Ghost Towns of Mills County, Iowa
Chapter 8, pages 57-68
The founding of more towns in Mills county now awaited the development of better transportation. By the middle 1850’s there were indications of interest in building railroads as the establishment of such transportation east of the Mississippi had resulted in the rapid building up of the country.
River steamers had carried much of the freight but these precluded winter delivery. Frontier residents could see that only the coming of the railroads would bring the possibility of growth and development. Thus when the first project to bring railway service to the county was presented it generated notable enthusiasm. This was the Council Bluffs & St. Joseph (Missouri) railroad with a route proposed to run down the Missouri river flood plain to tie together the two communities. Capital stock of one million dollars was proposed, a huge sum for those days. Articles of incorporation were filed in the Pottawattamie county recorder’s office May 18, 1858.
This would miss the county’s only town of note, Glenwood, and stirred ambition in speculative men to found a town which could be on the proposed railroad’s route. Thus in 1857 a corporation for this purpose was established, the Pacific City Town Company. Heading up the organization were “L. Nuckolls & Bro., F.H. Moore, J.W. Coolidge, Messrs. McComb, Armstrong, Renick, and others,” as reported in the History of 1881.
Highly optimistic about the town’s future, they obtained land from James Mayfield and platted a town extending one and one-quarter miles east and west and a half mile north and south, comprising four hundred and eighty acres.
Those were prosperous times and the town grew rapidly in 1857, 1858 and 1859. A newspaper, The Pacific Herald, was founded in 1858, by Messrs. Cole and McComb, owners and joint editors. The post office was opened there February 3, 1857, with H.J. Graham as postmaster. It was moved from the village of Florence, west of Pacific City on the Missouri river, where it had been established April 1, 1851, with James H. Clark as postmaster. The Pacific City post office was discontinued March 21, 1864, then reopened the following month with William Vinton as postmaster. It was discontinued permanently August 31, 1903. The town of the late 1860s had numerous stores, a mill, brick yard, lumber yard and other commercial enterprises; a brick school building and churches.
Unfortunately the War Between the States loomed and the railway building was all but discontinued until the conflict could be resolved. So after its initial rapid growth Pacific City declined. Although surveys had been made, some grading done and ties brought in for the Council Bluffs & St. Joseph line before the war, no more work was done on it until peace returned. Then in 1866 work was resumed. “Part of the iron for this portion of the road was brought up the Missouri river in steamboats from St. Joseph and landed at Stillary’s in Mills county, a town long since washed into the river,” reported the History of 1881. The road was completed to the Missouri state line December 30, 1867, there meeting the rails which came up from St. Joseph.
The road ran into financial difficulty during construction and several reorganizations were necessary. But it was highly profitable once it started operations and a financial report for 1878 showed gross average per mile earnings of $6,000.20. Later it was taken over by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy railroad which was the successor to the Burlington & Missouri River line which, started before the war and delayed by it, was completed across the state in the fall of 1869.
Its coming had two major effects upon the history of the county: it met the C.B. & S.J. some two miles south of Pacific City and the town of Pacific Junction was started there; and it was the stimulus for the founding of the towns of Emerson, Hastings, Malvern and Hillsdale as it provided regular, reliable all-weather transportation not only for the people coming into the area but also for all manner of freight plus the shipment of livestock and grains to markets. Pacific Junction grew rapidly and the Burlington had extensive facilities there. By the turn of the century it was reported that one hundred twenty-five trains arrived in Pacific Junction each day.
Pacific City soon lost its business and resources and in due course only a few scattered houses and a few rural lanes were all that remained to mark its place. The decline came gradually. Although earlier churches had closed, the Pacific Baptist Church was organized there in 1876 by Messrs. Aaron Hamilton, William Oneal and McKnight and Mmes. Baldwin and Blackley, with the Rev. Mr. McKnight as pastor. But in time it, too, closed. The school continued until after World War Two and the area is now a part of the Glenwood Community School district.
But Pacific City’s chief claim to fame, despite the connotations of its name, is due to a prize fight which was held there under unusual circumstances which drew state-wide attention and had strong political repercussions. This boxing event (or “mill” as the Council Bluffs Nonpareil reporter who covered the story termed it) was scheduled to take place at a site along the C.B. & S.J. railway on November 19, 1873.
In Council Bluffs for several days prior to the above date, Sheriff George Doughty and a number of “prominent citizens” heard rumors that some fifteen hundred “roughs” from Omaha were planning to bring a special train into Iowa November 19th and passengers would have been sold tickets to attend a prize fight between Ben Hogan and Tom Allen which was to take place somewhere along the line of the C.B. & S.J. railway. Recognizing that the sheriff would be unable to handle so large a number the “prominent citizens” (including Judges Baldwin, Reed and Stockton, Major Lyman and the Mayor of the city) telegraphed Governor Cyrus Carpenter at Des Moines; “Dear Sir: The Hogan-Allen prize fight is to take place Tuesday in Iowa, and near here. We are powerless to prevent it, and we ask your authority and military to force to stop it.” An hour later they sent another even more urgent telegram to the governor asking that he send a military company from Des Moines to prevent the fight promoters, principals and fans from coming into the state.
The governor wired the sheriff to inquire if he couldn’t command sufficient forces for the need and the sheriff telegraphed back that he would need far more aid than he had available. So Governor Carpenter dispatched parts of two companies of the state militia to Council Bluffs under the command of Colonel F. Olmsted, via the Rock Island railroad, with orders to report to Sheriff Doughty and help prevent the proposed fight.
The promoters of the mill had made their plans carefully. A special train was chartered, with tickets marked “From Council Bluffs to _______________ and return,” the ticket selling for $5. The fighters – Allen had some wide reputation as a pugilist and was notably larger than Hogan who “is without particular record,” causing the Nonpareil reporter to conclude that the affair was “more of a money-making scheme than a bona-fide trial of trained muscle” – did not start on the chartered train. Instead they were taken by carriage from Omaha early on the morning of the fight to a spot well south of Council Bluffs where the train would pick them up.
In Council Bluffs Sheriff Doughty, backed by the state militia, had warrants out for Allen and Hogan and when the chartered train came to the depot, went aboard to serve these. Since they were not aboard, he proposed taking the militia on the train. But those who had chartered the train said that each man coming aboard would have to pay. The sheriff stated that the State of Iowa was good for the fares, but the Trainmen wouldn’t permit them to ride on credit.
So the train pulled out of Council Bluffs without the militia, picked up the “bruisers” and headed on south until they came to Pacific City siding switch where they parked the train. The promoters quickly unloaded the ropes and stakes and, said the Nonpareil reporter, set up the “ring, which was not a ring but a square, formed about 100 feet west of the railroad track. Said ring was twenty-four feet square, and was formed by driving posts into the ground, three on a side, and stretching an inch and a half rope around near the tops of the posts, or about four feet from the ground, and again about center of the posts.” This was the inner ring and another was placed some three feet outside it.
Then an hour was spent “wrangling about a referee and in listening to the reading of a document by using the Sheriff of Mills County, which document was heard with impatience and disregarded with impunity.” These preliminaries were finally settled and seconds named for both fighters. The boxers then stripped for their bout and “At 2 o’clock the men put up their “fins” for the first round.”
In the three rounds of the bout that followed Allen clearly had the advantage although Hogan sent him to the canvas without injury in the first. Hogan evidently had the greater number of fans and when Allen in the third round got in his left heavily on Hogan’s cheek, he followed it with a stunning right to the jaw, “felling Hogan like a beef.”
“Hogan’s friends,: said the Nonpareil reporter, “now claimed another foul, and rushed into the ring. Epithets in the highest degree uncomplimentary were liberally dispersed, knives and pistols were drawn and for a time a general scrimmage seemed imminent. But the troubled waters finally ceased to boil, and the whole party got on the train and returned to town. On the way up the referee decided the fight a draw. We understand that Jim Egan, the stake-holder, declares that the men must fight again, whereas Jack Looney, who is responsible for the money, says it must be paid to Allen.”
The reporter didn’t comment on those possibilities but did conclude that Hogan was a “scientific boxer and a plucky fellow, but it is not his mission to whip Tom Allen.”
The results of the fight were of no great concern to those back in Council Bluffs who had tried to prevent it, and to the state at large. But many citizens were highly critical of the “prominent citizens” who had called for the militia and then done nothing to help them prevent the fight. Even Governor Carpenter came in for criticism although, when the matter was finally settled, it was concluded that Iowa had no laws against boxing and prize fights anyway.
Several years after the fight a letter writer to The Malvern Leader, who signed his work, “Junius,” added a footnote to the incident of greater interest to Mills Countians. Council Bluffs authorities anticipated a dodge, he wrote, and District Judge Reed had received instructions from Governor Carpenter to use his authority to prevent the combat wherever it might be attempted in his district.
“Thus it happened while dreaming of venires and harvesting a heavy crop of fees, one calm night (Mills County) Sheriff Turner was rudely disturbed by a special messenger bearing an order from the district judge to spread himself over the county of Mills, and prevent, by all means in his power, any breach of peace therein. Thereupon the sheriff proceeded to patrol the valleys and defenseless heights of Glenwood and dispatched Deputy Curt White with a strong posse comitatus to engage the enemy wherever he should fall in with him. White immediately issued his requisition for a sufficient number of wagons, ambulances and teamsters, and having provided his men with rations and passwords, the little army flew down the Keg Creek road in the early gray dawn of the morning; when arriving at the Missouri bottoms a corps of observation was stationed on the bluffs; the main body of the troops hurrying to the river bank. At this point they had just completed a much-needed rest and refreshment when an orderly appeared and a retrograde movement was immediately commenced upon Pacific City.
“Arriving at that city they found that the enemy had just debarked from a train which had slipped away from Council Bluffs while the State forces were deploying at the various hotel tables, and that they had taken possession of the suburbs of the town and were at work constructing redoubts of the post and rope. Our gallant commander immediately charged into the columns of the enemy with such impetuosity that he was carried unharmed into the center of the works, where, drawing from its envelope a warrant for the arrest of Allen, Hogan, et al., he proceeded to read it to the foe.
“Hogan listened to a few words and then remarked, 'Young man, we don’t want you here,' at the same time taking the deputy by the waist and carrying him to the parapet over which he was gently hurled into the ranks of the sports. A rush was made for him, but the Mills legion succeeded in cutting their way to their chief and heroically rescuing him, after which they retreated in good order to a secure position from which to obtain an unobstructed view of the now inevitable prize fight.
“The contest between two pugilists was short and far from decisive. A few rounds were fought, when the referee declared a ‘foul,’ and instantly there arose such a foul cry and an indiscriminate clashing of knife blades, revolver butts and whiskey flasks, as caused the Mills legion to waver and grasp each other’s arms with renewed firmness. This ‘burst’ however, was a signal that the enemy had fallen into disorder in their own ranks, and soon they were seen stampeding for the cars, which at once set sail and bore them away to other enterprises, while our own army returned to the countyseat, where it went into winter quarters ‘til paid off from the military chest of the board of supervisors.
“The raiders were no further molested, but the desolation of war have left their inevitable trace on the city that was once pacific. Its stateliest mansions have disappeared, its streets and alleys are vacated, and the plowshare furrowing its way unimpeded through its once spacious avenues, often turns up with the soil some relics which show where a great battle was once fought.
“Hogan left the prize ring a few years ago with a brilliant reputation as a pummeler, and it is said with considerable money acquired by his art, and has since been holding reform and revival meetings in the eastern cities as a Christian revivalist. His meetings at Omaha seem to have been attended by full audience of the best people in the place. We heartily wish him success in his present system of warfare, and freely forgive him for his share of the expense incurred by this county in endeavoring to repress his earlier hostile practices; but not so readily can we forgive the State authorities of that time who, when the bill for costs for repelling the invasion of our county, was presented to his excellency (under whose order we took the field), replied, through the State Auditor: ‘The governor can see no reason why the State should pay this claim.’”
Today Pacific City is a cluster of a dozen or so homes on pleasant acreages, lying near the base of the bluffs with relocated Highway 34 providing a fine four-lane highway through the community. On the lawn of one such home, that of Mr. and Mrs. Stanley Bomer, rests a large bell which once was used to call pupils of the old Pacific City Schools from recess play to their academic duties. Just north of the site the Vinton Equipment has its service rooms, a reminder that back in 1875 a William Vinton had a General Merchandise store in Pacific City, possibly even at the time of the Great Fight.
Attesting to the vigor of commercial enterprise soon after Pacific City was founded is the copy of an advertisement printed by the Pacific City Herald for one of its stores, which is reproduced in this chapter. It is a very rare item, and the only one the author has been able to locate directly connected with this early-day community, and was furnished for reproduction by Mr. and Mrs. Fred Boyce of near Malvern.
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Page originally transcribed by Deb Smith, updated on June 12, 2014 by Karyn Techau