ice king" that closed lakes and streams for many months, while flooding and low water in other seasons precluded navigation on many waterways and restricted it on others. Moreover, steam navigation suffered from one salient disadvantage irrespective of geographic location: vessels were restricted to water – navigable water – which was limited in most regions and totally absent in others.
Railroads, by comparison, were not similarly handicapped, and locomotives quickly eclipsed steamboats. Railroads indeed became the nation's basic means of transport. They offered all-weather and reliable service with calculated periodicity and had an almost limitless capacity. Advocates argued that steamcars better than any other transportation device could overcome the tyranny of distance that so burdened the infant republic, and that iron rails would provide the necessary cardiovascular system for the national body and at the same time provide powerful sinew to bind disparate areas as one. They got it right. Railroads became the first mass market for heavy industry, they gave rise to all sorts of manufacturing and commerce, they changed traditional warehousing practice, and they spawned regionally specialized factory production. In fact railways acted on the country like a piston in a cylinder – pushing on and then pulling on the national fabric – greatly speeding the process of "settling up the country as quickly as possible" or "conquering the West" – nearly consensus values of the time. They would, said one scholar, provide "one of the greatest agents of universal progress which the world" would ever see.
The country's railroad network, in infancy during the 1830s and greatly set back by the Panic of 1837, grew significantly during the 1840s. Mileage rose from an insignificant 23 in 1830 to 2,318 in 1840, but surged to 9,021 in 1850. Iowa could boast of nary an inch of track in 1850, and neither could Missouri, but Wisconsin had spiked down 20 miles of route, and Illinois prided itself with 111.
St. Louis remained tightly attached to river transportation as the most effective means of prosecuting its bold policies of urban economic imperialism, although some of its more vocal leaders also advocated railroads as an appropriate supplement. Their efforts resulted in the Pacific Railroad of Missouri, with expansive plans implied in its very corporate title, but progress was slow and by 1861 the road was still 100 miles short of Missouri's western border on a route from St. Louis. Another Missouri project, however – Hannibal & St. Joseph – linked those communities as well as the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers; it entered full service early in 1859. St. Louis denizens had expected that Hannibal & St. Joseph would funnel business to and from northern Missouri their way from Hannibal on the Mississippi, but the new railroad was under control by the same New England investors who held Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q or Burlington Route), and traffic to and from Hannibal tended to move toward Chicago instead of St. Louis.
Chicago! Here was a profoundly powerful new variable. A tiny community of 4,470 persons in 1840, Chicago grew to a population of 29,963 in 1850, and even before rails had reached it from the east, local boosters propelled their own rail enterprise westward – a predecessor of Chicago & North Western (C&NW or North Western) that inched out toward Galena and the lead-mining area of northwestern Illinois. That was only the beginning. Illinois Central (IC),a vertical axis road driven down from north to south in the center of Illinois also would feature a branch to Chicago and another to Dunleith (across the Mississippi from Dubuque). And of course, not to be forgotten was Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, which promised to link the river communities of Burlington and Quincy (and also link up with Hannibal & St. Joseph). Finally, there was Chicago & Rock Island – later Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific (CRI&POR Rock Island) – which pledged to and then did complete a route ending opposite Davenport.
Chicago's leaders fully embraced steamcars as the most effective means to capture a huge hinterland; Chicago-based roads mirrored as much. Leaders at St. Louis were not unmindful of that city's own opportunities for urban mercantilism through railroad expansion, but they were torn by their loyalty to river navigation. Strategically located on the Mississippi just south of confluences with the Illinois and Missouri and above confluence of the Ohio, St. Louis clearly had earned dominance over a giant backcountry. Prominent observers forecast great things for St. Louis, and its claim as the "Gateway City" was difficult to dispute. To be sure, St. Louis provided about half the marketing and supply needs of Illinois, and St. Louis ambassadors took pride at trade inroads made in what had become the states of Iowa, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.
Nevertheless, it would be Chicago that came to fullest dominance of the midcontinent. By 1860, the tide of commerce already favored Chicago over St. Louis, and the awful Civil War accelerated the process. Chicago-based railroads standing on the east banks of the Mississippi River reflected as much. So did railroad development in Iowa. Its mileage during the 1850s leapt from nil to 655, most of it across the rolling prairie of the state's eastern reaches by surrogates or friends of Chicago roads. By 1861, CB&Q's Iowa puppet (Burlington & Missouri River) extended itself from Burlington to Ottumwa; Rock Island's client (Mississippi & Missouri) stood at Iowa City after completing a line from Davenport; C&NW's ally (Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska) reached out from Clinton to Cedar Rapids; and, IC's feeder (Dubuque & Sioux City) steamed out from Dubuque to Waterloo. And a pioneer line of what became Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul (CM&StP or Milwaukee Road) stretched across southern Wisconsin from Milwaukee to Prairie du Chien with clear designs on rich lands west of the Mississippi. Elsewhere, a promising independent, Des Moines Valley (DMV) struggled northwestward from Keokuk, reaching Eddyville in 1861. All of these except DMV and the hopeful Milwaukee interloper represented Chicago interests whose roads, in time, bridged the Mississippi to link up Illinois and Iowa operations – forwarding trainloads of lumber and all nature of manufactured goods westward, receiving in return trainloads of grain and livestock.
The power and influence of Chicago and its railroads on Iowa and its citizens only increased when the central overland route was selected for the first transcontinental and Council Bluffs designated as its eastern terminus. The Civil War curtailed most Iowa railroad construction, but with peace in 1865, officers of Chicago clients became frantic in the race to reach Council Bluffs and partner with Union Pacific on long haul business. The winner was Cedar Rapids & Missouri River, C&NW's surrogate, on January 22, 1867; second was Rock Island on May 11, 1869, one day after the final spike was driven at Promontory Summit to open the country's first transcontinental route. A Burlington predecessor arrived to begin service on January 1, 1870. In that way three Chicago roads met Union Pacific at Council Bluffs and solidified horizontal arteries of commerce across the state from east to west/
All of this was adequate to set off euphoric celebration near at hand and far away. Indeed, during the early age of railways nothing was more to be desired than the steamcars. But in Iowa, many residents soon became nervous in an environment dominated by Chicago roads and by those who controlled them. Competition, they argued, was the appropriate antidote, and not just competition that might be offered by those same Chicago roads with branches and feeders that they could throw out, but rather competition that came from roads emanating from and reflecting interests of other metropolitan contenders – St. Louis being the most prominent alternative. Minnesotans, too, had similar feelings – fearing the power of Chicago and yearning for a rail chute linking St. Paul and Minneapolis with St. Louis. And St. Louis moguls in the postwar era became fully alert to advantages of such a link. Potential synergies were obvious: Iowa grain for hungry flouring mills at St. Anthony Falls and Iowa coal for fuel-starved Minnesota; milled lumber and high-grade flour from Minnesota for Iowa and Missouri markets; and mercantile goods and manufactured items of all sorts from St. Louis companies for Iowa and Minnesota consumers. All of it would be at the expense of Chicago and its lusting iron tentacles. So went the argument, especially in southeastern and central Iowa.
Even as Iowans sought to adjust themselves to the age of railways their neighbors to the north finally were ushered into that new era. "No longer 'outside barbarians,' we are within the Chinese wall of the confederacy," shouted the St. Paul Daily Minnesotan for May 14, 1858. "We are a state of the Union." But there was a serious damper on this predictable elation. Word of statehood had reached Minnesota only in tedious fashion – by wire to the nearest telegraph office, Prairie du Chien, Wisconsin, nearly 190 miles downstream on the Mississippi River from St. Paul, and then relayed upstream by the next available steamboat to newspapers that spread the news – seventy-two hours after President James Buchanan affixed his signature. Minnesota, in fact, remained a raw frontier, devoid of the railroad and its telegraph handmaiden. "We must have an outlet, and an outlet by rail, and this as speedily as possible, or we are nowhere," had wailed the St. Anthony Express for February 18, 1854, but none of the railroads representing imperial instincts of St. Louis, Chicago, or Milwaukee yet evinced urgent interest in Minnesota Territory or in the new state. And that would not change until after the first railroad ties spiked down in 1862, a few miles between St. Paul and St. Anthony Falls. But soon thereafter Chicago's economic instincts (and Milwaukee's, too) would appear near at hand. Predecessors of a major player, Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, became active severally. One of these, Minnesota Central, in 1865–1872, combined with others under a Milwaukee flag to complete a crescent-shaped route from Minneapolis and St. Paul to Milwaukee and Chicago; in 1872 still another Milwaukee Road line would be completed from Chicago and Milwaukee via La Crosse and Winona to the Twin Cities. And in that same year of 1872 a collection of Chicago & North Western surrogates placed in service another Chicago-Twin Cities line.
Excerpted from The Iowa Route by Don L. Hofsommer. Copyright © 2015 Don L. Hofsommer. Excerpted by permission of Indiana University Press.
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Meet the Author
Don L. Hofsommer is Professor of History at St. Cloud State University and president of the Lexington Group. He is author of Off the Main Lines (IUP, 2013), Iowa's Railroads: An Album (with H. Roger Grant) (IUP, 2009), and Steel Trails of Hawkeyeland (IUP, 2005).
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