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EDITED BY John C. Parish

Volume III January 1922 No. 1

Copyright 1922 by the State Historical Society of Iowa

(Transcribed by Debbie Clough Gerischer)

Letters of a Railroad Builder

      Isaac Lane Usher came to Iowa in 1853, ahead of the railroads, and located at Muscatine. He learned that the Lyons Iowa Central Railroad Company was constructing an air line from Lyons on the Mississippi River to Iowa City and thence westward across the State, and he and his partner, William H. Thayer, took a contract to build a part of the road near Tipton. Work on this road was commenced in 1853 and was probably the first actual railroad construction in the State of Iowa. But in the following year the company abandoned its operations and the roadówhich was called the "Calico Road" because of the bolts of calico and other merchandise in which the company partially paid the men who were doing the construction workówas never completed. Usher and Thayer returned to Muscatine and as proprietors of the " Ogilvie House " carried on a thriving hotel trade. They also took a contract for railroad building on the road from Muscatine to Oskaloosa. In the spring of 1855 Thayer sold out to Usher and not long afterwards Mr. Usher also sold his interests and removed to La Crosse County, Wisconsin, which was his home until his death in 1889. The following extracts of the letters of Mr. Usher were contributed through the kindness of his son, Ellis B. Usher, of Milwaukee.

      [To his father]
      Muscatine, Iowa, Oct. 16th, 1853. I have been here two days only and of course can give no very distinct ideas of business matters, but can give impressions gathered from my limited observation, and from conversation with others.
      Iowa as yet is quite new, she has a few smart towns on the river, (among which this is one of the smartest) which derive their business directly and indirectly from the agricultural resources of the surrounding country, which are at present quite extensive and daily increasing. These river towns have not only the advantage of the trade thus received, which is equal to cash, but they manufacture and get pay for the labor. They have two large flour mills running night and day, making about three hundred barrels of flour of the best quality, every twenty-four hours. They have steam mills here for making the flour barrels, that make them very fast indeed. They have also two large steam saw mills that saw about 20,000 feet per day. Connected with them are lathe, shingle, and planing mills. They get their pine logs from up river 300 or 400 miles, and raft them down the river. One thousand feet of common boards are worth here about $12. per thousand and better qualities range from that to $25. Shingles are worth here $3.50, and lathes, from $2.50 to $3.00.
      I think that with the exception of California, which is an exception to all rules, Iowa is at present settling faster than any state in the Union has ever been settled, and with a better class. Emigrants are coming here from Ohio by hundreds every day óregular old farmers, just the men to develop this country. As a general thing they are men who emigrated to Ohio several years ago, without means, and located their 80 or 100 acres of land which they can now sell for $40. or $50. per acre, according to location. They are energetic and industrious, and have the money. Land in this town is worth from $100 to $125 per front foot in the business portion of the town. One mile out, good locations for farms are worth from $15. to $25. per acre. From four to five miles out it is- worth from $4.00 to $10. per acre, a great inequality, as you will at once perceive. The land in town will not go down and the land out of town must advance; it is in fact, advancing from 12% to 25% every month, and in many cases 100%, and will continue to do so as long as emigration continues to flow in as at present.
      You can let any quantity of money here at 25%, with ample security. A man told me yesterday that he wanted about $2,500. to locate some land with, in Cedar county, the county just back from this, and if anybody will locate it and give him a bond for a deed, he will give them a 25% advance with security on the land and also on 4,000 acres which he owns, besides. He is a Mr. Tuefts, formerly of Maine, the eastern part. He left Maine when he was twenty-one, and has lived in Ohio most of the time, until this summer, when he came here as mail agent at $100. per month. He has invested all his spare means in land here and intends to settle about five miles from town, when he has bought land enough for three farms for himself and two boys, and the land he wants the money to secure is for some of his Ohio neighbors, who intend to emigrate here next year, and he is afraid someone else will get it before they can sell where they are and secure it.
      I rode twenty miles into the country yesterday, horse back, with Mr. Tuefts and another man. Most of the country in this section is rolling prairie, and as beautiful as nature could make it, with here and there an oak opening to supply wood and fencing timber, and the soil is as good as any in the world, and the climate as healthy.
      The site of this town is very rough, a succession of hills and valleys, requiring a great deal of grading and filling up to make it as it should be. The reason why it was chosen is that the river here makes a large elbow, and this town is built on the outer point of the elbow, thus securing a larger extent of country, the trade of which can reach this point and can't be turned on from it. The town getting the best location of course gets the most trade. The great rival of this place is Davenport, thirty miles above. It is the most beautiful western town I have seen and about the size of this (about 5000 inhabitants) but they don't at present do half the business that they do here. But they are building a railroad from Davenport to Iowa City which will give them the advantage until they build one from here, which they probably will do as soon as next year. To give you an idea of the emigration here; there are more emigrant wagons than the ferry boat can take across the river in the day time; sometimes there are fifteen or twenty wagons waiting on the eastern shore to come across, and when I rode out yesterday, I met fifteen wagons going a distance of five miles, on the main road, that came into the state in another direction.
      This is what you see at our point.
      The society here I should judge is very good indeed. I have a very nice boarding house; much better than I expected to find. It is better than most eastern boarding houses. The price is two dollars and twenty-five cents per week. Everything to make us comfortable and happy.

      [To his wife]
     Muscatine, Iowa, Oct. 27th, 1853.
      I think now I shall leave here next week for Tipton, an inland town about twenty-five miles west of this, where we expect a contract on a railroad upon quite advantageous terms. We have had the offer of as much work as we can do or get done, at so much a yard according to the distance we have to haul it, and we are not bound, only to do the best we can, and they guarantee us not to lose. We shall have to furnish hardly anything. We can get men to build the camp for the sake of getting the boarders, and we shall get our pay without doubt every month. The other contractors told me they always had got theirs just at the time agreed. This road is to run from Lyons in Clinton County to Iowa City, a distance of 75 miles, and they intend to have it finished by next fall at this time. The same company is intending to build another road, from this place to Iowa City, and from thence to Cedar Rapids, in Linn County, and we expect to get the thirty miles from this place to Iowa City to build.

      [To his father]
      Tipton, Iowa, November 10, 1853.
      We have taken a contract on the Lyons Iowa Central Railroad, of two miles, near this place. The work on it will amount to about $30,000. We have 15 cents per yard for all earth hauled less than fifty rods and 20 cents for all hauled over that distance. There are no rocks or trees in the way, and after breaking the surface there is no difficulty in shoveling it without any plowing or picking. By our contract we are paid once a month, our whole estimate, the company reserving the right to take the work off our hands whenever in the opinion of the chief engineer we are not likely to complete it in the given time. The time given is the first of June, 1854. We have not had to buy anything to commence with but a lot of shovels. We found men here to build the shanties for the sake of the boarders, and the farmers have plenty of teams that they are anxious to work at reasonable prices.
      We pay $2 per day for two horses and driver, they boarding themselves and receiving their pay when we receive ours. We pay the same for one yoke of oxen and cart. Scrapers, plows, and wheelbarrows the company lends us whenever we want them. I think, judging from the rates they pay in the East, we cannot fail to make some money out of it.
      The same company wants us to build thirty miles of railroad from Muscatine to Iowa City, commencing as early as practicable in the spring.
     They gave us all we asked for this job, and if they do the same with the other, we shall take it.
      Thayer understands his business as very few of the contractors here do.
      The company has a nice office here which they have given us the use of, with a nice stove, desk, and furniture, and wood enough to last a month or two. They come to do business in it once a month when they pay off their hands.
      The company wants to hire me to keep their books at this point and would probably give about $30 per month for it. It will work me a little too hard as I shall have to do most all of it evenings, but I guess I shall try it. I have been for the last two days fixing up their books for a settlement which comes off tomorrow. They have about 200 hands to pay off here. We board at a hotel here for $2 a week, a first rate table, but the house is so full all the time that I expect we shall have to put a bed in the office. There are three hotels in town and all full every night.

      [To his wife]
      Tipton, Iowa, Nov. 16, 1853.
      The railroad company has had some trouble with the Tipton people about their stock book. Some of the subscribers erased their names from the book because they thought the company had done so much work near this place that they would pass through it anyway, but the company were so indignant at it that they were determined to abandon what they had done and not come to this town, and they could do it and not lose anything, because the route that does not come here is much cheaper to build.
      Their old books made them pay only 20 per cent a year, and their subscription was $28,000. The company now tells them that they must furnish $50,000, payable 10 per cent. per month, and they will have to do it. They have already raised $30,000 of it and will undoubtedly get the rest. The vice president and the man who came with him to pay off have been so busy with that matter that I have had to pay off the hands, here and at Iowa City. I have paid out $13,000 and go to-day towards Lyons, with the vice president to pay off the rest.
      We shall get off $500 or $800 worth of work this month, and it will not cost us over one-half. It counts up faster than our other work, and we are doing it to get ahead a little.

      [To his wife]
      Elk River, Sunday, November 20, 1853.
      Wednesday afternoon I started from Tipton along the line of the Lyons, Iowa Central Railroad, in a one horse buggy, in company with Wm. G. Hourn, Esq., over a prairie country, interspersed here and there with a grove of oak timber and watered with several beautiful, clear, running streams. The country is beautifully undulating until you reach within two or three miles of the river, where it becomes quite hilly and broken, and very much more pleasant and beautiful to me than tile flat country over which we had traveled.
      Mr. Hourn is a Kentuckian and his wife also. She is considerably younger than he and has regular Kentucky manners, wants a little in refinement, but is direct and truthful in expression, and has quick perceptions and a high sense of honor. Taken all in all, an agreeable woman. Mr. Hourn is a smart, or rather sharp, active man, rather loose in detail, but far-seeing and just the man to manage the general business of a railroad in this western country, with somebody to follow and attend to all the details.
      The rest of the family consists of a young lady about twenty years old, by his former wife, and three small children, two boys and a girl.
      Mr. Hourn has a brother-in-law in business with him by the name of Graves, a near relative of the Graves who killed Cilley of Maine.

      [To his brother-in-law]
      Muscatine, Iowa, May 8,1854.
      Our business is paying beyond our expectations. We have a perfect rush of travel all the time, filling the beds and frequently the floors full. We have 85 regular family and sometimes as high as 125 arrivals per day. We pack them away like bales of goods and charge them big storage. We have taken a large contract on a railroad from this place west to Oskaloosa, connecting with the Rock Island road east, to Chicago. The Rock Island road has been opened since I came back, (within a few weeks), and is doing the biggest business of any road in the West. Mr. Farnam, the man who made it, finished it one year before his time, and is running it on his own hook for the one year. He will make money enough for one man.
      We have taken the contract under a wealthy firm here, Ogilvie & St. John, and at prices which must net us a large profit. We have 20, 21, and 20 cents a yard for dirt excavation and 75 cents for rock.      Thayer will go onto the road and I shall stay in the hotel.

      [To his father]
     Muscatine, Iowa, May 19,1854
      We have taken a large contract on the Oskaloosa railroad in connection with Ogilvie & St. John. Ogilvie is the owner of this house. We have got a good contract and have been offered $19,000 for it. That will be $3000 each. We shall take it if we can't talk them up higher. We want to get about $1500 more if we can.

      [To his brother-in-law]
      Muscatine, Iowa, Sept. 3, 1854.
      Corn is worth 20 and 25 cents per bushel. Flour $6 and $6.50 a bbl. Beef 6 and 7 cents a pound. Pork 5 and 6 cents. Prairie chickens $1.50 per dozen. Quail 30 cents per dozen. Turkeys 50 cents each. Tame chickens $1.50 per dozen. Butter ]0 and 12 cents per lb. Milk 4 cents per quart. Potatoes 25 cents per bushel. Peaches $1.00 per bushel. Tomatoes they will give you all you want. Muskmelons 5 cents. Watermelons 5 and 10 cents.
      I have given you the retail prices, so if you want to live, come on.
      You can shoot your own game. Just get into a buggy and drive along the road and shoot without getting out.
      A man with $3000 or $4000 can live easy here by "shaving" short paper at 20 and 30%.

      [To his brother-in-law]
      Muscatine, Iowa, Dec. 7th, 1854.
     We have not settled with the railroad folks yet. Can't tell how we shall come out. Our company .makes $3000 out of it aside from the question of damages. We ask $10,000 damages and could no doubt get that amount at the end of a law suit. Ogilvie, St. John offer to give us $3000 and let us out, and run the risk of getting damages. I think we shall take it rather than be bothered with a long law suit.
      Business in all departments is good here, though money matters have been very much deranged for the last three months. We take no Indiana bank bills excepting State Bank. No Ohio money excepting State Bank. No Kentucky accepting Northern Bank, and none from banks south of that. How long {his situation will last I can't tell, but not long, I think.

      [To his father]
      Muscatine, Iowa, Jan. 17, 1855.
      We have settled our railroad matters with Ogilvie & St. John. They gave us two Muscatine County bonds, of $1000 each, 20 years, 10 mo, and $800 credit on their books. The bonds are worth $800 cash now, and are a good investment. They bind themselves to pay all debts, etc. of Ogilvie, St. John, Usher b Thayer. The debts are not much, $300 or $400. I thought that as railroad matters stand at present all over the country we were better off to take that clear profit than run the risk of waiting to get more.


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