BUILDING A GREAT RAILROAD SYSTEM
When Iowa became a state in 1846 it had no
railroads. There were some in Eastern states and people had
begun to plan for them in Iowa. In fact, many attempts were
made to start railroads. As early as 1844, a company of men
asked that land be given to them in order that they might
build a railroad from Dubuque to Keokuk.
THE "CALICO RAILROAD"
Perhaps the most interesting early attempt at
railroad building in Iowa was the Lyons-Iowa Central Railroad.
It also became known as the "Calico Railroad." The plan was
to start as Lyons (now a part of Clinton) and to have it run
westward through Fort Des Moines to Council Bluffs.
The company that was to build the Lyone-Iowa
Central Railroad was allowed, by a law passed in 1850, to buy
a strip of land one hundred feet wide across the state.
People that lived along the proposed road became greatly
excited. Money was raised in the towns that were to be on the
new line. Counties voted to give large sums of money that
were to be raised through taxation. Nearly a million dollars
was raised. Hundreds of laborers, many of whom were brought
in from the East, were put to work building a grade. Then
suddenly all work was stopped. The men who were in charge
said there was no more money. The company had bought large
quantities of goods, however, with which to pay the men in
part. Since most of the goods consisted of calico cloth, and
it was given to the men in payment for work, this early
attempt at railroad building was nicknamed the "Calico
A BRIDGE IS NEEDED
The first railroad from Chicago to the
Mississippi River had reached Rock Island, Illinois, on
February 22, 1854. Iowa people wished that a bridge might be
built to connect Davenport with the railroad across the river.
If that were done, goods could be sent directly to Chicago
and eastern markets by rail. Up to this time Saint Louis had
been the chief market for Iowa products. Grain and other farm
produce could easily be sent there by river from many points
in eastern Iowa.
Steamboat captains and Saint Louis businessmen
were greatly opposed to having a bridge built at Davenport.
They thought that if it were built all Iowa trade would go to
Chicago by rail, rather than to Saint Louis by boat. They
said that such a bridge would hinder river boats, and that it
was against the law. They tried in every way possible to
prevent the bridge from being built.
In January, 1853, nevertheless, a "Railroad
Bridge Company" was incorporated in Illinois with the approval
of the federal Government. Its purpose was to build a bridge
across the Mississippi to Davenport. Work was begun in 1854
and it was completed in April, 1856. The bridge was 1,582
feet long and the cost of it was over $400,000. This was the
first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi at any point.
In Chapter XLI we read that the Effie Afton
struck one of the piers of this first bridge and was burned;
also, that a famous lawsuit resulted in which Lincoln was one
of the attorneys. The jury disagreed and the case was never
settled. The bridge company paid no damages and more bridges
were built. As a result, Chicago gained in importance and
Saint Louis lost much of its river trade.
IOWA'S FIRST RAILROAD
The first railroad built in Iowa ran westward
from Davenport to Iowa City, then the capital of Iowa. A
branch line ran from Wilton to Muscatine. Ground was broken
at Davenport on September 1, 1853, for this first Iowa
railroad. The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad Company,
which built this road, agreed to have the line from Davenport
to Iowa City completed by January 1, 1856. The company had
asked Congress for a grant of land, but because of past
experiences with other companies Congress refused to help.
The company then went ahead without assistance.
The first train pulled into Muscatine from
Davenport in November, 1855, and a great celebration was held.
Two towns twenty-five miles apart were now connected by rail!
In order to get the railroad completed to Iowa
City by January 1, 1856, many people who lived in that city
helped the workmen. Huge bonfires were built to keep the men
warm and to furnish light to work by at night. The first
train arrived in Iowa City on the afternoon of January 3,
1856. There was another great celebration with many speeches
and a great feast.
ACROSS THE STATE
Des Moines welcomed its first train in August,
1866. Six months later, in February, 1867, the first train
pulled in to Council Bluffs and the first line across Iowa was
Great interest was now shown in railroad
building. Every town in Iowa wanted to be on a railroad line.
People asked Congress to donate land to help new companies.
In 1856 Congress made four grants of land to the State of
Iowa, which in turn gave the land to railroad companies. One
ninth of all land in Iowa was give to railroad companies in
In 1859, there were less than 500 miles of
railroad in Iowa; by 1870 there were about 3,000 miles. Today
only three states have more miles of railroad than Iowa, whose
total is about 9,700 miles.
The principal lines in the state are the
Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific, the Chicago, Burlington and
Quincy, the Chicago and Great Western, the Chicago and
Northwestern, the Illinois Central, and the Chicago,
Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific.
Because railroads and telegraph lines have
worked much together, this section would be incomplete if no
mention were made of the telegraph. In fact, in most parts of
Iowa the railroad and telegraph reached the towns and villages
at about the same time.
Building a telegraph line in the West was a
difficult task. The roads were few and poor. Bridges were
poorly built. This made transporting supplies a difficult
problem. Often the telegraph line went through territory that
was scarcely settled and with no roads at all.
Poles were cut as near the new line as it was
possible to get them. They were usually pine, oak, or hickory
but all kinds were used. Naturally they were of different
heights and the poles were not all an equal distance apart.
This caused much trouble. The line consisted of a single
stand of number ten black iron wire such which was hung
unevenly and often carelessly from pole to pole.
Crossing the rivers was one of the biggest
problems that the builders of the early lines had. No one
had, at that time, built the submarine cables which were so
successfully used later. Few of the larger rivers had bridges
that could be used for the lines. Hence, tall towers or masts
were built on each side of the river. A heavy wire was then
hung between these masts. On wide streams a mast might also
be built on an island. The wire had to be high enough so as
not to interfere with steamboat travel on the river. These
masts were huge wooden towers, guyed from all sides by wire
cables. They were built of heavy timbers and often had a base
of 60 feet square. The tallest mast built was at Paducah,
Kentucky, and was 307 feet high.
Many were the troubles of these earlier lines.
It is said that so many passenger pigeons would perch on a
line that it would break down. The winter storms and spring
floods caused many breaks along the poorly-built lines. The
masts were especially hard hit by storms.
Money to build these early lines was usually
raised by the sale of stick to people in towns and cities
along the line. The value of such stock was later largely
lost through reorganizations and consolidations of companies.
On August 24, 1848, the Burlington Hawk-Eye
reported that the "telegraph was put in operation for the
first time yesterday between this place and Bloomington
(Muscatine). Next week we hope to be in communication with
Saint Louis and the eastern and southern cities."
By 1935 the telegraph and telephone had been
so perfected that pictures were being transmitted by wire from