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Rails Across Iowa

September 18, 2013

To continue our story of rail roads in Iowa, this post will explore the rails that took goods and passengers across Iowa. We began this series by looking at the first bridge across the Mississippi River in Rock Island, IL/Davenport, IA. Rail building began in Iowa prior to the building of that bridge. In fact, by the time the bridge was built in 1856, you could already get from the river to Iowa City, still the state capital (though that would soon change). Eventually, five separate lines would transverse the state, peaking at 10,500 miles of track between 1911 and 1917. The development of the railroad significantly impacted transportation and settlement in the state.

The land that Living History Farms sits on once belonged to Martin Flynn, an Irish immigrant to Iowa who made his fortune contracting with railroad companies to grade land in a time before large machines to move dirt were prevalent. One of Martin’s contracts included grading for the Des Moines Valley Railroad and on branch lines of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (later the Burlington Northern, BNSF) in Iowa and Missouri. Mr. Flynn bought this land to start a cattle farm, and while it changed hands several times before becoming Living History Farms, the house and accompanying barn where Mr. Flynn raised his family are still on the property. After several restorations, they are open for visitors and on the National Register of Historic Places. The house is part of our 1875 town of Walnut Hill, a town that demonstrates the prosperity that the introduction of the railroad brought to Iowa farming communities.

In 1860, there were 655 miles of track in Iowa. The American Civil War then halted progress on railway expansion as men and goods were needed for the war effort. Still, no one forgot about the need for the railway to move farm products to market and connect cities with rural Iowa. Land granted to the railroads for building was sold for materials to build. The first line across Iowa, spanning the state from East to West, was completed by the Chicago and North Western Railroad in Council Bluffs on January 17, 1867. Smaller companies began to build spur lines to the main route. By 1870, 2,683 miles of track covered the state and in 1900 that number jumped to 9,200. For a map from the Library of Congress showing some of the railways of Iowa in 1871, click here. The miles of track finally peaked at 10, 500 between 1911 and 1917.

Just as the railroad was later displaced in part by the rise of the Interstate Highway System, rails displaced steam boats as the main transportation of goods and services at the time. Unlike the steam boats, the railroads were neither bound by navigable rivers (of which Iowa only had 2, the Missouri and the Mississippi), nor weather (they can run in the cold of the Iowa winter). With the rail lines complete, Iowa grain, meat, and dairy were transported to larger cities. In return, they hauled factory-made farm implements and consumer goods, food not produced in Iowa like sugar, salt, and coffee, and people, especially new settlers, back to the rural areas.

Railroads were a hub for small towns on the prairie. At one time there were over 1,000 depots serving Iowa towns. These depots served as communication centers — news would come in via the train and telegraph at the station — and as social centers of towns. As the era of the railroad declined, so did upkeep on many of these depots, but some have been restored and are open for visitors like the one built in Ft. Madison, Iowa, in 1909.

Towns sprang up around the railroad hubs in Iowa. In 1893, switch and division crews were moved to Valley Junction, an area that would eventually become a downtown of West Des Moines, Iowa. Following the switch and division crews, engine and train crews, shops, and division headquarters of two different railroads moved to the area. The Rock Island Railroad plant erected in that area employed 200 men, and by 1896 the population of Valley Junction was over 1,000, after having been nothing more than five houses and a depot in 1891. At the turn of the century, the number of railroad employees living in Valley Junction with their families surpassed 400. By that time the area had incorporated into the town of West Des Moines, which during the 2010 census was the 10th largest city in Iowa.

It is quite the undertaking today to build roads and railroads, so one could imagine how difficult it was to build without modern machinery. Workers were required for machine shops, blacksmiths, and boilers, not to mention train engineers, and station masters. Liveries and coach houses were required for storing coaches, as well as men to shovel coal by hand from the cinder pits when the train came to the station. The railroad employed many Iowans during the golden era of railroading, a time that would pass as the twentieth century continued. Other industries would take the place of the railroad, but aged locomotives, cabooses, rail cars and depots remind us of the part played in Iowa history by the “Iron Horse.” Today, less than 4,000 miles of track are in operation in Iowa, much of it lost after 1974 due to company bankruptcies. This fact stands as testimony of the impact of the Interstate Highway System during the 20th century.

Next, we will take a look at the economics of the railroad in turn of the century Iowa.

There are a number of different places you can learn about rail history in Iowa. See this page for details.

Information for this article was also acquired from the Iowa Department of Transportation, IPTV, and  West Des Moines: From Railroads to Crossroads, Terri L. Fredrickson and Alda D. Post, eds., West Des Moines Centennial, Inc., 1993.


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