Iowa History Project


Making of Iowa

Chapter XXVIII

From Canoe To Railroad

The rivers were Iowa's first highways.  The Indian in his canoe made free use of them, and the trapper in his dugout sped from point to point on their current.  The rivers used to be much larger than they are now.  The Iowa, Des Moines, Cedar and even the Turkey were thought to be navigable, and for a long time it was supposed that with the advance of civilization the interior of Iowa would echo to the whistle and the puffing of steamboats.  Settlers congratulated themselves on possessing land on the banks of such streams, and towns were boomed on the strength of their importance as traffic centers.

But, although steamboats did ascend some of the rivers, the ventures did not continue to be remunerative.  Shallows proved vexatious, speculation was too airy, and the advent of railroads made competition too sharp.  To-day the Mississippi and the Missouri may be said to be the only navigable streams of Iowa.

Before the steamboats put in an appearance the whites - French voyageurs, trappers and traders, and American rivermen - introduced on the Mississippi and Missouri the bargee, or barge, the keep boat, the batteau, the pirogue, the Kentucky broadhorn, and the Mackinaw.

The barge was flat bottomed, and was not unlike the barge of to-day, but has one or two masts bearing a square sail.  If one mast, it was set forward.  Near the stern was a cabin, and a platform on which stood the helmsman in order to mainipulate his great sweep.  Some of these barges were one hundred feet long and twenty wide, and were rowed by fifty men.

A keel boat was a barge with a shallow hold and low hull.  The freight was "boxed" on deck, with a gangway, called the "walking board", on the two sides.  This "walking board" might project over the hull.

Progress of barges and keel boars and other flat bottomed crafts was made by a variety of methods.  If the water was shallow, and the current not too swift, poling was resorted to.  If near the shore, there was a chance to "bushwhack" - that is, catch hold of the bushes and pull the boat along.  "Cordelling" was another scheme.  A cable was passed ahead on shore, and fastened to a tree.  Then, grasping the rope on board, the crew walked from bow to stern with it on one side of the barge,  each man, as he dropped it, returning by the other side to take a fresh grip at the bow again.  That is why, on keel boats, the gangway was termed the "walking board".  Sometimes men trudged along the bank, hauling the boat by a rope.  There was a spice of danger in this, because savages or wild beasts or rattle snakes might be encountered.

Batteaux, Mackinaws and Kentucky broadhorns were similar to barges and keep boats.  A pirogue was shaped like a flatiron, with square stern, and sharp bow, and flat bottom.  Flat boats, or barges of various descriptions, were wont, even while Iowa still belonged to France and Spain, to come to St. Louis from Mackinaw, at the head of Lake Michigan.  They entered the Mississippi at Prairie du Chien.  Keel boats were favored by the government for transporting troops up the Mississippi.  Sails and sweeps were used, and it may easily be seen that the it may easily be seen that the rapids proved quite an obstacle.

When a trapper or bee hunter wished to take advantage of a water route he made a dug-out by felling a tree, and burning the heart out of it, so as to obtain a rude shell for a boat.  Indian canoes could be secured from the tribes, but the dug-out was more satisfactory for carrying goods.  Dug-outs were used by the early settlers, too, and if larger craft was needed timber for a flat boat was plentiful.

Steamboats churned the Mississippi some years before white settlers were allowed in Iowa.  It is said that in 1820 the steamer Mandan got as far as teh foot of the Des Moines Rapids, and was unable to ascend.  The Indians were amazed by her puffing and whistling.  They peered at her from the high bliffs, and then fled, bearing to their friends tales of a terrible demon that had appeared in the Mississippi.

The first steamboat to pass along Iowa's eastern border was the Virginia, which, in 1823, carried supplies to Prairie du Chien.  Colonel Davenport piloted her over the rapids that stretch from Rock Island to Le Claire.  The Shamrock, Captain James, in 1827 made the first trip on private business on this section of the Mississippi.

In 1827 the steamboat Yellowstone was sent up the Missouri from St. Louis by the American Fur Company.

Although from the very first the Des Moines River was deemed a navigable stream, not until the building of Fort Raccoon did the steamboat industry assume important proportions.  The pioneer steamboat on the Des Moines was the S. B. Science, Captain Clark, which made a short trip in the fall of 1837.

August 9, 1843, the Ione landed troops and supplies at Raccon Forks, now Des Moines City.  The Ione was the first steamboat to ascend so far above the mouth of the river, and was hailed with rejoicing by the settlers whom it passed.

Now navigation of the Des Moines took a great spurt.  The Des Moines River was to be one of the most valuable streams in the country, and Central Iowa was to be the favored portion of the Territory.  Congress was asked to assist in the matter, and in August, 1846, turned over to Iowa a large quantity of public land yet unsold, bordering the river on either side.

This land was to be put on the market by Iowa, and the money acquired was to be spent in facilitating navigation on the Des Moines.

"Des Moines River Improvement" set the people in Central Iowa wild.  No man who prized his popularity dared say a word against it.  It entered politics and became the issue of the campaigns.

The story is given out that in 1850 two men, running for Congress, were campaigning together, and saw a farmer in a field.  The rivals started for him as fast as they could run.  The one who reached the goal first stretched out his hand and cried, breathlessly:

"Hurrah for river improvement!"

Then he discovered the supposed farmer was only a scarecrow.

But politics and speculation ruined the progress of Des Moines River Improvement.  The bubble burst.  In 1866 the Legislature declared the Des Moines, and the Turkey from the town of El Dorado, no longer navigable.  This decision permitted the building of dams and bridges, which had been prohibited because obstructing the course of the steamboats.

While Des Moines River Improvement was in its glory the boats running did a good business.  They carried considerable freight and transported passengers from town to town.  Standing on the deck of a steamer the crew and passengers joked and chaffed with the people on shore, as the channel swerved now to one side, now to the other.  A steamboat could go clear to Fort Dodge.

An Ottumwa paper of June, 1854, said:

"Since our last issue the steamboats have had fine times on the Demoine.  The Glove, Sanagmon, Col. Morgan, Julia Dean, Time and Tide, J. B. Gordon and Alice have all made trips up, some of them going as high as Fort Demoine.  All of them returned to the Mississippi with loads as heavy as they could bear.  Although we have numerous boats running on the Demoine this spring, and a vast amount of produce has been carried away, still a large portion of the surplus products of the country remains unshipped; and boats could make it profitable, if there was water enough, to run the whole season."

A number of towns sprang up along the banks at places designed for landings.  While navigation lasted they attained considerable importance.  But when the river became too shallow for the boats, and traffic ceased, the main occupation of these towns was gone.  Their object for existing vanished, and in cases where the railroad did not help them they were left to dream of the times that were, and of those that might have been.  Quiet, uneventful towns are these, eternally waiting for something to "turn up".

It seems strange to us who now see with what a network of railroads Iowa is covered, to know that for many years after settlement stage coaches connected the important points, and that the idea of iron tracks crossing the country was denounced as visionary.  But not until 1867 did a locomotive traverse the whole State of Iowa.

Until the coming of the railroad, and for many years after the building of the first lines, the stage answered the general demands of inland travel and traffic.  Frink and Walker was the company operating the first stages in Iowa.  In 1854 the Western Stage Company succeeded the older concern.

The early vehicles furnished to the public were simply two horse wagons without springs, and having a canvas top.  These were pretty rough conveyances, especially on the prairie roads.  The route out of Des Moines was Oskaloosa first day; Fairfield second; Keokuk third.  The fare was ten dollars a passenger.

When the Western Stage Company assumed charge of the stage lines in Iowa it put on wagons called by the public "jerkies".  But in 1855 the regulation Concord coaches were substituted.  These were drawn by four horses, and cost a thousand dollars each.

Nine passengers could ride inside and four on top.  Meals were served at stations.  The driver blew a horn to announce the approach to a halting place.  Even in these coaches the bumps and other inequalities of the road could be felt, and progress was not entirely comfortable.

"How far to Demoine City?" asked a traveler of the driver, at Apple Grove in 1854.

"Sixteen miles," answered the driver.

"How long will it take to get there?"

"We can make it in five hours, I reckon, if the horses hold out and the bottom of the road does not give way."

Among the stage routes was one from Davenport to Council Bluffs.  This passed through Iowa City, Des Moines and Adel, and traversed 327 miles.  Another from Lyons to Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Davenport and Dubuque; from Keokuk to Iowa City; from Keokuk to Keosauqua; and from Oskaloosa to Council Bluffs, passing through Indianola, Winterset and Lewis.

Iowa was well covered by stage routes.  The Western Stage Company was an enormously wealthy and prosperous institution, operating stage routes in other territory besides Iowa.  During war time especially the company made money in Iowa.  Thousands of soldiers were transported from place to place, for the railroads were not in a condition to supply all needs, and troops from the central portions of the State, and from the west, must be carried by stage to a rendezvous farther east.

It was not until july 1, 1870, that the last old coach pulled out of Des Moines for Indianola.

In May, 1854, the first rail for a railroad in Iowa was laid at highwater mark, in Davenport.  The first locomotive on Iowa soil was set up at Davenport a few weeks afterward, and was christened Antoine Le Claire.  Railroads were stretching westward from the Atlantic to the Mississippi, and were waiting on the east bank until time was ripe for them to cross into a new field.

As far back as 1838 there lived at Dubuque one John Plumb, who kept a travern.  He had a son who was a civil engineer and an enthusiast on the subject of a railroad from Lake Michigan to the Pacific.  He possessed a number of maps and sketches, and talked of the project to every one who came in his way.  The travelers and settlers voted him a great bore, and said he was crazy.  When he declared he would live to see such a road they put their fingers on their forehead and winked knowingly at one another.  But young Plumb was wiser that they.  If he lived to the allotted three score years and ten he saw himself vindicated.  It was then his turn to laugh.

In the summer of 1853 a meeting was held at Davenport, between the citizens and the representatives of a railroad then heading to strike the river opposite the town.  It was decided to send out agents to talk with the people of Iowa, along a proposed route of the line, westward, and interest them in the matter.

But these agents had an uphill task.  A large number of the settlers never had seen a railroad, and did not wish to see one.  Stages were good enough, they said.  Some asserted that since the Lord had made the world without railroads He should not be interfered with.  The claims by the agents that the railroad would increase the value of property was not believed.  Unprogressive people called the promoters liars, and were themselves dubbed "obstructionists."

At a Council Bluff's meeting, after an agent had pleaded for the road, a settler arose and said:

"My friends, I have listened to this man's railroad speech, and while I am free to confess that I have gave doubts as to the practicability of the project, yet it may be wise to give it a fair trial, and possible some day we may see the locomotive coming across these prairies head and tail up like a bedbug!"

However, it must not be thought that all Iowa people were blind to the advantages of railroad connections.  In 1848 a railroad convention was held at Iowa City, in which the citizens discussed two routes - one from Davenport through Iowa City and Des Moines to Council Bluffs, the other from Dubuque by way of Iowa City to Keokuk.  Congress was asked by the Legislature to aid by granting public land along the proposed lines.

Davenport was the first railroad center.  It had been the opinion that the Mississippi could not be bridged for a railroad, but in 1854 the Chicago & Rock Island having reached the east bank at Rock Island, began the erection of a structure to span the river.  St. Louis was indignant, declared the bridge an infringement of rights, unconstitutional, and a menace to navigation and tried to have the courts intervene.  But in vain.

The bridge was finished.  This was regarded as a marvelous feat of engineering.

As has been stated, the first rail on Iowa soil was laid in May, 1854.  By the end of 1855 there was sixty-seven miles of track in operation in Iowa.  January 1, 1856, the first train pulled into Iowa City - the westermost station of Iowa.

In May, this year, Congress made a grant of land to assist railway construction.  A number of roads had been planned.  Most of them eventually were consolidated with lines east of the Mississippi.

In August, 1866, the first train entered Des Moines over the Des Moines Valley Road.  In about six months, or in February, 1867, a locomotive arrived at Council Bluffs.

Steam had succeeded horses.  Iowa's stage coach days were drawing to a close.



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