IOWA STORIES
Volume 2

By
CLARENCE RAY AURNER

Printed by the Clio Press Iowa City, Iowa 1918
Copyright 1918 by Clarence Ray Aurner

Transcribed by Sharon Elijah, June 21, 2013

VIII.
THE CALICO RAILROAD
pgs 77-87

Something was said in Book One (p. 118) about the stage lines by which passengers and freight as well were carried over the early roads. Besides there were steamboats on some of the larger streams and people had hoped that, as the territory was settled, the rivers would afford a regular way of carrying off the crops. But as time passed they began to see that this hope was to end in disappointment. Fortunately, about the time that the first settlers came into the Territory of Iowa, railroads were first commenced in the eastern part of the United States; and as everything seems to have moved from east to west as people were ready for improvements, it was only a short time until they began to talk of railroads in Iowa.

In the early days railroads followed the people; it is only in recent times that they have pushed ahead and opened up a new country to settlement. It takes very much money to build railroads; and it was sometime before the necessary amount could be raised to extend lines far into a country that was not yet settled and where there would not be, for some time to come, freight and passengers to make the road pay.

As early as 1844 there was some talk of a railroad in Iowa; and at that time Congress was asked to give land to help build it. And just here it may be said that millions of acres have been granted to companies for building roads in unsettled parts of the United States. It seemed a very simple matter for the government of the United States to set apart every other section (See map, p. 44), for example, along a proposed line and for six or more miles on either side of it. Such a gift came to be a fine property as the country was settled, and if the money which it brought was all turned into the treasury of the company, and if it were honestly handled, and the road really added to the prosperity of the country in return for the gift of land, there was probably no fault to be found with such grants. But if the schemes of men were such as to turn aside the money from the purposes intended, the result was nothing less than plain dishonesty and cheating of the government.

The road which (in 1844) asked for land in Iowa was to run from Dubuque to Keokuk. But at that time there was no railroad in Illinois; nor was there any in Ohio until after 1840, and so it may be seen that the plan was somewhat ahead of the demands of the settlements. At that time steamboats on the Ohio and the Mississippi carried freight and passengers to this western country; and for a long time the products of the Iowa farmers were sold in St. Louis for the very good reason that there was no other market which could be reached by river transportation. As already mentioned, the boats on the larger Iowa streams carried the freight to the Mississippi River from which point it was then taken by the St. Louis boats to the market.

It was soon seen that as the country at some distance back from the rivers was settled; and as the hope of the boats being sufficient to serve in the business of transportation was given up, some means of moving produce swifter than the wagon must be found.


pg 80
Besides, it was not long after the first railroad was begun that rails were being laid westward into Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois toward the eastern border of Iowa. As these were extended, the stage coach was giving way to them and its service was left to the shorter distances on either side of the steam road, and into the newer settlements farther on. At one time plank roads were thought to be a possible way to aid in transporting heavy loads. In fact one such road was actually constructed in southeastern Iowa, and one of the maps (p. 83) will show a number of proposed lines.

It was natural that people who lived on this side of the Mississippi River should be ready to help build a road to connect with one approaching from the east. Indeed, the line from Dubuque south, although first mentioned and talked about for some years after 1844, was soon almost forgotten in the hurry to get a line to the east. How this change came about and the struggle that took place before the new line was secured are of more than common interest.

From Lyons, Iowa, which (as a map will show) is located on the Mississippi River, one may trace across the State in a somewhat southwesterly direction the old survey, and in some places even the grade, of the first railroad on which any work was done in Iowa. There was a great deal of noise in the beginning; and many famous speeches about what was going to be done when the road was completed. In fact, the road seemed so certain that many of the counties along the way voted taxes to help construct it. To tell all about the troubles of the taxpayers in later years when they tried to escape the payment of these taxes would take a whole book.

By a law of Iowa, passed in 1850, the persons who proposed to build the Lyons-Iowa Central Railroad, as it was called, were permitted to buy a strip of land a hundred feet wide entirely across the State from Lyons to Council Bluffs. Since there was much public land at that time, and since the road would probably pass through many sections belonging to the school lands, permission from the State would save much delay. This road when completed, was expected to become the westward extension of one then planned from Chicago to Fulton, a town in Illinois opposite Lyons.


pg 83
It is about three hundred miles from Lyons to Council Bluffs; and it is one hundred and thirty-five miles from Fulton to Chicago. Thus a road was laid out to connect the western side of Iowa and the Missouri River with the Great Lakes at Chicago, a scheme which has been carried out since then in many railroads.

At the beginning of the Lyons-Iowa Central railroad, men along the line subscribed about $700,000; Cedar County voted to give $50,000; Johnson County $50,000; Jasper County $42,000; Polk County $150,000,--a total of almost a million dollars. Besides it was thought that at least six more counties would subscribe as much, so that a large amount of money was promised. No doubt those who were ready to promise so much had believed that the men who were going to build the road were strictly honest and that there would be no doubt of the success of the plan. But this was only a beginning of the lessons which the men who had promised money to railroads had to learn; for the difficulties which would be in the way of constructing the first roads were not foreseen. The people were so anxious to have these built that they were ready to support almost anything which men called a railroad.

In February, 1854, nearly five hundred men were at work on the Lyons-Iowa Central road and it was promised that there would be many more in the spring of that year. Indeed, it was said that the first seventy-five miles of the line would be completed by the first of April, 1855. Even the city of Galena, Illinois, was expecting to gain very much from the trade which would come from the rich part of the Mississippi valley through which the new line was being built. It was said also that the second division, which extended as far west as Fort Des Moines (the city of Des Moines), would be graded as fast as money was subscribed by the people, or the counties along the way.

The actual work done by these railroad laborers in 1854 is shown by great embankments still to be seen at places along the line. These were built up with wheelbarrows as long ago as 1854, and on the summit of one of them a large cottonwood tree has grown. At the streams which the road would have crossed the piles for bridges were driven in many places, and some stone work, it is said, may be found even today. Across some of the larger streams high bridges under which the steamboats could run without striking their smokestacks were to be built. The whole plan was laid out as far west as Fort Des Moines.

At a great dinner held to celebrate the arrival of the surveyors at one place, an orator had said that any man was foolish who did no believe the road would be built. Nevertheless, it happened very suddenly in the summer of 1854 that work stopped, for the builder of the line had used up all of his money; at least it was said that he had, and he wrote a letter telling how sorry he was that matters had turned out so badly. He declared, however, that the Lyons road would be built if the people were patient. Since that time men have said that the whole plan was probably a wicked scheme to rob people of good money.

The most unfortunate thing connected with the whole failure, and the one which gives the name to this chapter, was the trouble in which the laborers found themselves. There were about 2000 persons in the families of the Irish emigrants who had been brought from New York and Canada to work on this road. They were living for the time at and near Lyons, Iowa, and some were suffering great hardship. The company for which they were working had stored up supplies of groceries and drygoods which they used to pay the men. But long before the laboring men had been paid what was justly due them, these supplies were all gone. Among the articles distributed was a large quantity of calico, and from this fact the whole undertaking has been called the �Calico Road�. It was a good thing for these people that the work ceased in the summer time; for they were enabled to find work in the country near by and some of them later were among the most prosperous farmers of eastern Iowa. Coming to Iowa to work for a railroad company which had no credit, they soon found homes in the rich prairie land they had been helping to dig up to make other men rich.


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