There was a time when the sound of engine whistles wailed across the Iowa farmlands. People could tell the time of day by the trains that chugged through the countryside. Before dirt roads were paved and widened so cars and trucks could easily travel over a smooth and fast surface, railroads provided the fastest transportation for people and goods.
Most people came to Iowa to take up farming. As Iowa and other Midwest areas filled with farmers, a whole new region of the United States began to produce food. At the same, time industries began to grow in the East, and manufacturers in cities hired people to work in factories. Cities grew larger as people moved there to work. Most of the people in the cities did not raise their own food, so they brought food to the city in wagons from nearby farms. City people began to depend more and more on the food grown by farmers.
A Need for Trains
It was not long before the steam engine that powered factory machinery provided the power for railroad trains to bring food to the cities. The trains then returned to the countryside with manufactured goods for people to buy. Gradually train tracks pushed into the great farm regions of the South and Midwest.
In 1854 the first train reached the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. Soon other railroad lines from Chicago reached the great river. Ferryboats carried the freight and passengers across the river from the railroad cars to the cities in Iowa.
Trains Come to Iowa
On the Iowa side of the river, short railroad line construction began, and in 1855 the first engine was ferried across the Mississippi from Illinois. Just one year later a wooden bridge spanned the wide river so freight and passenger rail cars could travel right on across. By then one railroad line reached as far west as the state capitol at Iowa City.
Since 1836 people had talked of a railroad to link the western and eastern states from coast to coast. This would provide a better way to transport goods between distant cities. Goods usually had to travel by ship around the tip of South America. Iowa’s location in the central part of the nation meant railroads from east to west would pass through the state.
Building railroads cost a lot of money. The railroad from Davenport to Iowa City cost $15,000 per mile. To encourage railroad companies to build, Congress passed laws that gave land to companies that promised to build railroads. In 1856 the Congress gave public land in Iowa to companies to build four east to west railroads. By 1860 there was 655 miles of track built in Iowa. The four railroad companies had just begun to build across the state when the Civil War interrupted progress.
After the Civil War railroad companies began selling their land grants to get the money needed for rail construction. Most of the land was sold to farmers who would be using the railroad to ship their grain and livestock to market.
Railroad builders raced across the state. In 1867 the first railroad that crossed the state to the Missouri River was completed. Smaller railroad companies soon linked the towns and cities of Iowa with the main-line railroads all across the state. The parts of Iowa where only a few settlers had been living began to fill with people as the railroad arrived. Railroads became the key to the growth and success of towns and cities. The places the railroads bypassed remained small or sometimes faded away.
Railroads carried Iowa dairy and meat products and grain to cities. They hauled Iowa coal. They brought back farm implements, salt, and ready-made clothes. Railroads brought settlers seeking a new home in Iowa.
Changes in the Railroad Industry
After 1911 Iowa rail mileage dropped as railroads struggled to make money partly because of overbuilding of the system. Competition from other modes of transportation, mergers, bankruptcies, track rights and haulage agreements also contributed to fewer rail miles being operated.
What was probably the most glamorous and profitable period of railroad passenger service in Iowa began in the 1930s and 1940s with the introduction of the diesel-powered lightweight streamlined passenger train. The sleek cars offered luxurious conditions such as air conditioning, reclining seats, sleepers, buffets and adjustable footrests. Rail passenger service on these lines had ended by the 1960s.
In 1970 Congress passed an act that created a rail passenger service that became known as Amtrak. In 2005 Amtrak passenger service in Iowa was provided by the California Zephyr from Chicago to Oakland, California, and the Southwest Chief from Chicago to Los Angeles. The two lines stop at stations in Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Osceola, Creston and Fort Madison. In 1998 over 54,000 passengers arrived and departed from Iowa Amtrak stations.
Iowa railroads struggled in the late 1970s and early 1980s as Iowa's rail system underwent a period of great change. This rapid change was largely brought on by the depressed economic state of the railroad industry. During this time Iowa experienced both a significant loss of rail mileage and a significant increase in the number of short-line operations.
In the late 1980s and 1990s, rail line abandonments and new short-line creations slowed considerably. In 1998 seventeen railroads operated 4,275 miles of track in Iowa. Most of the Iowa rail shipments consisted of bulk commodities including grain, grain products, coal and fertilizers.
The Future of Railroads in Iowa
Transporting goods by rail in Iowa will be a part of the state's future transportation system. The railroad industry of the 21st century will deal with issues that were unknown to Iowans in the 1800s. And yet some of the issues haven't changed. In the 21st century railroad companies continue to face competition from barges and trucks. The number of railroads providing service continues to decline as companies merge. There will be changes in transportation patterns brought about by trade agreements with other countries. Transportation needs will continue to change as Iowa agribusiness shippers shift from bulk grain to products that are made from grain such as livestock feed, ethanol and cereals. As Iowa's farm economy changes, so will railroad transportation.
- Bonney, Margaret, ed. "Railroads," The Goldfinch 5, No. 2 (November. 1983) 2-3.
- Iowa Department of Transportation. Discovering Historic Iowa Transportation Milestones. Des Moines, Iowa: March 2000.
- Iowa Department of Transportation. Iowa in Motion 2045: State Transportation Plan. Des Moines, Iowa, 2009.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.