The History of Keokuk County, Iowa



The importance of railroads was early appreciated by the people of Keokuk county, and projects of that nature have been discussed for more than a quarter of a century.  Although it required years of agitation, and before there was anything definite accomplished, there was an outlay of thousands upon thousands of dollars by way of individual subscription, and thousands upon thousands in public taxation, the county has now very good railway communication with the outside world, and this bids fair to increase in the immediate future.

The first railroad projected was the "Air Line" road through the State from New Boston on the Mississippi to Council Bluffs.  The agitation of this question was quite active as is shown by the notice of the county judge submitting the question to the people whether or not aid should be extended to this line.  The following is the notice:

"In 1853 the petition of many people of the county was presented, asking that the question be submitted to a vote of the people of Keokuk county, Iowa, whether the county of Keokuk, aforesaid, will aid in the construction of the Philadelphia, Ft. Wayne & Platte River Air Line Railroad by subscribing the sum of one hundred thousand dollars to the capital stock of the said road.

"Now, therefore, in order that the sense of the voters of said county may be taken in the premises, it is hereby ordered that a special election be held for the purpose of voting 'for' or 'against' the following proposition, to-wit: That the county of Keokuk, in the State of Iowa, will aid in the construction of said road, to-wit: the 'Philadelphia, Ft. Wayne & Platte River Air Line Railroad,' by subscribing one hundred thousand dollars to the capital stock of the company of said road. That county bonds be issued therefor, payable in twenty years of their date, bearing interest at a rate not to exceed six per centum per annum, payable semi-annually, and that whenever said company has obtained a sufficient amount of subscription to its stock as will, in the opinion of the county judge, secure the completion of the road, then that county bonds shall be issued to the company of said road.  That in addition to the taxes usually levied an annual tax not to exceed one per cent upon the county valuation be levied from year to year so long as the same is required to be applied to the liquidation of the interest and principal of the bonds aforesaid, unless it is found that the interest and principal can be satisfied by the dividends arising from, or sale of, stock above mentioned.  That the county judge of Keokuk county represent in person, or by proxy, the stock taken by said county.  That the form of ballots for the said elections shall be 'For the county subscription' or 'Against the county subscription'; a majority of votes for the county subscription will be considered as adopting the above proposition entire.  It is further directed that the law governing elections shall so far as compatible, be applied to this election."

The election to decide on this proposition was not held as it became apparent that the enterprise could not be successful, and the early settlers were compelled to do without a railroad.

Although railroad matters were discussed from time to time nothing definite was done for some seven or eight years.  The war then breaking out railroad building was discontinued everywhere, and the public mind was so much absorbed with war matters that railroads ceased to be talked of.  At the close of the war the attention of the people which had for so long a time been directed from the question of railroads was again called to this important matter.  Lines leading in all directions were projected from the leading centers of trade and the peace of the interior towns which for five years had been so frequently broken by noisy war meetings was now interrupted no less frequently by equally exciting railroad meetings.

The war had scarcely closed and Keokuk county soldiers had not yet all returned to their homes when the building of a railroad through the county began to be agitated.  A company was organized known as the North Missouri & Cedar Rapids Railroad Company and the proposed line was to run from Ottumwa to Cedar Rapids, passing through Keokuk county in a northeast direction.  Early in July, 1865, George D. Woodin, Esq., visited Cedar Rapids for the purpose of consulting with the people of that place upon the subject.  Upon his return he reported that the people of Cedar Rapids were heartily in favor of the project and would cooperate in the enterprise.  Shortly after this a delegation of citizens of Sigourney, consisting of H. E. Havens, J. H. Sanders, G. H. Higgins and L. McCoy, visited Ottumwa.  A public meeting was called at the City Hall of Ottumwa for the purpose of welcoming the delegation and conferring with them on the subject of the proposed line.  As a result of the interview it was resolved to call a general convention at Ottumwa on the 10th of August, to be participated in by all the people along the line of the proposed road.  The convention was held, and from this time J. Sanders, a wealthy and enterprising citizen of Sigourney was prominently identified with this enterprise.  George D. Woodin, T. A. Morgan, J. C. Hogin, William McGrew and H. E. Havens were also very active in the matter. About this time a railroad meeting was held at the court-house in Sigourney.  At this meeting Mr. Woodin estimated the amount necessary to be subscribed by Keokuk county at $160,000 and offered the following resolution:

"Resolved, That the citizens of Keokuk county can and will raise $160,000 toward the construction of the Iowa extension of the North Missouri railroad."

Which resolution was unanimously adopted.

It will be remembered that at this time there was no legislative provision whereby townships could vote a railroad tax, and the only way it could be procured was by voluntary subscription.

In September another railroad convention was held at Cedar Rapids, which was attended by delegates from ten different counties.  At this meeting it was resolved that the capital stock should be five millions of dollars, and that measures should be immediately taken for the completion of the road.

The persons who were most interested, officially and otherwise, canvassed the country through which the proposed line lay, and solicited subscriptions to the capital stock.  Quite an amount was subscribed along the line between Sigourney and Ottumwa, and considerable grading was done between these two points.

Such was the state of affairs in the summer of 1869.  Up to this time it was impossible to make much progress in building, as the people along the line were unable to pay their subscriptions.  To facilitate matters, and give subscribers time to pay, it was arranged with the contractors that the work should go on, provided the subscribers would give their notes for the amount of their subscriptions.  About seventeen thousand dollars in notes were thus procured from people living along the line in Keokuk county.  On the 27th of September, this year, a railroad meeting was held in the court-house, Sigourney, and after considerable talk an arrangement was entered into by which the merchants of Sigourney agreed to close their stores for three days, commencing the Tuesday following, and canvass for notes.  A great number of notes were in this manner procured, and the work of grading was pushed forward and completed from Ottumwa to Sigourney.  There were also quite a number of bridges built, and there was quite a flattering prospect that the road would soon be completed between these two points.  However, when the people of the county, and especially those living at the county-seat, thought themselves on the very eve of having railroad communication with the outer world, they were doomed to disappointment.  Many living along the line, who had given their notes, were either unable or unwilling to pay them, and, their collection being inforced  [sic] by the courts, there was engendered a feeling of hostility toward the road, and the enterprise now met with the most stubborn opposition from those who at first were most friendly.  Suddenly all work ceased.  The railroad was no longer talked of except in derision.  The next spring farmers built fences across the road-bed, and that part of it which was not cultivated became rank with weeds.

Still other causes worked disastrously to the enterprise.  The board of trade of St. Louis had promised that the citizens of that place would put in dollar for dollar to the extent of the amount subscribed along the line in Iowa.  The citizens of St. Louis did not put a dollar into the enterprise.  The North Missouri Railroad Company promised in the beginning to aid and foster the enterprise, but about one year after the movement was commenced instead of continuing their line north, temporarily abandoned their line north and turned their attention to the construction of a road to Kansas City.  Thus matters stood in 1870.  During the latter part of this year and the former part of 1871, there was a new departure.  The high hopes which were then entertained are portrayed in the following local item which appeared in the columns of the local press:

"The long talked of forward movement all along the line of the railroad, between this place and Ottumwa, commenced on Monday, of this week. Skirmishing has been going on for the last two or three weeks, but the state of the weather has greatly retarded the operations.  The work is now going on in earnest, and we are assured will be prosecuted with the greatest vigor.  The completion of the road to this point by August, seems to be fully determined on.  The good time coming is almost here."  The good time coming was, however, much farther off than was anticipated.

In October, the president of the company started to New York, to deliver the bonds of the railroad company, and order forward iron for the track.  Just at this time occurred the great Chicago fire.  When he arrived at New York, the president of the company write to the friends of the enterprise, here, as follows:

"When I arrived at New York, panic was written on the face of every denizen of Wall Street to such an extent as to be almost ridiculous, to an, outsider. The result to our enterprise, however, presented nothing ludicrous.  All but one of our associates in New York and Philadelphia promptly telegraphed me withdrawing from the syndicate.  I stayed a week and tried to get them to reconsider their action, but to no avail.  The commission merchant sold the iron to other parties, and I went home feeling very blue."

The Rock Island Railroad extending their road, shortly afterward, to Sigourney, all interest in the Ottumwa road died out. Persons who had invested money in the enterprise lost all they put into it, and some were financially ruined thereby.  Mr. Sanders, who had invested heavily, and devoted years of labor upon the road, settled up his affairs as well as he was able to do, and removed to Chicago.  The road-bed fell into the hands of private individuals, and a large portion of it has reverted to its former uses, and in the production of corn and potatoes yields a better return than it ever has done as a commercial thoroughfare. The road-bed and right-of way, however, is too valuable to be always devoted to agricultural purposes.  Even at the present time, November, 1879, measures are being taken which promise, at no far distant day, to result in the completion of the road already costing so many years of toil, and the expenditure of so many hundreds of hard earned dollars.

Certain gentlemen, having the matter in charge, have recently visited Sigourney, and various points along the route between the latter place and Ottumwa.  Quite an interest is being awakened, and the preliminary steps have been taken for calling an election in the various townships through which the road is to extend.

Transcribed by Steven McBride. Thank you, Steve!


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