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 Iowa History

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Our Iowa, Its Beginning and Growth

Herbert L. Moeller and Hugh C. Mueller

New York, Newsom and Company


Transcribed by Debbie Gerischer & Kaylee Bopp




The first roads in Iowa were the Indian trails.  These trails were sometimes paths that had been made by the buffaloes as they crossed the prairies or went through the woodlands.  The white men usually followed such trails.  If they did not, they tried to follow the ridges or high ground in order to keep off the soft swampy land.


New trails were hard to follow and had to be marked.  To mark the one from Dubuque to Iowa City, a man was hired to plow a furrow all the way.  He used several yoke of oxen and a breaking plow.  It took him a number of days to cut the long furrow.  Other methods were also used to mark trails.  In timberland, trees were blazed.  On the prairies, stakes were driven into the ground certain distances apart.  Where trails were much used, the heavily-loaded wagons cut deep ruts in the ground that could be followed.

Soon after Iowa land was opened for settlement, in  1833, the Government established roads known as territorial or military highways.  These roads led from one important town or fort to another.  They took the shortest route possible and did not follow section lines as did the roads that were later laid out.  Some of the main highways in eastern Iowa still follow these early trails.

We have learned that a Frenchman named Tesson brought the trees for Iowa's first orchard on the backs of pack mules.  That way of traveling and carrying goods was not used later.  Most of  our first settlers came in covered wagons and oxen were used to pull them.  It was a slow way of travel, ten miles a day being often a good distance.

Different ways of building roads were tried.  One was by means of planks.  One such road was built westward from Burlington and others were planned.  The coming of railroads stopped a plan to have all cities in eastern Iowa connected by planked roads.

The building and upkeep of roads were left, in early times, entirely to the people who lived along the way or to the towns who wanted people to come to trade.  There was no tax money at that time with which roads could be built, and state and federal aid had to wait for the automobile.


Stage-coach lines over all important roads.  The first coaches were crude affairs.  They were but little better than covered wagons drawn by two horses.  Later, the "Concord" coach was used nearly everywhere.  It was an interesting carriage, costing about a thousand dollars.  It had seats for nine passengers and the driver.  Four or six horses were used to pull the coach.  From three to five miles per hour was considered good speed.

Fares usually were from five to seven cents a mile for a passenger.  In the summer, when roads were good, the fares were lower than during the winter.

The arrival of a stage coach in a town was an important event.  The stages tried to run on a regular schedule, as railroads and busses do today.  When the coach came into a town the driver would sound a horn, crack his whip, and drive up to the station on a run.

The last stage coach went out of business in 1870.  It was impossible for the coaches to compete with the railroads.


The stages carried baggage, mail and some freight.  When the roads were too bad for the stages, the mail was sent by postriders.  It was expensive to send mail that way.  A charge of twenty-five cents was made for a letter weighing half an ounce.  Sometimes the postage was paid by the receiver of a letter because it was not certain that the letter could be delivered.


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