History of Marion County, Iowa by Wright and Young (1915)

Chapter XIII - Internal Improvements

Conditions in 1843 - Development of Seventy-two Years - River Transportation - Des Moines River Land Grant -
Steamboats on the Des Moines - Public Highways - Old Indian Trails - Corduroy -
First Roads Established by the County - Ferries and Bridges - The Railroad Era - Early Opposition to Railroads -
Railroad Meeting at Knoxville in 1853 - The Various Lines of Railway in Marion county - Mileage and Valuation

When the first white men came to what is now Marion County the country was in its primeval state, inhabited only by the savage Indian, or the roving uncertain hunters, trappers and agents of the great fur companies, who rarely remained long enough in one place to attempt anything in the way of internal improvements. Here and there an Indian trail wound through the forest or over the prairie, and these were the only thoroughfares. They were mere paths, to accommodate the Indian custom of traveling single file, and were not adapted to the passage of vehicles. No roads had been opened by the white man for his convenience, the streams were not bridged, and it was not an unusual sight to find some immigrant camped upon the bank of a creek or river, waiting for the waters to subside so that he could continue his journey. Then there were not more than five thousand miles of railroad in the United States and not a mile of that west of the State of Ohio.

What changes have come since the Government of the United States acquired title to the Indian lands that now comprise Marion County in 1843! When the citizen of the county has occasion to make a trip to the county seat, or to some neighboring town, it is an easy matter to hitch a horse to a buggy or step into his automobile, and pass along a public highway to his destination. If he finds it necessary to make a longer journey, he can take his seat in a reclining chair car, or in a Pullman coach, if he desires to travel in state, and be whirled to some distant city at the rate of fifty miles an hour on one of the great railway systems of the country. But does the average person pause to think of how all these conveniences were brought about for his comfort and accommodation? The establishment of all these improvements was a work of almost Herculean proportions - accomplished by a slow and tedious process - as one can see if he will but draw upon his imagination for the conditions that existed in 1843 and compare them with the conditions of the present day. And does the average citizen appreciate the advantages of the age in which he lives, or give due credit to those who went before him to prepare the way for his present enjoyment?


In the early days the rivers of the country were the principal arteries of commerce and travel. Over them passed the light canoe of the Indian, the pirogue or bateau of the trader, and later came the keelboat and the steamboat. Due to this fact, and also to the fact that the march of civilization was toward the West, the natural sequence was that the first settlements in what is now the State of Iowa should be made along the eastern border, near the Mississippi, so that the pioneers could keep in touch with the outside world by means of the great Father of Waters.

As the settlements extended westward into the interior of the state, efforts were made to navigate the Des Moines River with steamboats of light draft, in order to carry supplies and open up trade with the new settlements. Quite a number of the early settlements along this river have grown into cities of considerable size and commercial importance, notably Farmington, Keosauqua, Ottumwa, Des Moines and Fort Dodge. Charles Negus, in an article published in the Annals of Iowa some years ago, gives the following account of the first navigation of the Des Moines River by steamboat:

“In 1836 the Sacs and Foxes, having disposed of their reservation on the Iowa River, where they had villages, moved west and settled in the valley of the River Des Moines, in what is now Wapello County, and, as a natural consequence, trading posts were established in this vicinity, which had to be supplied with goods. In the fall of 1837 the few settlers along the banks of this river were for the first time gladdened with the sound of the shrill whistle of a steamboat, making its way up the river with supplies for these trading posts. This boat was the S. B. Science, commanded by Captain Clark, which, by forcing its way against the swift current, passing safely over the concealed sandbars and hidden rocks, demonstrated that the waters of the river, at high stages, were navagable, much to the joy and satisfaction of those who lived in the vicinity, and afforded a theme for pleasant conversation for days and months.”

Another steamboat which ascended the river in 1837 was the Pavillion, Capt. William Phelps, which passed up as far as Fort Dodge at a time when there was a good stage of water, and returned without serious difficulty. The trip of Captain Phelps aroused considerable enthusiasm and created the impression that the Des Moines was navigable, at least for the greater part of the distance between the mouth of the river and Fort Dodge. The Pavillion was doubtless the first steamboat to pass through what is now Marion County. Other early steamboats on the Des Moines were the Otter and the Dove, but they ascended the river no farther than Farmington or Keosauqua.

In May, 1843, when the eastern portion of Marion County was thrown open to settlement, the Government established Fort Des Moines, where the City of Des Moines now stands, and the little steamer Ione carried a detachment of dragoons and their stores up to the new fort. The officer in command, in his official report, gave an account of the successful voyage up the river, and this added greatly to the belief that the stream was, or could be made, navigable. A movement was started to secure government aid in the improvement of the river, and on August 8, 1846, President Polk approved an act of Congress granting to the Territory of Iowa alternate sections of land, in such of the public domain as remained unsold, in a strip five miles wide on each side of the river, “for the purpose of aiding said territory to improve the navigation of the Des Moines River from its mouth to the Raccoon Fork, “ etc.

Iowa was admitted as a state on December 28, 1846, and the land grant for the improvement of the Des Moines River was accepted by the Legislature on January 9, 1847. At the same session an act was passed providing for the organization of a board of public works to sell the lands and make the improvements. In 1849 Samuel R. Curtis was employed to make a survey of the river and report a plan for the improvement of navigation. He recommended a system of locks and dams, to be located at various places along the river, one of which was to be near the old Town of Rousseau, in Marion County. Contracts were let for the construction of three of the dams and a canal, but none was ever completed according to the original specifications. By 1854 the board of public works had disposed of most of the lands below the mouth of the Raccoon Fork, and 58,000 acres above it, and had incurred an indebtedness of $70,000 over and above the proceeds derived from the land sales. With the approval of Congress, the remainder of the land grant was transferred in 1854 to a company called the Des Moines Navigation and Railroad Company, which assumed the $70,000 indebtedness incurred by the board of public works. About this time a dispute arose as to whether the land grant extended above the mouth of the Raccoon Fork (where the City of Des Moines is now located) and a compromise was effected by which the Des Moines Navigation and Railroad Company accepted all the land that had been certified to the state and paid the state $20,000. In 1862 Congress settled the question by an act which extended the land grant to the north line of the state. The Legislature then granted the remainder of the lands to the Des Moines Valley Railroad Company, which had succeeded to the rights and franchises of the old Des Moines Navigation and Railroad Company. This ended all hope of improving the river. Concerning the land grant and the manner in which the improvement of the river was undertaken by the old board of public works, Charles Negus, in the article already referred to, says:

“This was a most magnificent grant, embracing some of the best lands in the state; and if the proceeds had be judiciously and properly expended, would have made a great thoroughfare for steamboats, besides affording immense water power for driving machinery. but, through the incompetence of managing the means and the intrigues of designing men, the whole of the lands below the Raccoon Fork, and a large quantity above, were disposed of and very little practical good accomplished toward the navigation of the river.”

Although the project to improve the river ended in failure, steamboats continued to ascend the river as far as Farmington, Keosauqua and Ottumwa, and occasionally one went up as far as Des Moines when the state of water would permit. Among these early Des Moines River steamboats were the Agatha, Captain May, which made two or three trips in 1843; the Kentucky in 1849, and the Jenny Lind in 1850, both commanded by Captain Ainsworth; and the Maid of Iowa, Capt. William Phelps, in 1851. During the next five years the Colonel Morgan, the Michigan, the Defiance, the George H. Wilson and the Revenue Cutter all plied upon the waters of the Des Moines, a few going up as far as the capital city. In 1856 Captain Wilson took the steamer Charles Rogers up to Fort Dodge. In the latter ‘50’s the Belfast, Captain Milburn, the Des Moines Belle, the Ad Hines, the Clara Hines and the Flora Temple were engaged in the Des Moines River trade. Old settlers still remember how, when they were boys attending the school on the hill near Coalport, they used to listen to the whistles of these old-time steamboats as they signaled the landing. These youngsters were always pleased when a boat stopped to “coal up” during the noon hour, so that they could run down to the landing to watch the proceeding. The failure of the river improvement project, and soon afterward the advent of the railroad, put an end to the efforts to make Iowa’s longest river a great commercial avenue. The last navigation of the river of which there is any account was in 1894, when “General” Kelly’s “Army of the Commonweal” floated down the stream in such craft as could be picked up or hastily constructed at Des Moines for the voyage to Keokuk.


In a speech many years ago, Col. Thomas H. Benton, United States senator from Missouri, presented a peculiar and interesting theory concerning the origin of a number of the western highways. He suggested that the buffaloes were the first road engineers; that the paths trodden by them were, as a matter of convenience, followed by the Indians, and later by the whites, with such improvements as were found to be necessary for civilized modes of travel. “It is but reasonable to suppose,” said he, “that the buffaloes would instinctively choose the most practical routes and fords in their migrations from one pasture to another. Then the Indians, following, possessed of about as much enterprise as their predecessors, the buffaloes, made no improvements, and were finally driven from the track by those who would.”

The buffalo path, or the Indian trail, followed the line of least resistance, as suggested by Colonel Benton, and was somewhat sinuous in its course. But were these trails were available they were used by the pioneers until better roads could be opened. Says Donnel: “Among the many roads in this county known to be only Indian trails at the period of which we are writing, is one from Red Rock to Knoxville, and those traversing the bottoms on either side of the river above and below Red rock. Under the cliffs south of the river, above town, this trail was so narrow as barely to permit the passage of a horseman between the bayou and the rock wall.”

The first highways constructed by civilized man were crude affairs - usually a route marked out at will by stakes upon the prairie and trees blazed through the timber, with here and there a few trees removed to permit the passage of vehicles. Sloughs and swampy places were filled with small logs, thrown crosswise of the driveway, thus forming the historic “corduroy” road, which was neither easy on the team nor comfortable for the occupants of the wagon, but it kept the vehicle from miring down.

On January 6, 1846, John Conrey and others presented a petition to the county commissioners asking for the opening of a public road “Commencing at the house of Samuel Nicholson, thence running in a northerly direction so as to strike John Conrey’s claim near the southwest corner, thence by the nearest and best route to Knoxville.” Samuel Nicholson lived in what is now Indiana Township. After hearing the petition, the commissioners granted the request, provided the road could be opened without expense to the county. Garrett W. Clark, John T. Pierce and Reuben S. Lowrey were appointed viewers, and Isaac B. Power, county surveyor, was instructed to make a survey of the route. Mr. Power made his report on January 15, 1846, showing that the road was about eight miles in length. This was the first public highway officially established in the county.

On April 14, 1846, the county commissioners divided the county into ten road districts and appointed a supervisor for each. The boundaries of these districts and a list of the supervisors are given in Chapter IV. True, there were then no public roads over which the supervisors could exercise authority, but the establishment of road districts was a preparatory step toward the construction of highways.

At the July term of the commissioners; court seven petitions for the opening of roads were presented, and after being considered by the board all were granted, with the understanding that the roads were to be viewed and located without expense to the county. The roads petitioned for were as follows:

1. A petition from George Gillaspy and others for a relocation of a territorial road “Commencing where said road crosses the ford of the lake in Lake Prairie, thence to the terminus of said road,” but the location of the “terminus” is not made plain.

2. George Gillaspy also headed a petition for a road from Joseph McPherson’s house, near the east line of the county, via Durham’s ford, to Knoxville. John T. Pierce, John Conrey and John B. Hamilton were appointed to view the route and report as to the advisability of opening the road. They made a favorable report on September 26, 1846.

3. Landon J. Burch and others came forward with a petition for a road from Red Rock, via Burch’s mill, to Knoxville. George Gillaspy, Garrett Harsin and L. C. Conrey were appointed viewers. They met at the house of Lewis M. Pierce in the town of Knoxville August 1, 1846, and after going over the route recommended the opening of the road.

4. John D. Bedell and others petitioned for a road “from the terminus of the territorial road running from Bush’s mill in Jefferson County, via Agency City, Ottumwa, Eddyville, Harrisburg and Lake Prairie, opposite the mouth of the White Breast, thence via Red Rock to the north line of the county in the direction of Tool’s Point.” Tool’s Point in now the Town of Monroe, Jasper County. This road was viewed and recommended by N. P. Swan, Asa Hughes and Simon Drouillard, who were appointed for that purpose by the board of commissioners.

5. A petition signed by John Henry and a number of others was presented, asking for a road “to begin at a point on the territorial road about one and a half miles south of the north line of the county and two miles east of the center line of the county, running north and south, thence west, as nearly parallel as possible to the north line of the county, to Markly’s ferry on the Des Moines River.” Daniel Kyger, Claiborne Hall and Jonathan Markly were appointed viewers for this road.

6. John D. Bedell and others living in the northern part of the county asked for the opening of a road “from the north line of the county, via Gilmore Logan’s claim and the town of Red Rock, to the territorial road running from Oskaloosa to Fort Des Moines.” This road was viewed and recommended by Thomas Morgan, John P. Glenn and John D. Bedell.

7. L. C. Conrey and others presented a petition asking for a road “from the east line of the county, near Nathan Gregory’s, via Jasper Koons’, Garnett Harsin’s and Lawson G. Terry’s, to the Town of Knoxville.” William Reed, James Brown and Garrett Harsin were appointed viewers and the road was opened that autumn.

At the time these first roads were ordered the section lines had not yet been established, hence the description of the route in the petitions was lacking in technicality. The Government survey of the lands in the eastern half of the county was made in 1846-47, and the direction of some of these early highways was changed to conform to the lines of the survey.

Scarcely a meeting of the county commissioners was held during the early years of the county’s history at which one or more petitions praying for the opening fo highways were not presented and considered. In fact, the records of the county from 1845 to 1855 are full of instances of this character. During that decade a number of roads were opened as the settlement of the county progressed, and it would be impracticable, if not utterly impossible, to give an account of each of the early roads. The examples given above, however, are representative cases of how the first roads were established.


For a number of years after the first settlements were made in the county the public revenues were insufficient for constructing bridges over the streams, especially the larger ones, and the traveler had to depend on fords at the smaller creeks and ferries over the rivers. To equip and maintain a ferry required a considerable outlay of capital for that day, and in order to protect the ferryman from injurious competition the board of county commissioners granted him a license, giving him the exclusive right to operate a ferry at a certain point for a definite period, usually one year. The fee for a ferry license in Marion County was generally $2 per year, and the board fixed the schedule of rates to be charged by the operator of the ferry.

The first entry in the records relating to the establishment of a ferry at any point in the county was on January 6, 1846, when David Durham, one of the county commissioners, asked for and was granted a license to “keep a ferry across the Des Moines River at the place known as Durham’s Ford.” It was also ordered that Mr. Durham could charge the following rates for his services: For each wagon drawn by one or two horses, 25 cents; for a four-horse wagon, 50 cents; man and horse, 12 1/2 cents; each yoke of oxen, 12 1/2 cents; each footman, 6 1/4 cents; each hog or sheep, 3 cents.

Probably the second ferry established in the county was that of Nathan Tolman, at Red rock. Mr. Tolman’s license was granted on July 7, 1846, upon petition of Reuben Matthews and others, and the rates of ferriage fixed by the board of commissioners were the same as those in the case of Mr. Durham. In one of the road petitions acted upon at this session mention is made of Markly’s ferry across the Des Moines River, but examination of the early records fails to disclose the fact that a license had been granted for its operation.

Durham’s ferry was on the direct road from Oskaloosa to Knoxville and was probably the best patronized of any of the early ferries across the Des Moines. Other early ferries were Horn’s, Keables’ and Wilson’s. For more than a quarter of a century after the organization of the county the only means of crossing the Des Moines River was by some of the ferries, chiefly the old Tolman ferry at Red Rock and Horn’s ferry on the road leading from Knoxville to Pella.


In 1865 a proposition to build a bridge across the Des Moines River was submitted to the voters of the county. Several localities wanted the bridge, and this conflict of interest defeated the proposition by a vote of 1,700 to 863. Thus the matter rested for fifteen years. Early in the spring of 1880 the board of county supervisors received a proposition from some of the citizens of the county to furnish the money necessary for the erection of the bridge on very favorable terms, and at the June session the board adopted a resolution to build the bridge immediately. The location selected was at Horn’s ferry, on the road from Knoxville to Pella. Advertisements were published in the newspapers of the county and the contract was awarded to C. C. Collins for $10,259. Some changes were afterward made in the original specifications such as the substitution of stone for iron piers, etc., which brought the total cost of the bridge up to $17,787. It was completed early in 1881 and was the first bridge across the river in the county. Since then bridges have been built across the Des Moines at Rousseau, in the northern part of Polk Township; at the Town of Red rock; and about a mile and a half west of the Town of Percy.

To estimate even the amount of money expended by the county in the construction of bridges would be a difficult undertaking. Besides the four bridges across the Des Moines River, Cedar English and White Breast creeks have each been bridge at several points by structures of considerable size, while smaller bridges have been erected across the minor streams of the county on all the principal roads. On January 3, 1911, the board of supervisors issued bridge bonds to the amount of $65,000, and on January 4, 1915, the board passed a “resolution of necessity,” to expend over fifty thousand dollars in the construction of sixty-one small bridges, seven of which it was proposed to build of steel and the others of concrete. the largest of these proposed bridges is one of sixty-eight feet across English Creek, about three miles south of Knoxville.


The first railroad in the United States to be operated successfully was a line about nine miles in length running from the City of Mauch Chunk, Pennsylvania, to some coal mines. It was advertised far and wide as a vast improvement over old methods of transportation, and progressive men everywhere predicted that the railroad would soon come into general use as a common carrier. That prediction has been fulfilled, but not without opposition. About 1828 some young men of Lancaster, Ohio, requested the school board to permit them to use the school house to debate the question as to whether railroads were feasible as a means of travel. To this request the board sent the following reply:

“We are willing to allow you the use of the school house to debate all proper questions in, but such subjects as railroads are rank infidelity and not fit to be discussed in a building devoted to the cause of education. If God had intended his creatures to travel across the county at the frightful speed of fifteen miles an hour, he would clearly have foretold it through his holy prophets. It is a device of Satan to lead immortal souls to hell.”

Another instance of this early opposition to railroads is seen in a court decision rendered at Louisville, Kentucky, in the latter ‘30s. A short line of railroad was begun from that city back into the state, but it was enjoined from operating by Chancellor Bibb, on the ground “that a railroad is a public nuisance, endangers life, destroys property and injures business.”

What would the members of the Lancaster School Board or Chancellor Bibb think now, if they could come back to earth and see the changes that have come since they rendered their opinions on the subject of railroads? A railroad whose trains in this year 1915 did not make better time than “the frightful speed of fifteen miles an hour,” would hardly be considered worthy of patronage. Instead of a public nuisance, they have come to be a public necessity, and instead of injuring business they are one of the greatest aids to commerce. It is almost impossible to believe that such instances as those ever occurred, but they are matters of record and show how general was the ignorance of men in high places less than a century ago.

Perhaps the first railroad project to command the serious attention of the people of Iowa was that of building a railroad from Dubuque down the Mississippi River to Keokuk, with a branch “from the most practical point on the main line westward to Council Bluffs.” Nearly every newspaper editor favored the road, but insisted that it must run through his town. Col. J. Monroe Reid, a lawyer of Keokuk, in a little book called “Old Settlers and Reminiscences,” published by him some years ago, says: “Every town of any pretensions expected to get this railroad. Surveys were made, not for the purpose of establishing any route, but to keep up the excitement; and they answered their purpose. It had its day until the election of the United States senator was over, and then it died. It was ridiculed as the “Ram’s Horn Railroad,” because it was as crooked as a ram’s horn. It was a political scheme, planned for political purposes, and died the death.”


That was in 1851. Some talk was indulged in to the effect that the Council Bluffs division would pass through Oskaloosa and Des Moines, which would have brought the road through Marion County, but no definite action was taken by any of the interior counties to secure the construction of the road.

About the close of the year 1852 a call was issued by some of the citizens of Marion County for a meeting to be held at the courthouse in Knoxville on January 27, 1853, “to take into consideration the object and propriety of taking stock in the contemplated railroad commencing at Davenport, via Muscatine to Council Bluffs, provided the same be located at or near Knoxville, Marion County.” At the appointed time quite a number of persons assembled in the court room. John Harper was elected to preside and E. G. Stanfield was chosen secretary. Upon motion of L. W. Babbitt, a committee of five was appointed to report resolution for the consideration of the meeting. The chairman appointed L. W. Babbitt, Joseph Brobst, Claiborne Hall, J. A. Scott and J. E. Neal. It was also moved and carried that some one be appointed to correspond with the president of the railroad company on the subject of private individuals subscribing to the stock of the road, and the chairman appointed James M. Walters. Having thus set the machinery in motion, the meeting adjourned until Mr. Walters could hear from the president of the company. At the adjourned meeting the committee on resolutions reported the following:

“1. Resolved, That we take a deep interest in the construction of a railroad through Knoxville, Marion County, Iowa.
“2. Resolved, That we propose to any company who may construct a railroad through Knoxville to take the amount of stock annexed to our subscription in the accompanying subscription list.
“3 Resolved, That a committee of three be appointed by this meeting to solicit and obtain subscriptions of stock to said railroad.
“4. Resolved, That J. E. Neal, Isaac Walters, and E. G. Stanfield compose said committee.
“5. Resolved, That James M. Walters be appointed corresponding secretary, to correspond in behalf of the stockholders in Marion County, Iowa, with any company that may propose to build said road.”

Mr. Walters prepared a subscription agreement, which read:

“We, the undersigned citizens of Marion County, Iowa, do hereby promise and agree to subscribe as stock the several shares set respectively opposite our names, to any railroad company that may commence a railroad on the Mississippi and running to Council Bluffs in this state; provided siad railroad shall pass through Knoxville, Marion Coutny, Iowa. Said shares to be $50 per share.”

To this subscription list the following citizens of the county affixed their names, each agreeing to take the number of shares indicated by the figures after his name: Joseph Brobst, 5; Jarius E. Neal, 20; Lysander W. Babbitt 60; John Conrey, 10; P. T. Totten, 5; J. W. Turk, 5; Thomas Clark, 10; Philip McClain, 20; Isaac H. Walters, 10; John Gamble, 3; John Stipp, 5; Claiborne Hall, 10; Absalom Black, 10; E. G. Stanfield, 10; John Cromwell, 2; A. C. Cunningham, 10; B. H. Covington, 40; Joseph Kerr, 6; John Butcher, 2; John Harper, 2; A. W. Collins, 3; E. L. Young, 5.

This made a total of 253 shares, or $12,650, although the people generally were in favor of a railroad the stock subscription did not reach the figure anticipated. Later in the year it was decided to abandon the idea of raising a sufficient amount of stock by individual subscription, and the county judge was asked to order a special election to allow the voters to express their sentiments with regard to having the county, in its corporate capacity, to subscribe for stock to the amount of $100,000. Accordingly, on December 5, 1853, Judge Brobst, of the County Court, issued the following proclamation:

“To the voters of Marion County:

“You are hereby notified that a special election will be held at the usual places of holding elections in said county, on Saturday, the 14th day of January, A. D. 1854, for the purpose of deciding the following question, to-wit: will the county subscribe $100,000 stock in the Philadelphia, Fort Wayne & Platte River Air Line Railroad. The form of taking the question will be as follows: “for Subscription,” or “Against Subscription.” The votes will be taken by ballot and entered upon the poll books, and returns made as in other elections, and the poll books must show that a copy of the above question was posted up at the different places of voting during the day of the election.

“Should a majority of the votes cast in the county be in favor of such subscription the county judge will be authorized in behalf of the county, provided said road shall be located through said county, to subscribe stock in said road to the amount of $100,000 and for the payment of the same to issue bonds of the county to the same amount, made payable at such times as may be deemed advisable by said judge, provided that they shall not be less than ten nor more than twenty years from their date, said bonds to bear interest at a rate not exceeding six per cent per annum, payable annually. And for the purpose of paying the interest on bonds and redeeming the same when they become due, the county judge will be authorized by a majority of said votes to levy such annual tax, not more than one per cent nor less than one mill on the dollar of the county valuation as may be necessary therefore, after having applied on such payment the proceeds of such stock as the same may accrue from time to time. Said tax will, if necessary, be continued from year to year until the said bonds and interest thereon are fully liquidated.

“In testimony whereof, I have hereunto set my hand and affixed the seal of said County of Knoxville, this fifth day of December, A. D. 1853.
“County Judge.”

The proposition was defeated at the polls and the hope of the county of securing a railroad by this method was dispelled and for some time no further efforts were made to interest any railroad company in building a line through the county. The Muscatine, Oskaloosa & Council Bluffs Railroad Company came to the front with a proposition to build a road through the counties of Muscatine, Washington, Keokuk, Mahaska and Marion, and thence to Council Bluffs. In January, 1868, a railroad convention was held at Oskaloosa in the interest of this enterprise, a large number of the leading citizens of each county through which the road was to be built being present. C. E. Griffiths of Warren County was called to preside and vice presidents were elected from all the counties represented at the meeting. A board of fifteen directors was elected and organized by the election of president, secretary, treasurer and executive committee, etc. Meetings were held in the various counties soon after the big convention, depot sites were selected in a number of towns, enthusiasm in the project was aroused, but not to the extent of raising money with which to build the road, and the Muscatine, Oskaloosa & Council Bluffs Railroad went the way of the Philadelphia, Fort Wayne & Platte River, of which it was in fact but a recrudescence.


In the early part of this chapter mention is made of the Des Moines Valley Railroad Company, which in 1862 succeeded to the rights and franchises of the Des Moines Navigation and Railroad Company. As early as 1854 a survey of a railroad from Keokuk to Des Moines had been made by the Keokuk, Des Moines & Minnesota Railroad Company and the next year a contract for its construction was let to the firm of Smith, Leighton & Company. On October 7, 1856, the first train was run from Keokuk to the little hamlet of Buena Vista, three miles west, and on June 10, 1857, the road was opened for traffic between Keokuk and Farmington, a distance of thirty miles. About a year later it was completed to Eddyville, when work was suspended until after the Civil war.

The City of Des Moines and Polk County had agreed to give $100,000 to assist in building the road to Des Moines and the people there became impatient at the many delays. In his issue of July 10, 1866, J. M. Dixon, then editor of the Des Moines Daily Register, told the story of how the road had finally crossed the boundary of Polk County and added the following expressive if somewhat sarcastic rhyme:

“Sammum Hillum! Something’s broke!
The cars have got inside of Polk!”

On August 22, 1866, the company authorized the announcement that the first through train would reach the state capital on the 29th. Thus, after nearly twelve yeras of ups and downs Des Moines was placed in communication by rail with the Mississippi River at Keokuk. This was the first railroad completed through Marion County. It enters the county from the east about five and a half miles north of the Des Moines River, runs in a northwesterly direction through Lake Prairie and Summit townships, and crosses the northern boundary near the center into Jasper County. Pella and Otley are the only towns in the county on this line of railway, which is now a part of the great Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific System.

About 1875, when the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad was completed to Knoxville, the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Company immediately began active preparations to build a competing line. A branch from the main line between Rock Island and Kansas City had already been completed from Washington to Sigourney, and in 1875 it was completed to Oskaloosa. The people of Knoxville donated some twelve thousand dollars toward the building of the road and the townships in the eastern part of the county voted subsidies. It was finished to Knoxville in 1876, passing through the extreme southern part of Lake Prairie Township, and northern part of Clay, and the Township of Knoxville.

A third line of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific System was built through the western part of the county in 1911-12. It is known as the Minneapolis, Des Moines & Kansas City Division; crosses the western boundary of Marion County near the center and after passing through the southwest corner of Pleasant Grove Township turns southward and runs through Franklin and Dallas Townships, crossing the southern boundary about five miles form the southwest corner of the county. Kimball, White Breast and Melcher are the stations on this line.


When the Des Moines Valley Railroad was completed through that part of the county north of the Des Moines River, the people of Knoxville, and other portions of the county south of the river, started a movement for a railroad from Albia to Des Moines, to be known as the Albia, Knoxville & Des Moines Railroad. It was intended to be an extension of the Missouri System of railways, the object being to connect the country through which it passed with St. Louis. J. B. Grinnell was at first the executive head of the company. He personally visited the towns and townships alone the proposed route to interest the people in the building of the road. As a result of his missionary work, the townships of Liberty, Indiana, Knoxville and Pleasant Grove in 1870 voted a 5 per cent tax to aid in its construction and some grading was done in that year and the year following. As the final survey of the road did not touch Indiana Township, the people of that township were relieved from payment of the tax, but the people of the other three townships paid a portion of the tax, amounting to some thirty thousand dollars. When work on the road was suspended that part of the tax which had not bee expended in grading was paid back to the taxpayers. About nine thousand of the $16,000 paid by Knoxville Township were thus refunded and in Liberty and Pleasant Grove, where no work had been done, all the tax was refunded.

This tax was subsequently made the subject of litigation. the contract for the construction of the road was let to a Mr. Merrill, of Des Moines, and to him were transferred all the subscriptions and subsidies when the old Albia, Knoxville & Des Moines Railroad Company was succeeded by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Company in 1875. The road was completed to Knoxville and the first train ran to that town early in December, 1875. Mr. Merrill then laid claim to all unpaid taxes which had been voted in aid of the road five years before, but the county treasurer refused to collect the tax. Suit was brought and the case was finally taken to the Iowa Supreme Court, where a decision was rendered in Mr. Merrill’s favor. In 1879 this road was completed through the county and to the City of Des Moines. It enters the county about two miles west of the southeast corner and runs northward through the towns of Hamilton and Bussey to Tracy. At that point it turns more to the northwest, passes through the towns of Harvey, Durham, Flagler, Knoxville, Donley, Pleasantville and Swan, and crosses the western boundary about a mile south of the Des Moines River.


In the spring of 1881 a survey for a railroad called the Des Moines & St. Louis was made through Marion County. Work was commenced soon after the survey was completed and trains began running late in the year 1882. The first mention of this road in the public records of the county was in April, 1883, when it was assessed at $2,080 per mile by the board of supervisors. Some years later the road became a part of the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific (now the Wabash) Railway System, of which it forms the St. Louis, Kansas City & Des Moines Division.

This is the longest railroad in the county, having thirty-nine miles of tract when it was fist completed and since then a branch a little over eight miles in length has been built from Tracy to Everist. It enters the county near the southeast corner and runs parallel to the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy to Harvey. There it turns more toward the north, crosses the Des Moines River about two miles above Harvey, and then follows the course of that stream to the northwest corner of the county. The stations in Marion County are Hamilton, Bussey, Tracy, Harvey, Howell, Fifield, Cordova, Dunreath, Percy and Morgan Valley.

Three townships of the county - Indiana, Union and Washington - have no railroad. On Friday, June 1, 1883, an election was held in Washington Township to vote on the proposition to levy a tax of 2 1/2 per cent to aid the Toledo, Oskaloosa & Western Railroad Company to build a road through the southern part of the county. The vote was 132 to 78 in favor of the tax, but the road was never built.

Altogether Marion County has a little over one hundred and twenty-five miles of single track railway, distributed among the different companies as follows:

Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific -
Oskaloosa Division. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12.65
Keokuk & Des Moines Division. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 14.50
Minneapolis & Kansas City Division. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 16.08
Chicago, Burlington & Quincy. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .39.21
Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43.15

Total mileage. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .125.59

According to the county auditor’s report for the year 1913, the railroad property in Marion County was valued at $3,504,840, or a little over twenty-seven hundred dollars per mile.

Transcribed by Mary E. Boyer, February 2007, reformatted by Al Hibbard 10 Oct 2013