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THE NEED OF A RAILROAD—LOCAL SCHEMES—THE SPIRIT LAKE & SIOUX VALLEY RAILROAD COMPANY ORGANIZED—SURVEY MADE—AID VOTED—THE SCHEME A FAILURE—THE CHICAGO, MILWAUKEE & ST. PAUL INDUCED TO MAKE A SURVEY—THE CHICAGO & NORTHWESTERN—THE BURLINGTON, CEDAR RAPIDS & NORTHERN THE FIRST TO BUILD IN THE COUNTY—J. S. POLK AND THE NARROW GAUGE—THE CHICAGO, MILWAUKEE & ST. PAUL PLAN TO BUILD A SUMMER RESORT AT OKOBOJI—THE DEATH OF PRESIDENT MITCHELL AND SUPERINTENDENT MERRILL PREVENT THE PLAN BEING CARRIED OUT.
THE PRESSING need of railroad facilities had long been seriously felt and each year emphasized more forcibly the disadvantages we labored under by reason of our isolation from railroad connections. It will be remembered that the granting of the government land to the state of Minnesota for the purpose of aiding in building the St. Paul & Sioux City road was an important factor in first directing the course of emigration and settlement to this county, and the diverting of that road from its direct route to the counties west of here was a great disappointment. As has been previously stated, that road was built through Osceola and O'Brien Counties in 1871, and Sibley was for several years the nearest railroad station, the distance from the different business points in Dickinson County being from twenty-five to forty miles. The terminus and nearest point on the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul was at Algona, some sixty miles distant. The latter road was built on west across the state in 1878, with Spencer as the nearest station.
Many schemes were agitated having for their object the inducing of some railroad company to give this county a railroad connection. The first movement in this direction was the organization of a local company in the summer of 1871, known as the Spirit Lake & Sioux Valley Railroad Company, having for its object the building of a railroad from Storm Lake, Iowa, to Jackson, Minnesota. The initiatory move was made by citizens of Sioux Rapids, under the lead of D. C. Thomas, Esq., and Stephen Olney, Jr. The company was organized at Spirit Lake, July G, 1871. The committee to draft articles of incorporation were D. C. Thomas and Stephen Olney, Jr., of Sioux Rapids; C. M. Squire and J. F. Calkins of Spencer; R. L. Wilcox and O. Rice of Spirit Lake, and H. S. Bailey of Jackson. The organization was completed by the selection of Henry Barkman of Spirit Lake, president; Stephen Olney, Jr., secretary; Emmet F. Hill of Spirit Lake was appointed engineer.
The scheme was to call elections all along the line and get what aid voted they could, and then try to get some strong company to take it off their hands. A careful survey of the entire line was made in the fall of 1871, and the route was found to be in every way feasible. Elections were called in all of the townships of this county and the proposed aid voted in all but one or two. The people of Jackson and Sioux Rapids, as well as those of Milford and Spirit Lake, were enthusiastic in support of the enterprise, but the people of Clay County hesitated. They thought the move was premature and could see no chance of success in it at that time, and consequently declined having anything to do with it, even to calling an election.
In the light of subsequent events, it is not very probable that the scheme would have succeeded at that time had all of the towns along the line taken hold of it and voted the required aid, but with the sentiment divided, the case was hopeless, and the organization was soon allowed to go to pieces, and it was several years before any other plan was tried for procuring a road.
In the fall of 1878, shortly after the building of the main line through Spencer by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul road, that company, at the earnest solicitation of B. B. Van Steenburg, T. S. Seymour, Henry Barkman and others, made a preliminary survey of a line from Spencer to Spirit Lake, but the company could not see it to be for their interest at that time to build the branch, and this move like the former one was barren of results.
The next move for a road into this county was by the Chicago & Northwestern Railway Company in the summer of 1880. Their plan was to construct a branch from Goldfield, or some other point on their north and south line westward, eventually reaching Dakota and the Black Hills. Their proposed route was practically the one that was afterward adopted by the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railroad. The company required a certain amount of aid to be voted by the inhabitants along the line. As usual in this county there was a division of sentiment as to whether the proposed road should be built on the north or the south side of the lakes. The northern route was the one selected by the company. Elections were called in all of the townships of the county to vote on the question of furnishing the required aid. The tax carried in Center Grove, Excelsior, Silver Lake, Diamond Lake, Spirit Lake and Superior. This was not as many towns as they had insisted on voting the tax before they would promise to build into the county, and consequently they violated no previous promises by their failure to do so. At the time they were working up local aid here they were also making a survey and working up local aid for their line from Eagle Grove to Hawarden by way of Sioux Rapids and Peterson, and it is not at all probable that they would have built through this county even if all of the towns had voted the tax, as they found a clearer field and less competition on their more southern route. This was the last of the move by the Chicago & Northwestern.
The next summer, or in 1881, Hon. S. L. Dows, of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern made a proposition to the people for building their road through the county, and for a third time the question of voting aid for building a railroad across the county was submitted to the people. The towns voting aid to this road were Center Grove, Spirit Lake, Silver Lake, Diamond Lake and Superior. The question was defeated in Superior the first time it was voted on, but upon the company promising to build and maintain a depot in the township they reconsidered their action and voted the tax. The number of towns voting the tax were not as many as the company at first required as a condition for locating the road through the county, but as soon as they saw it was all they were likely to get, they notified the authorities of their acceptance of it and the tax was levied by the auditor. Of all the taxes voted in aid of railroad projects in this county this is the only one so far that has been collected.
The building of the road was pushed as rapidly as possible during the remainder of that season and the early part of the next, and the road so far completed that the first train of ears was run into Spirit Lake on the eleventh day of July, 1883.
About the same time that the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern were working their railroad project in the north part of the county, J. S. Polk of Des Moines, representing the Des Moines & Northwestern, appeared in the interests of his road. This road had previously been located to Fonda, in Pocahontas County, and a portion of it built. It was now proposed to extend it from there to Jackson, Minnesota. Mr. Wilkins, the local engineer, made a survey of the line during the summer of 1881. Aid was voted in the towns of Milford, Okoboji, Excelsior, Lloyd, Richland and Lakeville. The right-of-way was secured and grading commenced and carried forward with vigor until most of the work between Spencer and Spirit Lake was completed, when for some unexplained reason the work was suspended and finally abandoned. Why the company abandoned the project as they did, thereby forfeiting the aid that had been voted them, is something the public never fully understood. It cannot be sufficiently ,accounted for on the theory that the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul were occupying the same ground, as their connections were so widely different that they could hardly be said to come into competition at all. But be this as it may the old embankments remain a fitting representation of many of the ambitions and aspirations of pioneer times.
During this time the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul were closely watching the other companies, and when it became evident that if they did not occupy the ground some rival company would, they with a great show of reluctance commenced preparations for building a branch into this county. They had seemed to regard this county as their legitimate field of operations, inasmuch as they had lines both to the north and south of it and yet they were apparently determined not to make a move until compelled to do so by the movements of their more active and progressive rivals. In the fall of 1881, seeing that longer delay might prejudice their interests, they made their survey and putting on a large force of laborers soon had the entire line from Spencer to Spirit Lake under construction. The first train of cars crossed the south line of the county on the first day of August, 1882, but the road was not completed to Spirit Lake until the following spring. While this branch was under construction some of the active officers of the road conceived the idea of organizing a company for the purpose of building up a summer resort at Okoboji. This company was composed of S. S. Merrill, general manager; Mr. Pryor, general superintendent; George W. Sanborn, division superintendent; Mr. Kimball, chief engineer, and two or three others.
Their plan was to secure what they could of the most desirable land in that immediate locality and lay out a town and get their scheme under way, when they claimed they had the promise of the railroad company that they would appropriate a liberal amount for the development of the place. The land was purchased, the town laid out, plans for improvement adopted, and everything indicated the success of the enterprise, when Mr. Merrill, the general manager of the road, was stricken with paralysis, which eventually resulted in his death. It was Merrill who it was claimed had made the promise on the part of the road that they would help the enterprise, but there was no binding contract to that effect, and as the management now passed into the hands of men not in the scheme, the project was allowed to fall through and the parties disposed of their land as best they could. Later this property has come into the hands of J. A. Beck, who has fitted it up as one of the chief summer resorts of the place.
As in all other communities the building of railroads into this county marked an era in the history of its growth and development. It seems to serve as a kind of dividing line between the old and the new, a kind of partition fence between the sturdy, rugged life of pioneer times and the more luxurious and less laborious life of the later days. The new order of things is doubtless a vast improvement on the old. It is better, far better, to have railroads, telegraphs and telephones, street cars and electric lights, prosperous communities, comfortable school houses and churches, convenient mills and factories, and the thousand and one other improvements and conveniences that have come with the new order of things, than to have continued in the primitive way of living that was inseparable from the life of the early pioneers. Now, while this is true it is equally true that the rugged discipline of the early days has some advantages over the present more effeminate times. People are substituting ease, comfort, and luxury for the battle and struggle of the early days. But battle and struggle are necessary elements for the development of strength of body and vigor of mind. Again there was a vast deal of enjoyment in the rough and rugged life of those early times, and many will remember with a peculiar regret the really happy lives they lived in the midst of the danger, exposure and toil of the pioneer days.
But pioneering as exemplified in the history of Iowa is a thing of the past. The covered wagon, known as the "prairie schooner," drawn by three or four yoke of slow plodding oxen, and followed by a drove of loose cattle more or less numerous according to the means of the owner, and bearing the family and household goods of some hardy adventurer far beyond the confines of civilization to some favored grove, lake or stream which he has seen or of which he has heard, there to build up a home for himself and family and await the development which the next generation may bring, is now only a memory. The long drives over the prairie with the fun and jollity of the night spent around the cheerful campfire, where several families of emigrants were traveling in company, are but a pleasant recollection. With the inauguration of the new order of things the American pioneer has passed down and out. For nearly three hundred years he has occupied a prominent place in the fore-front of American history. But his days are numbered. As we look away to the West we are forcibly reminded that there is no longer an American frontier, and when the frontier shall have faded away the "pioneer" will live only in history.
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