Madison County, Iowa



          The coming of the spur line between Des Moines and Winterset was a significant event in the annals of Winterset history. As railroad building blossomed after the Civil War, Winterset was in the forefront of towns seeking to be on the main line of one railroad or another but their efforts proved fruitless. The closest line was the east-west Rock Island line between Omaha and Des Moines that traversed the very northern border of  Madison County. Having railroad service was a tremendous stimulant to economic prosperity, not that Winterset was not a thriving town, but rather that it could be much more so with a railroad connection. After being bypassed by the Rock Island main line, several abortive attempts were made at other connections before success was finally achieved by way of a Rock Island spur line from Des Moines, completed in early 1872. What follows is the newspaper account of that glorious day when the first train made its appearance in Winterset.  

A Typical Steam Locomotive

 from the Early 1870s


The Winterset Madisonian, 06 March 1872


A Gala Day

 As Winter goes out the Cars come in -

Grand Banquet to the Railroad hands -

General Rejoicing


            As announced last week, on Thursday. February 29th, the track was completed to Winterset and the first train of cars entered the city limits. After years of waiting, hoping, working, the consummation has come.

            It snowed during the night and the ground was cold and damp, notwithstanding all which there was a great concourse of people, on foot, on horses, in wagons and carriages, to witness the completion. When the cars moved up to the site for the depot the first time, the engine and construction cars were jammed and covered, on tank and tender, on side, on boiler, on cow-catcher, everywhere, with men and women, boys and girls.

            At 4 o’clock, when the last rail was laid, a procession was formed, headed by Winterset’s excellent Brass Band, and the railroad employees were marched to the St. Nicholas, where, with some of the officers of our Company and the representatives of the press, they sat down to a magnificent dinner prepared by Major Cavenor. We would do the repast injustice if we did not add that it was in all respects a complete success and gave complete satisfaction, neither should we forget to acknowledge how much our Band added to the enjoyment of the day. To say that they have few superiors in the State, and discourse most excellent music, would be to repeat what all our people know. It is more than this, it is composed of your very best young men, who are ever ready, whenever they can, to do their part at all our public and private gatherings.

            It was Engine No. 27 that made the first locomotive visit to our town. The engineer in charge was Billy Sprague, an old hand on the Rock Island road, and well and favorably known by all its employees. He was very polite to our people, leaving his big engine to invite them to places on the train, that they might have the gratification of riding into town on it.


Elsewhere in the same paper…

            We are informed that the Rock Island Company have named the stations on our road. The first is called Patterson, and next Bevington, in complement to the President of our company, and the third Spring Hill.

            Mrs. Murphy, Judge Mott’s sister, was the first lady passenger from Des Moines to Winterset, over the new railroad. Coming from poor benighted New Jersey she must conclude this to be a wonderful country.

            The towns of Patterson and Bevington are to be surveyed and laid out this week. County Surveyor Wilkinson is now so employed.


The Depot

            It has been decided that the depot building will be placed at the southwest corner of Fremont and North streets, between the main track and the side track, with a large platform on the north, south, and east sides. The building will be twenty feet wide, but its length is not yet settled upon. For temporary purposes, a Y is to be put down in Safford’s field; when frost is out of the ground it will be taken up and a turntable put in. The Stock yards will be in Safford’s field, well nigh the east line. The lumber and elevator switch will be started from the side track, as will also a switch leading to the stone quarries.


And in the same paper…


The Railroad

  We clip the following letter from the Des Moines Register:

              The people of the thriving city of Winterset and of Madison County have been anxiously awaiting the arrival of the Iron Horse, and now, today, at 4:20 P.M., the shrill whistle has been heard, and the Iron Horse interviewed by some 2000 people, of Old Madison, assembled alongside of the track to witness the laying of the last rail, which is to give them easy communication with the sister city of Des Moines and the rest of mankind. On behalf of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad Company, who have, during the past three months been doing their share of the good work for Madison County and for the benefit of Winterset, I return to one and all of its citizens, our thanks, for the kindness shown, and the hospitality given us on the above occasion, hoping that now they have these opportunities open to them, they will profit by them, and arise up and take this, “new departure” as a friend in Deed.  W. H. Carson, Road Master


Winterset Madisonian, 15 May 1872...

           The cars commenced their regular trips last Monday. We have long hoped and waited - fruition has come at last. There remains a brighter future for Winterset.

            Express rates to Des Moines are 50 cents per hundred pounds. Passenger fare is $1.70. If you weigh 150 pounds you had better express yourself; it would cost 75 cents, a saving of nearly a dollar, and besides you would have somebody to take care of you.

            The lumber for our depot came up Monday evening. It will soon be erected. It is expected a telegraph line will be put up in the next few weeks.


Impact of the Railroad Coming to Winterset

            Did the railroad have a significant impact on the town of Winterset? You bet it did. In the summer of 1872, that same year the the first passenger train arrived in town, 73 new buildings were erected at a cost upwards of $90,000. In addition to the new buildings, many of the old buildings received new paint and repairs as needed. Sidewalks were put in and in general, the town was cleaned up and gussied up. And, within 7 years, the population of Winterset had doubled.

           It is ironic that it took less than 30 years for the pride of having railroad service to dissolve into an embittered hostile relationship with the Rock Island line, primarily over freight rates. This relationship is detailed in several articles in the local papers at the turn of the century.

The End of Passenger Service

          Railroad passenger service between Winterset and Des Moines lasted 54 years and three months but the automobile finally took its toll. The following story appeared in the Winterset Madisonian on 01 July 1926:


Passenger to Winterset Will Make Its Last Run Monday, July 5th

Winterset is to be without a passenger train after Monday, July 5th, according to word received by M. S. Logan, passenger agent, Thursday morning. It seems that the passenger business does not warrant the Rock Island to continue running two trains here each day, and they are taking off  the passenger that leaves here at 6:45 in the morning, and comes back at 6.40 in the evening

A delegation of eight business men went to Des Moines Monday to confer with the Rock Island officials concerning the train and mail service. Evidently the officials made their decision regardless of how the business men felt about it.

It is probable that the Star Route carrying mail between here and Des Moines will soon be put into effect, although Mr. W. H. Vance, postmaster, has not yet heard anything definite.

In our opinion, the railroads have overplayed the injury sustained by the loss of short haul business to the auto. The freight on Winterset gasoline alone is probably more today than the revenue from passenger traffic over was in the "good old days" when automobiles were unknown.

The writer recently counted tank cars on a freight train at Peru that must have yielded an income of nearly $8,000 00 on gasoline shipped from Oklahoma to Iowa and Minnesota.

The automobile and improved highways have made the railroads money, and to destroy the mail service at a town like Winterset where freight tonnage is phenomenal is neither good policy on the part of the railroad or fair treatment.

Transcribed & edited by Kent Transier


Maintained by the County Coordinator This page was created on Sept 29, 2006.
This page was last updated Monday, 04-Jan-2016 19:38:24 EST .