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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp





When Iowa became a state in 1846 it had no railroads.  There were some in Eastern states and people had begun to plan for them in Iowa.  In fact, many attempts were made to start railroads.  As early as 1844, a company of men asked that land be given to them in order that they might build a railroad from Dubuque to Keokuk.


Perhaps the most interesting early attempt at railroad building in Iowa was the Lyons-Iowa Central Railroad.  It also became known as the "Calico Railroad."  The plan was to start as Lyons (now a part of Clinton) and to have it run westward through Fort Des Moines to Council Bluffs.

The company that was to build the Lyone-Iowa Central Railroad was allowed, by a law passed in 1850, to buy a strip of land one hundred feet wide across the state.  People that lived along the proposed road became greatly excited.  Money was raised in the towns that were to be on the new line.  Counties voted to give large sums of money that were to be raised through taxation.  Nearly a million dollars was raised.  Hundreds of laborers, many of whom were brought in from the East, were put to work building a grade.  Then suddenly all work was stopped.  The men who were in charge said there was no more money.  The company had bought large quantities of goods, however, with which to pay the men in part.  Since most of the goods consisted of calico cloth, and it was given to the men in payment for work, this early attempt at railroad building was nicknamed the "Calico Railroad."


The first railroad from Chicago to the Mississippi River had reached Rock Island, Illinois, on February 22, 1854.  Iowa people wished that a bridge might be built to connect Davenport with the railroad across the river.  If that were done, goods could be sent directly to Chicago and eastern markets by rail.  Up to this time Saint Louis had been the chief market for Iowa products.  Grain and other farm produce could easily be sent there by river from many points in eastern Iowa.

Steamboat captains and Saint Louis businessmen were greatly opposed to having a bridge built at Davenport.  They thought that if it were built all Iowa trade would go to Chicago by rail, rather than to Saint Louis by boat.  They said that such a bridge would hinder river boats, and that it was against the law.  They tried in every way possible to prevent the bridge from being built.

In January, 1853, nevertheless, a "Railroad Bridge Company" was incorporated in Illinois with the approval of the federal Government.  Its purpose was to build a bridge across the Mississippi to Davenport.  Work was begun in 1854 and it was completed in April, 1856.  The bridge was 1,582 feet long and the cost of it was over $400,000.  This was the first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi at any point.

In Chapter XLI we read that the Effie Afton struck one of the piers of this first bridge and was burned; also, that a famous lawsuit resulted in which Lincoln was one of the attorneys.  The jury disagreed and the case was never settled.  The bridge company paid no damages and more bridges were built.  As a result, Chicago gained in importance and Saint Louis lost much of its river trade.


The first railroad built in Iowa ran westward from Davenport to Iowa City, then the capital of Iowa.  A branch line ran from Wilton to Muscatine.  Ground was broken at Davenport on September 1, 1853, for this first Iowa railroad.  The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad Company, which built this road, agreed to have the line from Davenport to Iowa City completed by January 1, 1856.  The company had asked Congress for a grant of land, but because of past experiences with other companies Congress refused to help.  The company then went ahead without assistance.

The first train pulled into Muscatine from Davenport in November, 1855, and a great celebration was held.  Two towns twenty-five miles apart were now connected by rail!

In order to get the railroad completed to Iowa City by January 1, 1856, many people who lived in that city helped the workmen.  Huge bonfires were built to keep the men warm and to furnish light to work by at night.  The first train arrived in Iowa City on the afternoon of January 3, 1856.  There was another great celebration with many speeches and a great feast.


Des Moines welcomed its first train in August, 1866.  Six months later, in February, 1867, the first train pulled in to Council Bluffs and the first line across Iowa was completed.

Great interest was now shown in railroad building.  Every town in Iowa wanted to be on a railroad line.  People asked Congress to donate land to help new companies.  In 1856 Congress made four grants of land to the State of Iowa, which in turn gave the land to railroad companies.  One ninth of all land in Iowa was give to railroad companies in this way.

In 1859, there were less than 500 miles of railroad in Iowa; by 1870 there were about 3,000 miles.  Today only three states have more miles of railroad than Iowa, whose total is about 9,700 miles.

The principal lines in the state are the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific, the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy, the Chicago and Great Western, the Chicago and Northwestern, the Illinois Central, and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific.


Because railroads and telegraph lines have worked much together, this section would be incomplete if no mention were made of the telegraph.  In fact, in most parts of Iowa the railroad and telegraph reached the towns and villages at about the same time.

Building a telegraph line in the West was a difficult task.  The roads were few and poor.  Bridges were poorly built.  This made transporting supplies a difficult problem.  Often the telegraph line went through territory that was scarcely settled and with no roads at all.

Poles were cut as near the new line as it was possible to get them.  They were usually pine, oak, or hickory but all kinds were used.  Naturally they were of different heights and the poles were not all an equal distance apart.  This caused much trouble.  The line consisted of a single stand of number ten black iron wire such which was hung unevenly and often carelessly from pole to pole.

Crossing the rivers was one of the biggest problems that the builders of the early lines had.  No one had, at that time, built the submarine cables which were so successfully used later.  Few of the larger rivers had bridges that could be used for the lines.  Hence, tall towers or masts were built on each side of the river.  A heavy wire was then hung  between these masts.  On wide streams a mast might also be built on an island.  The wire had to be high enough so as not to interfere with steamboat travel on the river.  These masts were huge wooden towers, guyed from all sides by wire cables.  They were built of heavy timbers and often had a base of 60 feet square.  The tallest mast built was at Paducah, Kentucky, and was 307 feet high.

Many were the troubles of these earlier lines.  It is said that so many passenger pigeons would perch on a line that it would break down.  The winter storms and spring floods caused many breaks along the poorly-built lines.  The masts were especially hard hit by storms.

Money to build these early lines was usually raised by the sale of stick to people in towns and cities along the line.  The value of such stock was later largely lost through reorganizations and consolidations of companies.

On August 24, 1848, the Burlington Hawk-Eye reported that the "telegraph was put in operation for the first time yesterday between this place and Bloomington (Muscatine).  Next week we hope to be in communication with Saint Louis and the eastern and southern cities."

By 1935 the telegraph and telephone had been so perfected that pictures were being transmitted by wire from photographs.


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