IOWA HISTORY PROJECT
STORIES OF IOWA
FOR BOYS AND GIRLS
COMING OF THE RAILROADS
To-Day when railroads are found in every county in Iowa it is hard to realize that as late as 1850 there was not a single railroad in the state. You have already learned how Iowa was covered with a network of stage lines before the coming f the railroads. Stagecoaches made regular trips over these roads carrying passengers, and wagons hauled freight over the same routes. Farmers took their products to market over these roads, usually to the nearest river town.
The rivers in Iowa were also used as highways for a time. As early as 1837 a steamboat ascended the Des Moines River to Iowaville. In 1841 the Ripple steamed up the Iowa River as far as Iowa City, and in 1843 a steamboat reached the Raccoon Fork of the Des Moines River. Another steamboat, the Maid of Iowa, pushed its way up the Cedar River to Cedar Rapids. All along these rivers the settlers rejoiced and held celebrations when the steamboat came, for they thought they would have an easy way to send their products to market and to get goods from St. Louis. but they soon learned that the rivers of Iowa were too shallow for steamboat traffic most of the year.
About the time the first settlers came to Iowa, railroad building began in the eastern part of the United States. It was not long until people in Iowa were talking about railroads, too. As early as 1836, when Iowa was a part of the Territory of Wisconsin, the legislature at Belmont planned a railroad from that town to Dubuque, but it was never built. About the time Iowa became a separate territory, a young man at Dubuque, John Plumbe, Jr., drew up plans for a railroad from the Great Lakes to the Pacific, but people thought he was just a dreamer. Another man in the same city, Lucius Langworthy, worked out a plan for a railroad from Dubuque to Keokuk by way of Iowa City. The Iowa legislature asked Congress to give land along the proposed route to help build this road but the growth of Chicago as a railroad center upset plans for north and south lines.
St. Louis had been the market to which products from Iowa were sent by steamboat and from which goods were brought back to the pioneer settlements. Now men began to see that the first railroads in Iowa would connect with roads being built across Illinois from Chicago.
The first railroad actually built in Iowa extended west from Davenport to Iowa City with a branch line from Wilton south to Muscatine. As early as 1850 a company was organized to build a road from Davenport to Iowa City, then the capital of the state. A year later the line was surveyed. In 1853 this company sold its rights to the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad Company of Chicago. This company agreed to complete the line from Davenport to Iowa City by January 1, 1856.
Work began on the road at once, and as rapidly as possible the track was laid to the west. In the summer of 1855 the first locomotive for the new road was ferried across the Mississippi River, for the bridge across the Mississippi connecting the railroad in Illinois with the new one in Iowa had not been completed.
From Wilton a branch line was built south to Muscatine, and the first passenger train from Davenport to that city arrived in November, 1855. It carried many visitors from Chicago and Davenport. The citizens of Muscatine had prepared a great celebration for the occasion. Twelve tables were piled high with food, and at night there was a grand ball.
In order to complete the track to Iowa City by New Year's day, 1856, people from the town helped workmen lay ties and drive spikes for the last few miles. As the weather was very cold it was necessary to build huge bonfires along the track to keep the workmen warm and to furnish light so that they could work at night.
By hard work the last mile was finished on January 1, 1856, and on the afternoon of January 3rd, the first train pulled into the capital city. The booming of cannon announced its arrival. For days the people of Iowa City had looked forward to this event. They had prepared a feast for the visitors from Chicago, Rock Island, Davenport, and Muscatine; and although it was twenty below zero, visitors and townspeople joined in the celebration in the building now known as the Old Stone Capitol.
The completion of this railroad aroused interest throughout the state. Every town talked of railroads. Indeed, after 1850 many roads had been planned; some of these were built, others were never started, and others were begun but never finished.
One of the latter was the Lyons, Iowa Central, sometimes known as the Calico Railroad. This road was to begin at Lyons on the Mississippi and extend across Iowa to Council Bluffs. When the proposed road from Chicago to Fulton across the river from Lyons was finished the two lines would connect Council Bluffs and Chicago. So eager were the people along the proposed line to have this road built in Iowa that they paid out their savings to promoters for stock, and counties through which the road was to pass voted taxes to help build it.
Early in 1854 hundreds of men were set to work building grades and cutting timber for ties. But when summer came, work on the road suddenly stopped. The promoters had run away with the money they had collected, leaving unpaid bills, stranded workmen, and angry settlers. Many Irish laborers had been brought from New York and Canada to help build the road, and they were left with their families without money or supplies. Up to this time part of the pay of the laborers had been in groceries and drygoods, including a large quantity of calico. From this fact the whole project has often been called "Calico Road."
Most of the people in Iowa were anxious to have railroads built. They asked Congress to donate land for this purpose. In response to these requests Congress in 1856 made four grants of land to Iowa to aid in railway construction. The State of Iowa then gave this land to companies, and they in turn could sell the lands and use the money in building the roads. One of these grants was for a road to be built from Dubuque to Sioux City, another for a road from Lyons to the Missouri River, the third for the road from Davenport to Council Bluffs through Iowa City and Des Moines, and the fourth for a road from Burlington to the Missouri River. The roads were to have every other section of land for six miles on each side of the right-of-way.
Some people in Iowa, though, were not in favor of railroads at all, and they made many curious objections. Some said that bridges could not be built strong enough for trains. Others declared that it was dangerous to run trains at high speed through towns and over country crossings. "How could collisions be avoided?" they asked. One man was certain that live stock could not be carried safely on trains and that flour barrels would be shaken to pieces on a long trip.
These objections, though, had little weight. Counties and towns voted taxes to help build railroads, and men often donated work for the same purpose. Railroad building, however, was slow work. In 1859 there were less than five hundred miles of railroads in the state. Both the panic of 1857 and the Civil War delayed construction. Des Moines was reached in 1866 and Council Bluffs in 1867. By 1870 there were nearly 3000 miles of railroads in Iowa. The panic of 1873 stopped railroad building for a time, but from 1875 to 1890 many new lines were built and old lines extended until the iron horse reached every corner of the state. For the construction of these lines, the state, through gifts from Congress, donated 4,069,942 acres of land to the railroad companies. This was one ninth of all the lands in the state. To-day few states are better supplied with railroads than Iowa.
Back to Stories of Iowa Index