ITS HISTORY AND TRADITIONS
TRANSPORTATION BY LAND AND WATER.
SIOUX CITY AS A STEAMBOAT TOWN - SIOUX CITY IN 1868 - THE COMING AND
GOING OF A RIVER STEAMBOAT - STEAMBOAT TRAFFIC - ATTEMPTED
NAVIGATION OF THE DES MOINES RIVER - THE SAWYER WAGON ROADS TO THE
MONTANA GOLD FIELDS - RAILROADS OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA - CONGRESS
ENCOURAGES RAILROAD BUILDING, 1850-55 - FOUR IOWA RAILROADS
PROJECTED - IOWA LINES TO CONNECT WITH THE UNION PACIFIC - SIOUX
CITY & ST. PAUL RAILROAD - THE CHICAGO, MILWAUKEE & ST. PAUL -
SECTION OF THE NORTHWESTERN BUILT - JOHN I. BLAIR, FATHER OF
NORTHWESTERN IOWA RAILROADS - IOWA FALLS & SIOUX CITY RAILROAD -
CEDAR RAPIDS & MISSOURI RIVER RAILROAD, 1866-68 - COMPLETION OF IOWA
FALLS & SIOUX CITY RAILROAD - ABSORPTIONS BY PRESENT-DAY RAILROADS -
HOW BLAIR NEARLY GOT CONTROL OF THE DAKOTA SOUTHERN - DES MOINES
RIVER GRANT REVERTS TO RAILROAD PROJECTS - STIMULATING VALUE OF
RAILROADS IMMEASURABLE - THE AUTOMOBILE, A NEW PROBLEM - ELECTRIC
AND AUTO-BUS LINES - IMPROVEMENT OF IOWA’S PUBLIC HIGHWAYS - THE
FUTURE OF THE GOOD ROADS MOVEMENT . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
. . . . . . . . . . . . . 253
Long before there was a suggestion of a city at or near the junction
of the Big Sioux River with the Missouri, travelers and merchants
had fixed upon that locality as a leading center of river
transportation for the fur trade of the Northwest. It was the
natural half-way place for the gathering of Indians and traders and
commercial leaders who were exploiting the headwaters of the
Missouri and Yellowstone, as well as the region farther east
tributary to the Big Sioux, and for gathering the peltry, both large
and small, for transportation tot he St. Louis market. As Sioux City
arose, and military posts and settlements were established to the
north and northwest, the locality became a leading entrepot of
barter and trade, and one of the best known river towns in the Far
West. Although for more than twenty years before the railroads were
in operation in Northwestern Iowa it was the hope of many public and
business men to make the Des Moines River a great channel of
communication between the
254 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
primitive fur-bearing country of the North and the rapidly settling
country of the Mississippi Valley, the most marked evidence of water
transportation and traffic was furnished by the locality known as
the Sioux City region.
CITY AS A STEAMBOAT TOWN.
The first steamboat to arrive at Sioux City was from St. Louis in
June, 1856, and was loaded with ready-framed houses and provisions.
They were gratefully received by the settlers, who were then living
in tents and rude log cabins. To them, frame houses were luxuries.
The provisions were used to stock the little stores already
Backed by influential public as well as business men, soon after
Sioux City was platted in 1854 a United States land office was
established there, and it was made the headquarters and largely the
outfitting point for all the government expeditions sent against the
Sioux and other hostile Indians. About three years from the time
that Dr. and Government Surveyor John K. Cook laid out the town it
was a respectable-sized settlement of between four and five hundred
people, its river front lively with mackinaws and steamboats,
delivering buffalo robes and skins to be reshipped to St. Louis. The
“Sioux City Iowa Eagle,” which had just appeared at Sioux City, thus
advertised the commercial status of this only river town of
consequence: “In addition to the large number of buffalo robes and
skins brought her by friendly Indians, immense quantities are
brought by mackinaws (small boats). Messrs. Frost, Todd & Company
are the heaviest dealers in furs. during one week in June (1857)
they received by steamboat from the headwaters of the Missouri and
Yellowstone furs and skins to the value of many thousands of
dollars. On consignment alone contained 7,567 buffalo robes
(tanned), 739 beaver skins, 32 elk skins, 14 bear skins, 1 moose
skin and 35 pelt packages.”
Even for a number of years after Sioux City secured railroad
connection with both the East and West in 1868, it was substantially
a river town and its transportation and commerce were based rather
on the steamboat than on the railway lines. C. R. Marks says on this
point: “The Northwestern transportation Company established a line
PHOTO: HAGY HOUSE AND HEDGES STORE ON THE LEVEE, EARLY ‘60s
PHOTO: THE LEVEE, EARLY ‘70’s
PHOTO: THE LEVEE IN THE EARLY DAYS, SIOUX CITY
In the old times it was not an unusual sight to see half a score of
craft lying at the Sioux City wharf, unloading from down the river
or loading for ports above. The head of navigation then was Fort
Benton, nearly a couple of thousand miles away, and Sioux City was
sort of the half way station between the stream’s source and mouth.
From 1856, when the first steamer laden with freight for Sioux City
arrived, to about 1876 this business grew and flourished, and then
gradually it oozed away.
HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA 257
here with warehouses, that goods shipped by rail to Sioux City would
be taken from here by boat up the river to the forts, Indian trading
posts and mining camps, and on over 1,900 miles to Fort Benton.
Other boats that took their first load from Pittsburgh, Cincinnati
and St. Louis would fill up here on their way up and come back only
as far as Sioux City to get another load.
SIOUX CITY IN 1868.
“On July 4, 1868, there were eight steamboats tied up at our river
bank, the crews celebrating in no mild fashion. Trade in all lines
was brisk. Returning miners and soldiers bought new clothes. The
miners exchanged the gold dust at the banks. the arrival of a boat
from the south in earlier days, especially the first one, which was
in the spring, was a town event. When the boat neared the city below
where the Floyd monument now stands, it would blow several long,
loud blasts with its whistle and repeat this at short intervals. It
also would add fuel to the fires. The whole city would take notice,
the smoke would be visible long before the boat came in view around
the point, and the people flocked to the landing at the foot of
THE COMING AND GOING OF A RIVER STEAMBOAT.
“At the first sound of the whistle, Charles K. Howard, until late
years known as a South Dakota cattle man, but then a druggist near
the foot of Pearl Street, would step out on the sidewalk and with a
voice like a foghorn in long drawn=out notes would call out,
‘S-t-e-a-m-b-o-a-t!’ This would soon be echoed from the corner of
Fourth and Pearl streets in tones equally sonorous by Bob McElhenny.
Everyone then knew what was coming.
“As the boat approached the landing place on the river bank, there
were certain necessary movements of the boat, backing and filling
until it reached the desired point, when a gangplank would be pushed
out part way from the boat, and a man or two would go out on the end
of this with a big rope and jump for the bank. Usually there had
been planted a big snubbing post. The rope would be run once or
258 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
around this and the other end on the boat taken care of, while the
boat with steam up pushed against the bank until the boat was fast.
Then the gangplank, or platform, was pushed clear up the top of the
bank, and passengers and crew rushed off.
“If it was a boat going farther up the river, the crew commenced to
carry off the freight to be left here, and that which was soon to
start from here was loaded. It might remain here but a few hours.
The departure was less dramatic, but more rapid. The whistle blew a
warning, the rope was loosened from the snubbing post, the gangplank
hauled in, and the boat fell back down stream a little with the
current, then, swerving its bow toward the center of the river with
a curve, got into the channel and on upstream.
“I remember, on one occasion, the rope got caught at the shore end
for an instant as the boat was leaving and, after a slack, jerked
straight out, caught a negro roustabout and threw him from the boat
into the river. The steamer never slacked its headway, but kept on
in its course up the river. The colored man disappeared in the
water, then at high mark, and was not seen again. No doubt the
officers knew by experience that no efforts on their part could save
the man, and that he must save himself. They did not value one
negro’s life very highly.
“Trade in all lines when the boat was landing was brisk. The
returned miners sold their dust to the bankers, Weare & Allison and
Thomas J. Stone, who had their scales for weighing the dust, and
even merchants took a hand at it. Sometimes a return boat would be
loaded full with buffalo robes, deerskins and tallow, as there was
not much other return freight.
“While we remained the end of the railroad, farmers came from long
distances with their grain and produce - dressed hogs in season. I
have seen wagonloads of wheat from Yankton, Sioux Falls and
intermediate points. Stores were kept open until late at night, and
nearby farmers took a day off Sundays to come in and trade.”
HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA 259
ATTEMPTED NAVIGATION OF THE DES MOINES RIVER.
The main valley of the Des Moines River does not include any portion
of Northwestern Iowa, and only the headwaters of its East and West
forks water that section of the state. But as those who dreamed of
improving the main channel of the Des Moines River so it should be
the great western feeder to the Valley of the Mississippi and kill
the trade and commerce of the Missouri Valley, the improvement of
the chief waterway of interior Iowa was intimately connected with
the progress of the northwestern section of the state. The plans of
its projectors were never within sight of realization, however, so
that the topic may be dismissed as of little importance in working
out the theme of this history. Benjamin F. Gue writes truly when he
says: “Of all the various grants of public lands made by Congress to
aid works of internal improvements in the several states, probably
none has been the subject of so much and such long continued
litigation as the grant of 1846 to aid in the improvement of the navigation of the Des Moines River. No land grant
failed more signally in accomplishing the purpose for which it was
made and none inflicted greater wrongs or hardships upon the
pioneers who, in good faith, settled upon the public lands.”
The grant was made by an act of Congress on the 8th of March, 1846,
for the purpose of aiding the Territory of Iowa to improve the
navigation of the Des Moines River from its mouth to the Raccoon
Fork of that river. The grant embraced each alternate section on
both sides of the river for a distance of five miles of such lands
as had not otherwise been disposed of, and was accepted by the
Legislature after Iowa became a state, in January, 1847.
For a number of years before Congress and the Legislature set afoot
this ambitious scheme in Iowa, the fur traders in their keel boats
had been poling up the Des Moines and its tributaries, well supplied
with beads, blankets, ammunition, war paints and, often hidden under
all, that which was forbidden red men - a foreshadow of Prohibition.
The return cargoes were, of course, furs and pelts, and their
destination usually Keokuk, the Chicago of the Mississippi Valley,
which was destined in the eyes of the prophets of those
260 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
day to be the rival of St. Louis, the metropolis of the Missouri
There are three authentic records of steamboats having ascended the
Des Moines River, one as far as Fort Des Moines, previous to 1846.
In the autumn of 1837, Capt. S. B. Clarke electrified the
inhabitants of the little village of Keosauqua, now in Van Buren
County, by blowing the whistle of his steamboat, “S. B. Science,” as
he rounded the bend a short distance below. The village was at the
gangplank to welcome the boat from Keokuk loaded with flour, meal,
pork, groceries and perhaps a good supply of whisky. In 1840, a
steamboat arrived at Pittsburg, just above Keosauqua, and loaded
with corn. In May, 1843, the steamboat “Agatha” went up the river
with two keel boats to Fort Des Moines, stopping along the way at
Fort Sanford, as Ottumwa was being laid out, and leaving various
supplies both there and at its destination. This trip was made at
the time when Congress had thrown the eastern portion of the Black
Hawk Purchase open for settlement, which act was expected to bring settlers into the Des Moines Valley and further its development.
Hardly had the Iowa Legislature accepted the Congressional land
grant, which was to be the basis of the Des Moines River
improvements, before there arose a dispute as to the extent of the
lands to which the state was entitled, and the various governmental,
judicial and congressional “authorities” differed in their estimates
from the Raccoon Fork (Des Moines) to the state line. The Board of
Public Works, which was to have charge of the construction of the
improvements, was replaced by a West Point engineer, who was the
dreaming prophet of what the Valley of the Des Moines was to be and
the subsequent ruin of all that was progressive in the Missouri
The specter in the form of the railroad was already looming before
the river improvements, and in 1858 the grant of lands intended to
promote the improvement of the Des Moines was conveyed to the
Keokuk, Des Moines & Minnesota Railroad Company, to aid in the
construction of a railroad up the valley. Only two of the
fifty-seven dams and locks contemplated in the improvement had been
completed, and after the
HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA 261
expenditure of more than $330,000, and twelve years of exploitation
and work, no part of the river had been made navigable except a
small stretch of the lower valley for small steamers during seasons
of high water. It was not until forty years afterward that Congress
fully indemnified the survivors and heirs of the settlers who had
honestly bought lands included in the grant of 1846, which were
generally understood to extend to the present state line.
The 1856 grants to the four Iowa railroads doomed river
transportation on the Des Moines, which was closed under these
circumstances, as narrated by Tacitus Hussey, the pioneer, editor
and author of Des Moines City: “The year 1862 virtually closed Des
Moines River navigation by steamboats. The near approach of the
railroads made the business uncertain and unprofitable; besides,
there was great demand for steamboat service on all the rivers of
the South during the Civil war, which now began to assume alarming
proportions and required much service in the way of transporting
troops and supplies from one place to another; so our steamboat
captains withdrew their boats to more profitable fields.” This last
comment of Mr. Hussey also applies in a limited fashion to the
steamboats of the Missouri River; for during the Civil war they were
largely monopolized by the military authorities, although as a means
of transportation for freight and passengers they have never been
THE SAWYER WAGON ROADS TO THE MONTANA GOLD FIELDS.
Northwestern Iowa developed at such a comparatively recent period
that there was no gradual development in land transportation from
the stage-line or plank-road eras to the inauguration of railroads.
But while the iron ways were commencing to be projected into the at
section of the state, the gold fields of Montana, which centered at
Virginia City, drew many people from Sioux City, and emphasized the
fact that there was no well-defined wagon route from Northwestern
Iowa, across Nebraska and thence to the Montana gold fields. The
popular route was the Salt Lake trail, by way of Council Bluffs and
Omaha, and up the Platte Valley across Central Nebraska and, by a
round-about northern course, to the placer mines at Bannock and
262 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
A group of practical business men at Sioux City, with the
enthusiastic support of A. W. Hubbard, their member of Congress,
held that a more northern route by way of the Niobrara Valley, in
Northern Nebraska, would save at least 500 miles of travel to
Virginia City, if a practicable road could be opened. Congress
appropriated money for this route, as well as other overland roads,
and Col. James A. Sawyer, of Sioux City, was appointed
superintendent of the Niobrara wagon road. He was well qualified to
assume such leadership. In early life he served in the Mexican war
and, in his mature years, as a cavalry officer in the Civil war.
During the Indian troubles he established a chain of stockades from
Sioux City into Minnesota, and was familiar with what was then the
Far West. In spite of bitter opposition from the Council Bluffs -
Omaha - Salt Lake people, Colonel Sawyer’s expedition, with his
cattle, wagons and military escort, crossed the Missouri River at
Sioux City and proceeded to Niobrara, where the final organization was effected. The
escort of about 140 men comprised two companies of paroled
Confederates, known as “galvanized Yankees,” and a detachment of
twenty-five Dakota cavalrymen, supported by a six-pound brass
howitzer. There was constant friction between the commanding officer
of the military escort and Colonel Sawyer, who was the official
superintendent of the expedition, and it was a mutual relief when
the soldiers were left at Fort Conners.
The Sawyer expedition started from Niobrara June 13, 1865, and
reached Virginia City October 12, 1865, having traveled in the four
months more than 1,000 miles. Its greatest loss was the death of Nat
Hedges, a bright and able Sioux City youth, who had been killed by
the Indians on the North Fork of the Cheyenne River in the Powder
River mountain district.
Colonel Sawyer also conducted a second expedition, in the endeavor
of Sioux City to project a direct emigrant road to the northern gold
fields and to make the city a leading outfitting point corresponding
to the position of Council Bluffs and Omaha farther south. But
neither redounded to the benefit of Northwestern Iowa or Sioux City,
as the route did not receive the support of the high military
PHOTO: PRAIRIE SCHOONER
HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA 265
the country. In measuring the value of the Niobrara Wagon Road to
western emigrants, an enthusiastic author writing in recent years
says: “The route was the shortest and avoided the famous alkali
lands (the scourge of the plains), and afforded an abundance of
fuel, water and grass, with a road bed which admitted of carrying
six tons’ weight on two freight wagons joined together, without even
the necessity of uncoupling from Sioux City to Virginia City. That
route became a great western thoroughfare, and was traversed by
thousands of mule and ox trains of freight wagons until the country
was finally settled up and the construction of railroads completed
in all parts of the country, which at that time was but a barren,
prairie wilderness. Much credit is due to Colonel Sawyer’s
persistence and the interest manifested on the part of Sioux City
men in general in the establishment of this great overland
thoroughfare to the Rocky Mountains.”
A better authority than this unnamed and unidentified writer is
Albert M. Holman, a young man of twenty who accompanied Colonel
Sawyer’s first expedition in 1865 and remained in the Montana fields
as a store-keeper and a miner for three years. He then returned to
Sioux City, and for many years was a merchant, a manufacturer and a
man of public affairs. When a Sioux City resident nearly eighty
years of age, he wrote an interesting account of the expedition in
which he was a participant and added a comment on the measure of
value laid down in the words which have been quoted. Mr. Holman
says: “This account covers in general the second expedition. The
only misstatement in it, which is of importance, is that the route
became a great western thoroughfare and was traveled by thousands of
mule and ox teams. The fact is, no trains ever traveled over the
route after this second trip in 1866.” He adds, in another place in
his narrative concerning the first expedition: “That the country generally through which we passed was well adapted for an
overland wagon road was demonstrated then, and has since been proven
by the settling up of most of that region. But the building of the
Union Pacific Railroad immediately following the efforts of the
expedition made wagon routes unnecessary, and after the second
expedition in 1866, no
266 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
wagon train ever traveled the route to Montana.” Which seems to
settle the matter beyond peradventure that, despite Colonel Sawyer’s
perseverance and bravery, the Niobrara Wagon Road which he routed
from Sioux City to Virginia City never became of practical value.
RAILROADS OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA.
About the time that Mr. Holman returned to Sioux City from his
temporary sojourn in Virginia City, a young New York lawyer of
twenty-seven also became a resident of the city and afterward became
both prominent in his profession and in the public affairs of his
adopted western home. In time, Constant R. Marks and Albert M.
Holman became friends and, as old, honored men, issued a pamphlet
together entitled “Pioneering in the Northwest,” to which valuable
little book the writer has been much indebted. Mr. Marks has greatly
increased his debt by contributing the following concise yet
complete story of the expansion of the railway systems in
In 1851 the Iowa Legislature passed an act establishing the
boundaries of forty-nine counties in Western Iowa out of what had
been before that unsettled territory; in area about one-half the
state, containing only a few scattered settlements, the principal
one being at Kanesville, now Council Bluffs. Shortly after this many
of these counties commenced to be settled and county organizations
created. This region was reputed to be fertile, but the great need
was railroads to promote settlements.
CONGRESS ENCOURAGES RAILROAD BUILDING, 1850 - 55.
Congress had established a precedent in 1850 by granting public land
to the several states to aid in building a railroad from Galena and
Chicago, in Illinois, to Mobile, in Alabama. These states were given
all the even numbered sections of public land for six miles in width
on each side of the line to be located, with indemnity in case some
such sections had been previously sold. This indemnity was to be
taken from land adjacent to the six mile limit, sufficient to make
up the deficit. Under this donation the Illinois Central Railroad in
Illinois had been built, and similar grants had been made to other
HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA 267
The senators from Iowa, George W. Jones of Dubuque, Augustus C.
Dodge of Burlington, and Congressman Bernhart Henn of Fairfield,
Iowa, were alert to do something for their own state. In 1854
Senator Jones had introduced in Congress a bill for an act to aid a
railroad from near Dubuque to the Missouri River at some point to be
designated, but estimated to be a little south of the present
Illinois Central Line.
Sioux City was not then in actual existence. Early in 1855
prospective town promoters were showing where this proposed line
would pass through their towns. This was especially true of Fort
Dodge, in Webster County, and Sergeant’s Bluff, in Woodbury County,
where promoters were showing that this eastern road would pass to
the Missouri River and across into Nebraska and west. This bill
failed of passage.
FOUR IOWA RAILROADS PROJECTED, 1856.
In the next Congress the matter took definite shape. Senators Jones
and Dodge and Congressman Henn, together with other congressmen in
other states, had become interested in Western Iowa development, and
were partners in the town site of Sioux City, having nearly a half
ownership therein. A land grant aid to the State of Iowa was passed
May 15, 1856, for four lines of railroad across the State of Iowa.
One line was from Burlington, Iowa, to a point on the Missouri River
opposite the mouth of the Platte River in Nebraska, now known as the
Burlington line. The second was from Davenport through Iowa City and
Fort Des Moines to Council Bluffs, now the Rock Island. The third
was from Lyons, Iowa (near Clinton), west as near as practicable on
the west 42 parallel to the Missouri River, and this line was
surveyed through Onawa to the Missouri River, but as changed now is
the Northwestern Line. The fourth one was from Dubuque to Sioux
These grants being to the State of Iowa, the governor called a
special session of the Legislature, which met July 14, 1856, and
granted these lands to certain railroad companies, which had been
organized to accept the grants, and actual surveys of contemplated
lines had been started by some of these companies before the
Legislature met. The survey on the one to Sioux City started at the
Sioux City end July 1, 1856. These Iowa grants were of the odd
numbered sections within six miles on each side of the line of the
road when definitely located, and if any of these lands had been
previously sold, as a great deal of it had, in Eastern Iowa, then
268 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
they might select enough land to make up the deficiency from odd
numbered sections within fifteen miles on each side of the located
Surveys were soon made, lists of land selected and filed in the
local United States land offices and in the General Land Office at
Washington. The price of the remaining even numbered sections was
doubled to $2.50 an acre, and put on the market by the Government,
it having been withdrawn from sale immediately after the passage of
the act. Under this system vast tracts of land, granted to the
railroads, were kept out of the market or settlement for ten years
or more until the roads were built, and with other lands, later
granted to other roads, form the basis of title to almost half the
land in many Northwestern Iowa counties.
IOWA LINES TO CONNECT WITH THE UNION PACIFIC, 1862.
When the United States made a similar grant of land to aid in
building a railroad line from Council Bluffs, Iowa to San Francisco,
on July 2, 1862, as part of the same, a branch line was authorized
to be built from Sioux City to some point on this Union Pacific
Railroad to be designated by the President not farther west than the
100th meridian, which would be near the central part of Nebraska.
This made it almost necessary that these three Southern Iowa land
grant roads should be authorized to connect at Council Bluffs with
this Union Pacific road. Hon. A. W. Hubbard, congressman from Sioux
City, had provided for Sioux City’s connection in the original act.
SIOUX CITY AND ST. PAUL RAILROAD.
On April 12, 1864, Congress passed another land grant act to aid in
the building of a road from Sioux City to the Minnesota state line
at some point between the Big Sioux River and west of the west fork
of the Des Moines River. This was built by the Sioux City and St.
THE CHICAGO, MILWAUKEE & ST. PAUL.
Another line was authorized from McGregor, Iowa, westerly along near
the 43rd parallel until it intersected the St. Paul Railroad at some
point in O’Brien County, Iowa. This is now the Chicago, Milwaukee &
St. Paul Railroad. These two line were given the odd numbered
sections within ten miles on each side of the line when established,
with indemnity for land previously sold to be selected from odd
sections with twenty miles on each side of the established line.
HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA 269
grants of land were to the State of Iowa, which regranted them to
the various railroad companies.
After the survey for these roads was completed maps of the lines
were made and adopted by the railroad, filed with the Governor and
sent tot he General Land Office at Washington. The State of Iowa
appointed agents to select the lands. Bernhart Henn, ex-congressman
from Iowa and one of the promoters of Sioux City, was such agent for
the selection of the lands for the road from Dubuque to Sioux City.
When these selections were completed, they were approved and
certified to by the State of Iowa and so marked on the government
plats and lists in the United States local land offices, which for
this Northwestern Iowa were at Council Bluffs, Sioux City and Fort
Dodge. The even sections and lands outside the limits of the grant
were restored to public entry and sale July 4, 1858.
SECTION OF THE NORTHWESTERN BUILT.
The building of the roads commenced at the eastern end, but the
general financial panic of 1857 stopped the financing of railroad
building, and the Civil War, commencing in 1861, further put an
embargo on railroad construction. After these failures to build by
one company, the resumption of the grants by the Legislature and
regranting to other companies, the actual building of these western
ends of the roads from Dubuque to Sioux City and from Lyons and
Clinton to Council Bluffs, commenced after the close of the war in
1865. This road is now the Northwestern and built west from Cedar
Rapids to Council Bluffs, being completed by a company called the
Cedar Rapids and Missouri River Railroad Company. This was
stimulated by the starting of the construction of the Union Pacific
Railroad from Council Bluffs, Iowa. Land now had an actual small
market value, and these granted lands and mortgage bonds on the
lands and the road had a salable market value, and would furnish
funds for building.
JOHN I. BLAIR, FATHER OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA ROADS.
John I. Blair, of New Jersey, who had made some money at home,
financed the road and managed, with his associates, the building of
this line to Council Bluffs, as well as the Sioux City branch of the
Union Pacific and the other line from Cedar Rapids to Sioux City.
They also laid out all the new town sites. John I. Blair thus became
a historical railroad character. He had foresight, courage, and
270 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
to complete these projects successfully, and reaped a rich financial
reward. He was close-fisted and economical in his personal expenses,
and wanted for himself wherever possible all the little side-line
profits like the town sites. He had started life as a small
merchant; he gained wealth by taking hold of difficult enterprises.
He was tall, well formed, cool, and kept in touch with the work as
it progressed, with all its financial requirements.
After he had finished the line to Council Bluffs and from Missouri
Valley to Sioux City, which was completed in March, 1868, he
commenced on the line from Fort Dodge to Sioux City early in 1869.
He drove with a team from Fort Dodge to Sioux City over the
contemplated line, going past Strom Lake, seeing there a fine
prospective town site. He at once upon his arrival in Sioux City
proceeded to the United States Land Office at that locality and
entered lands close to Storm Lake; so people knew where at least one
town-site was to be. All other towns west of Fort Dodge would be
where the railroad chose to locate them.
IOWA FALLS AND SIOUX CITY RAILROAD.
The Twelfth General Assembly of Iowa in 1868 had, for failure to
perform the condition of the grant, resumed the grant tot he Iowa
Falls and Sioux City Railroad Company, and in April 7, 1868, made a
conditional regrant of this land tot he same road. One of the
provisions of the regrant to this and some other Iowa land grant
roads was that each railroad accepting the provisions of this act
should at all times be subject to such rules, regulations, and rates
of tariff for the transportation of freight and passengers as might
from time to time be enacted by the General Assembly of Iowa. This
was the first attempt in Iowa to regulate passenger and freight
rates, and it was assumed that without such provision in the grant
there was no power to regulate rates. It created strong objections
among the railroad people.
It was also provided in the act that the railroad company must
accept this grant with the provision before July, 1868, or the state
census board might grant it to some other road on the same terms.
This road and others canvassed the members of the Legislature to see
whether they would at a special session of the Legislature repeal
this claim. This railroad company on March 6, 1868, had notified the
Governor that they would not accept such a grant. No extra session
was called and this same railroad in writing on February 18, 1869,
accepted the regrant under the alternative clause in the
HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA 271
act of April 8, 1868, authorizing the giving of it to any other
company. This fact is not generally understood, as this rejection
and acceptance are not matters of county record. The State later
deeded this land to this same company after it built the road. Hence
in showing the passage of title to land grant lands from the State
to this company, abstractors show the act of April 8, 1868, tot he
Iowa Falls and Sioux City Railroad Company simply as though the land
title passed direct under the first part of the act, when in fact it
passed under the rejection and later acceptance. But this is not
especially material, as these lands after about 1870 were deeded tot
he railroad company, and not, as before, by filing certified lists.
At the time of these land grants in 1856 there had been contemplated
a line from McGregor westerly across the state, but this was omitted
from the original act.
At the next session of the Legislature, on December 26, 1856, the
Iowa Legislature memorialized Congress, to build a road from
McGregor to the Missouri River, and at the same session passed a
resolution asking Congress to extend the western boundary of Iowa
across the Big Sioux River to the Missouri, taking all the country
south of the north line of Iowa extended west to the Missouri, and
at every session of the Legislature in memorialized Congress to aid
this road from McGregor until it was finally passed.
In April, 1860, the Iowa Legislature asked Congress fro aid for a
road from Council Bluffs up the Boyer Valley through Harrison,
Monona, Crawford, Sac, Buena Vista, and other counties to the State
line, or northern boundary of Kossuth County, and thence into
Minnesota to reach the lumber regions and supply treeless Iowa with
The Legislature had authorized mortgaging the roads, which had been
granted lands to aid in building, and had authorized the counties to
use the swamp lands granted to them to aid in building these roads,
and some of them had done so. Woodbury County gave its swamp lands
to its first road, the Sioux City and Pacific, for building that
road to Sioux City. Theses roads were not completed within the
periods provided for in the original grants and acts of Congress,
and acts of the Legislature were passed extending the time.
CEDAR RAPIDS AND MISSOURI RIVER RAILROAD, 1866-68.
The actual building of the line west from Cedar Rapids to Council
Bluffs was of these Northwestern Iowa roads completed first. It
reached Denison in 1866; much freight
272 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
reaching there was carried by teams to Sioux City, and settlements
made between; and it was completed to Council Bluffs early in 1867.
The people of Sioux City and vicinity had waited long for a railroad
to the east and wanted it right away. The location of the line to
join the Union Pacific was very liberal as to the point of junction;
so it was located and built from Sioux City down the east side of
the Missouri to California Junction, in Harrison County, and thence
west across the Missouri at Blair, Nebraska, and to Fremont on the
Union Pacific, with a short stub from California Junction to
Missouri Valley on the Cedar Rapids & Missouri River main line. So
its main use was and always has been to go east instead of west.
This line to Sioux City was mostly built in 1867, getting into Sioux
City and finished in March, 1868.
COMPLETION OF IOWA FALLS & SIOUX CITY RAILROAD.
The actual building of the Iowa Falls and Sioux City Railroad west
of Fort Dodge commenced early in the spring of 1869, work
progressing at both ends, as by the completion of the line of the
Sioux City and Pacific Railroad, material could be shipped there.
This road was completed in the summer of 1870. With the completion
of this road the larger portion of Northwestern Iowa was within the
reach of railroad transportation, and the great rush of immigration
commenced and increased rapidly.
The Sioux City and St. Paul road from Sioux City to the northern
State line was finished in the summer of 1872 and the road west of
McGregor was finished to its junction in O’Brien County in 1874.
ABSORPTIONS BY PRESENT-DAY RAILROADS.
The road from Cedar Rapids to Council Bluffs was for many years
leased to the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad Company, which
company bought the road itself and also the Sioux City and Pacific,
and has built its numerous main lines and branches in Northwestern
Iowa, connecting at various places with its original main line.
The road from Dubuque to Sioux City was leased to and operated for
many years by the Illinois Central Road, which subsequently bought
it. The Illinois Central built the two branches from Cherokee to
Sioux Falls and to Onawa about 1890, and later from Fort Dodge to
Council Bluffs to meet the Union Pacific.
HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA 273
HOW BLAIR NEARLY GOT CONTROL OF THE DAKOTA SOUTHERN.
While John I. Blair was the controlling owner of the roadbed of the
Sioux City & Pacific and the Iowa Falls & Sioux City Railroads, he
came near getting control of the line now owned by the Chicago,
Milwaukee & St. Paul from Sioux City to Yankton and Sioux Falls.
This road from Sioux City up the Sioux River had been the first
projected to run on the Iowa side and had been organized as the
Sioux City and Pembina road by Sioux City men, and aid had been
voted it by the townships in Woodbury and Plymouth counties in 1872
and some grading done.
Soon after this a road was promoted from Sioux City to Yankton,
called the Dakota Southern. The promoters (Wicker Meckling Company)
joined forces with the Sioux City promoters of the Pembina road, and
built a line to Yankton and Sioux Falls, running the latter line
partly in Dakota. The north end of this road was not built for
several years, as times were hard. Wicker Meckling Company appealed
to John I. Blair for assistance, and agreements were made whereby
Blair bought a half interest in the Dakota Southern and loaned that
company $100,000 to finish the road to Sioux Falls, but the old
directors of the Dakota Southern were to remain until the next
It dawned on Wicker Meckling Company that this $100,000 debt to
Blair would be used by him to squeeze them out of their remaining
half. The Milwaukee road had been finished to Canton, South Dakota
and west, and Mr. Wicker approached that company and a deal was made
whereby he sold his half to that company. They called a special
meeting of the directors at Yankton and these directors and
officials of the Milwaukee road took a special car to Yankton,
stopped within the city limits and held the meeting. Wicker’s
directors resigned and Milwaukee officials were elected to their
places. It was also voted to sell $100,000 more stock and with
proceeds take up the Blair note, thus giving the Milwaukee road a
majority of the Dakota Southern stock. Blair started some litigation
to regain his rights, but abandoned them. Had Blair succeeded, the
Illinois Central might have had a main line in Dakota and the
Milwaukee branch from Manilla to Sioux City would never have been
DES MOINES RIVER GRANT REVERTS TO RAILROAD PROJECTS.
I have spoken of the land grant along the Des Moines River to aid in
the making of that stream navigable up as far as
274 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
Des Moines. This was later amended by an act of Congress, approved
July 12, 1862, extending this land grant north from the Raccoon
Forks at Des Moines to the Minnesota State line and authorizing the
application of a portion of this land to aid in the construction of
the Keokuk, Fort Des Moines & Minnesota Railroad. Much legislation
and litigation followed. The project for navigating the Des Moines
River was impracticable and was abandoned, and a railroad was built
north as far as Fort Dodge and finished about 1871 by the Des Moines
Valley Railroad. Later this was taken over and extended north by the
Minneapolis & St. Louis Railroad Company, which built some branches.
The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific extended branches into
The Chicago & Great Western Railroad Company also built a line from
Minnesota through Fort Dodge and Carroll to Council Bluffs, thus
crossing the southeastern corner of Northwestern Iowa.
STIMULATING VALUE OF RAILROADS IMMEASURABLE.
By these numerous railroads with their connections and affiliations
our region is traversed by or put in connection with every
continental railroad line, and there is not a farm that is not
within ten miles of a railroad; every one of these having been built
within the last sixty years, many of them much more recently.
We can not measure the value of these roads in stimulating the
growth of this fertile, treeless region. They have enabled us to
market our immense agricultural crops and animals and in return
brought us fuel and merchandise produced elsewhere. Our Northwestern
Iowa is not surpassed by any other region of the United States in
the proportionate acres of tillable soil, and quantity and value of
Inland water navigation reached but few places and did not afford
much aid in transporting produce raised at any great distance form
the rivers which ran north and south and were frozen over and at low
water nearly half the year, and the canals helped but little.
Railroad building for long-and-short distance freight and passenger
traffic in inland regions solved the problem and gave us the world’s
market for our products and stimulated agriculture. Our land that we
bought fifty or sixty years ago of the Government at $1.25 or $2.50
an acre, or bought from the land grant railroads at $5 to $10 an
acre now is worth from $100 to $300 an acre, chiefly by the
development of railroad transportation.
HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA 275
THE AUTOMOBILE, A NEW PROBLEM.
We are now experimenting with a new problem, the automobile, which
is moving much local freight, long-and-short distance passenger
traffic to the financial loss of the railroads, especially the
branch short-distance lines, but we are paying for this in increased
taxes and special taxes against the land itself for special
ELECTRIC AND AUTO-BUS LINES.
The public transportation of passengers and freight in Northwestern
Iowa has been substantially accomplished for many years by the steam
railways, although electricity and “gas” have invaded the field to
some extent. With the constant improvement of the public highways,
through the cooperation of the Federal, state, county and township
governments, auto travel has immensely increased and numerous
auto-bus lines have been put in operation to supplement the
passenger service of the railroads. In many districts of
Northwestern Iowa, where the train service is infrequent, these
comfortable and well-conducted auto buses have proven themselves of
great public utility.
Electrical transportation is represented by the Sioux City system of
Iowa which has been extended across the Missouri River to South
Sioux City, Nebraska. In 1890 the original horse and mule-drawn cars
gave way to electricity as a motive power, and the Sioux City lines
were among the first electric railways in the United States. The
system is now operated by the Sioux City Gas and Electric Company.
It includes about sixty miles of street car lines and embraces not
only Sioux City proper, but the outlying districts of Morningside,
Leeds and Riverside, and also, as stated, South Sioux City in
IMPROVEMENT OF IOWA’S PUBLIC HIGHWAYS.
The Iowa State Highway Commission was established under an act
passed in 1904 by the Thirtieth General Assembly, which constituted
the Iowa State College as an institution to act as such commission.
From 1904 to 1913, the work of improving the highways of the state
was carried on under that law. The Thirty-fifth General Assembly
276 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
the Highway Commission as it still exists. The dean of engineering
of the State College is its ex-officio member, and each of the two
other members represents a different political party. The term of
office is four years. Under the law, as amended by the General
Assembly from time to time, the commission is charged with many
other duties than those delegated to it by the original act; these
now include the making of all road surveys and the preparation of
road and bridge specifications. Beginning with July 1, 1925, the
commission had to its credit a primary road development fund of
about $4,000,000 to be used on any portion of the system as might be
deemed best by the commission. By act of the General Assembly, the
commission assumed complete control of the maintenance of the
primary road system, to date from July 1, 1925.
In 1917, the first law was enacted in Iowa accepting Federal aid in
the improvement of the primary road system, and since that time to
November, 1924, nearly $70,500,000 was expended altogether, of which
$55,600,000 was applied to actual construction. The heaviest year
was 1921, when more than $38,000,000 was expended in all kinds of
highway improvements. That sum was divided as follows: Primary and
county road expenditures, $22,763,290; for bridges and culverts,
$9,305,352; for township roads, $6,672,985.
In 1924, the total expenditures throughout the state amounted to
$29,126,000. In November of that year the total number of miles in
the primary system of the state was 6,600, of which 2,164 had been
surfaced with gravel, macadam or sand clay, 1,934 miles of earth
road built to permanent grade and 502 miles paved, while 2,058 miles
of earth road had not been improved.
THE FUTURE OF THE GOOD ROADS MOVEMENT.
Automobilists, merchants and farmers are all in close cooperation
with the State Highway Commission and the Iowa Good Roads
Association to get the full benefits of highway building and highway
improvements throughout the state, and, in consideration of its
wealth, each of the Northwestern Iowa counties which figures in this
history is doing
HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA 277
it share to forward the good roads movement. In December, 1924, the
condition of the primary road system in Iowa was represented by
2,164.4 miles of graveled road; built to finished grade, but not
surfaced, 1,934.4; not built to finished grade, 2,058.6; paved,
502.3 miles. Total, 6,659.7. These figures mean much, but perhaps
tot he average reader this simple statement made in the last annual
report of the Iowa State Highway Commission will carry greater
weight: “One can travel from Des Moines to the county seats of
forty-four counties by direct route and be on gravel or pavement all
For a number of years, under the cooperation of the Iowa State
College Good Roads Department and the State Highway Commission, an
investigation has been conducted to determine by accurate experiment
and by actual test runs, the comparative cost of transportation by
motor vehicles over various types of road surfaces and varying
grades. The conclusions, based upon this scientific investigation,
bear out the theories which have long been held in regard to the
economy of improved road surfaces and reduction of grades. The
ambitious six-year program advocated by the Iowa Good Roads
Association was largely based upon this prolonged series of
experiments and investigations. The period proposed to be covered,
covered the years 1925 - 1930, inclusive.
In one of the last quarterly “Service Bulletins,” issued by the Iowa
State Highway Commission, all these matters are clearly set forth,
as well as the summary of the series of tests and studies made by
Prof. T. R. Agg upon the “Cost of Highway Transportation.” From the
latter article these extracts are pertinent: “Motor vehicle
operation, the prime factor in cost of highway transportation, costs
Iowans approximately $300,000,000 per year. This is three times the
total tax levy paid by the people of the State for state, county and
municipal purposes. In 1924 the total Iowa tax levies to be paid
were $107,361,779. These figures alone give some idea of the cost
incurred in modern highway transportation.
“Arguments for improved roads in the past have been mainly based on
the desirability of such a system, the satisfaction, convenience and
pleasure to be derived from paved roads in any community, the
elimination of isolation from
278 HISTORY OF NORTHWESTERN IOWA
country life and the generally improved living conditions. Ability
to et from farm to market to take advantage of seasonable prices on
the commodities has been largely stressed. To actually show that
paved roads were in themselves an economy, that they would actually
pay for themselves in a limited term of years where traffic is
moderately heavy, while incidentally believed by engineers, could
not be actually shown with any definite and unquestioned figures
available. This can now be done.
“Now that these figures are becoming known, even road engineers are
expressing surprise that the points mentioned, while they might
readily have been known, have actually never been fully recognized
“The operation of Iowa’s half a million cars in 1923 cost the State
her entire corn crop. The cost of operation of these motor cars
during the present year can not possibly be covered by the value of
the 1924 corn crop. Operation of these vehicles is only a part of
the transportation costs. These facts ought to give some idea of the
staggering figures in Iowa’s total transportation costs and sober
the minds of those who must shoulder the responsibility of
formulating a policy and devising a road-building program for the
There is no section of the State to which the foregoing facts and
deductions apply more closely and vitally than Northwestern Iowa, as
many of its most productive districts are far removed from railroad
lines, and the better and more numerous the highways which intersect
the country the easier it well be for farmers and country merchants
to get into touch with the broad outside markets and give the local
communities the benefits of such contact.