Railroad Fever


The latter part of the 1870's were trying times in Lyon County. There were droughts which cut the crop-and more serious were the terrible infestations of grasshoppers. Swarms, which blotted out the sun, were reported, crops were almost wiped out-spirit of the settlers was lowered greatly.

Only a relatively small amount of the total acreage of the county was broken-partly this was because of the drought and the grasshoppers. Probably the great impediment of faster settlement was the large amount of land which was held by speculators. The railroads had much of this land, but large landowners who had picked up the railroad script, also controlled thousands upon thousands of acres.

The county was still virgin prairie in many cases. Grasses grew to tremendous heights, particularly in the low places. Early in the seventies the editor of the Review told of driving out into the county with a horse and buggy-and the grasses were higher than the top of the buggy.

Hunters still found lots of game-and they gold of walking through grasses which were head-high and flushing out great flocks of prairie chicken. There were all kinds of geese and ducks in season-and there were still elk and deer in considerable numbers. There were predators too, and one pair of hunters reported killing 19 prairie wolves in one day's shooting.

The pioneers "made do" with what they had in many cases. When fuel was short-and it was short at many times, they used grass to fire their stoves for both heating and cooking. Buffalo chips also provided fuel for many of the folks making their homes on the land of Lyon County.

The long grasses which were cut for fuel were twisted and knotted, before being put into the stoves-and a patented machine was developed by an Algona man, which did this job very well. It sold for $5. The reporter told that a ton of grass, used for fuel, provided more heat than a ton of soft coal, which cost $4 to $5-plus the hauling from LeMars or Sibley.

In spite of the hardships of the first decade in Lyon County the population grew slowly. The pioneers got along as best they could. They looked forward to better days-they took a tremendous interest in politics, they argued bitterly about the way the county was being run, they had many social gatherings.


The growth in population of the county was shown in May of 1877 when it was announced that because Lyon County voters had cast 264 votes for the secretary of state in the last election, it would be entitled to two delegates to the republican state convention to be held in Des Moines. Politics was gathering steam for the fall election and H. R. Rice and F. A. Keep of Rock Rapids and E. E. Carpenter of Beloit announced that they would be candidates for the state assembly.

On May 18, 1877 the Review editor reported that while there were some grasshoppers around, there was no sign of another horde of the pests as in past years.

The slow growth of population brought further divisions of the existing townships and by mid-June nine townships had been formed. Notice was given that elections would be held in all of the townships-Elgin, Riverside, Larchwood, Centennial, Lyon, Richland, Rock, Grant, and Dale.

Hopes that there would not be a grasshopper infestation wavered as June progressed and reports said that many of the bugs were being caught and that it was feared there would be more trouble. The season was late, and the grasshoppers were still around in early July.

After taking bids, the county supervisors voted a contract to E. E. Carpenter, of Beloit, to take care of the county poor. He was to be paid $1.25 per person per week. A committee of three was named to decide who needed help and who did not, and it was provided that those who got relief should help plow lands belonging to the county. It was also voted that lands belonging to the county should be added to the poor farm.

There was great interest in the Rock Rapids community about the case against Alonzo Corson, who had killed a popular stage driver after a night of carousing at Sioux Falls. He pleaded guilty to manslaughter. The judge gave him a lecture, but said that he was a "good boy" and that the "demon rum" was to blame. He sentenced Corson to seven years at hard labor in Fort Madison prison.

Estey Brothers had completed their mill on the state line and it was ready to do custom milling on the harvest of 1877.

Rock Rapids had a fine new store operated by Aldrich & Lockwood-a firm which continued under the Lockwood name and others for almost a century. They were advertising their extensive line of general merchandise and of food.

Fears for the 1877 crop vanished as the season progressed and by mid-August it was clear that the crop was a good one. Amos Severson threshed 400 bushels of No. 1 wheat from a 10 acre tract, and other farmers were also reporting top yields.

Financial conditions were very tight in the new county. The October 26, 1877 issue of the Review contained 16 notices of properties to be sold because taxes were not paid. There were other problems too, prairie fires were numerous, and pleas were issued to get on with the fall plowing as a means of helping stop the racing flames of these fires.

Prices being offered for grain, as reported on November 16, 1877 were: No. 1 wheat, 78 to 80 cents; for oats, 25 cents; for rye, 60 to 70 cents; for corn, 30 cents; and potatoes were being bought at 50 cents a bushel.

The last of December the county treasurer stated that the taxable valuation of property in the county was $885,262.80. The tax levy was set at $63,984.55. Of that amount it was noted that $22,164.20 was for bonds and interest.

That there was still plenty of game in the area was attested by a report in January 4, 1878 that "Indian Charlie and his band" had camped along the Rock over the holidays and that during the period they were in the county they trapped and shot 63 otter, 129 beaver, 323 rats and 12 deer.

The big social event of the winter occurred between Christmas and New Years in 1877. John Kitterman was the host at a ball at which 50 couples gathered for dancing and another 15 or 20 couples attended but did not dance. All "made joyful the inner man at the tables which were magnificently arranged with potable luxuries." It had been planned that the ball would be held at the town hall, but so many people showed up that it was transferred to the county court house hall-the largest in the community.


With the start of the New Year a state-chartered bank came into being. It was the Lyon County Bank-and it advertised that it had money to loan, was a depository, and bought and sold exchange.

Failures were increasing, and some of the settlers were giving up and returning east. One departure that was considered a major loss was that of H. D. Rice, who was one of the first men to settle in the county. His Bonnie Doon house, at Doon, was one of the territory's leading hotels. His business affairs were in bad shape, and "depressed in spirit, physically a wreck caused by exposure during his pioneer life" he finally succumbed to the inevitable and returned to the east.

Railroads continued to be the major item of interest as far as hope for the future development of the county was concerned. Much interest was taken in a meeting at Beloit in mid-March, 1878. George E. Merchant, superintendent of the Southern and Sioux City Railroad, visited Beloit and Canton, about building the road to that area in 1878. The company had been promised right-of-way, grading and ties, if they would come up the Sioux Valley to Beloit, and Canton-at an estimated cost of $40,000. Sixteen thousand dollars in bonds had been voted in 1876. However, the communities did not meet the commitment. Canton backed out and conceded that Beloit should be the terminal of the extension, if funds could be raised for the construction.

At the same period of time Rock Rapids had a delegation contacting the railroad people trying to get them to change their plans and build up the Rock River Valley instead of up the Sioux Valley.

Another railroad endeavor was also afoot at Rock Rapids, and the first of April General Bishop, manager of the St. Paul and Sioux City Railroad, came to Rock Rapids for a meeting about a road from Luverne, through Rock Rapids, and South to Doon or beyond. It was voted in the meeting that the road would be assured of $1,000 a mile, to be raised by taxes, and right-of-way, if the line was built and completed by July 1879. It was estimated that this would cost the area some $60,000 for the 30 miles of track, Luverne to Doon.

By mid-April plans for calling an election for a tax levy to encourage the building of the Luverne to Doon line were completed. In another two weeks votes had been called in Riverside, Elgin, Grant, Wheeler and Dale townships-and when the votes were held all townships voted "yes."

Problems had developed in the meantime with the north mill of the Berkholtz Bros., and repairs were necessary. By May 18, 1878, the repairs had been completed and the mill was again in operation.

Railroad fever had struck again, and in July 1878 a vote was called in Centennial Township on a proposal to levy a 5 percent tax on all property in that township if the Sioux City and Pembina Railroad were to build a line up the Sioux Valley, and have it completed by January 1, 1879. This levy was approved.

When the first census was taken it was found that Lyon County was the only county in the state in which not a single Negro was to be found. This situation, as far as Lyon County is concerned, remained almost constant.

There was a break in 1878, when Sheriff McCallum hired a young Negro, David Young, to work for him. The young man seems to have been quite popular. He went to Luverne one day, and when he returned, he became seriously ill. He died the next morning. The Review of September 13, 1878 said that cause of death was unknown.

As fall advanced, so did the threat of prairie fires, and numerous blazes were reported. One fire, which was particularly dangerous, swept down Moon Creek Valley and headed for Rock Rapids. Grain and hay on farms along the way were destroyed and it was feared that the conflagration could not be stopped. All of the men and boys of the community went out to fight the blaze. It was stopped just short of the village-but pleas were continued for greater care with campfires, and everyone was urged to get on with the fall plowing to turn the grass and stubble under to prevent the sweeping flames from getting out of control.

The good crop of the summer was beginning to be felt by local millers; the Berkholtz Brothers had teams lined up at their mill in large numbers. Some of the farmers bringing grain to be ground had to wait as much as three days before they could get time at the mill.

With better times land prices were advancing somewhat. In late December of 1878 the Sioux City and Pembina Railroad was advertising Lyon County land for sale-at $6 to $10 per acre.

At the same time community spirit was rising, social events were coming more frequently and women of the community decided that an organ should be bought to play for church services, Sabbath school and other public purposes. To start the campaign to raise the money they announced the oyster supper and necktie festival to be held on January 7, 1879. It was to be the big event of the winter season.

The railroads were almost to Lyon County-in fact the first road reached Beloit on the last day of the year 1878. The editor of the Review reported that a wagon pulled by mules moved slowly along the grade toward Beloit and workmen manhandled rails off the wagon and onto the ground. Then other workmen put them in place on the newly laid ties and spiked them down. At half-past twelve on that last day of the year the first train pulled into Beloit. C. S. Soule, of Sioux City, was named as the agent for the new terminal. Word was also put out that January 10 a great excursion would come to Beloit from Sioux City and Yankton, to celebrate the extension of the road to Lyon County, and so that community leaders from Sioux City and Yankton could look over the great new country which was being opened up.


With good crops in 1878, and with the arrival of a railroad line for the county, everyone had a more optimistic outlook and high hopes for 1879. Professor Aughey, the "celebrated western naturalist," said that the grasshopper troubles were over, and he spoke out of the great crops which would be raised in this area.

Of course there were still problems for the small villages and the farmers of Iowa's newest county. The editor of the Review spoke of this need on February 7, 1879, when he wrote: "The crying, urgent need of Rock Rapids is for more girls. The feminine portion of humanity is in a decided minority and consequently at a premium. More could be very advantageously utilized in supplying young gentlemen with partners."

Early history of the county mentioned limestone along the Sioux River, and also the Sioux Quartzite rock which was used in early days for foundations and building. However on March 14, 1879 there is mention of coal exploration being carried on in the Little Rock area. Outcroppings and the lay of the land convinced men with knowledge, that there was coal available in the area and Wm. Shipman decided to find out. He secured an auger and it went down 180 feet, exploring, when the auger broke. In April a company was formed, with Shipman as president to continue the search for coal. A bigger drilling outfit was secured and an experienced miner from Ft. Dodge was brought in to direct the work.

A note of some interest appeared at that same period when Ed Bradley's cow died. The animal was subjected to a postmortem examination by the druggist (and physician) Dr. Budge, "which resulted in nothing of interest."

The county was offering a substantial bounty for the planting of trees and H.B. Carter, who owned 33 quarter sections in the county, announced that before spring was over he expected to have two acres of trees planted on each of the quarters.

Rock Rapids was striving hard to catch up with Beloit in the matter of a railroad, and pressure on the St. Paul branch finally brought results. On April 21, 1879 it was announced that surveyors were laying out the line from Luverne through Rock Rapids to Doon and that actual work of laying the rails would start in the near future. It was anticipated that great speed would be possible in laying the rails because of the very favorable terrain through which the line would run.

On April 30 of that year efforts to get a band organized came to a head and $40 was paid down as first payment on instruments for a Silver Cornet Band. The instruments arrived and the band people immediately gathered at the courthouse, where they played "Red, White and Blue." The reporter said that the rendition was roundly applauded.

It was mentioned that the "Friends have a fine settlement in the southeastern part of the county." So far as can be ascertained there is no record of just how large this Quaker settlement was, or what happened to it.

On May seventh Rock Rapids suffered its first fire. The blaze started in a shed near the river bridge. Before it was over, three barns, a granary, and other property were destroyed, along with grain, equipment and wagons. For a time it was feared that the bridge would burn, but outside of some scorched planks, it suffered no other damage. Loss was reported at over $1,000 and there was no insurance. All of the citizens of the community turned out and a bucket line was formed from the river to get water to fight the flames.

Tragedy struck in the southern part of the county early in May, also. There Carrie and Nettie Case, 11 and 3 years of age, drowned. The elder girl had returned from school and got permission of her mother to go with her younger sister down to the river to play. They evidently fell in. One body was found shortly afterwards, but it was the next day when the second body was recovered. They were the daughters of Mr. and Mrs. John Case.

The Milwaukee had been completed as far west as Pattersonville (now Hull) and in May a great excursion was organized in Chicago to come out to Pattersonville to see the wonderful land which was available in Lyon County. The round trip was priced at $15 per person and a large number of prospective settlers made the trip.

In June it was reported that the grade for the Worthington & Sioux Falls Railroad in Iowa was progressing rapidly, and it was expected that it would be completed to Doon by August 1.

July 4 was a big day in Lyon County and Rock Rapids aimed to have the biggest celebration of all. The day started off with the firing of c cannon, which continued all morning. Then the band went out south to meet the delegation from Doon who were coming up for the festivities, and they escorted the visitors into town. A great procession was organized and everyone went to the Berkholtz Park for the festivities. There were stands, dancing, sports events, baseball and band music. Beloit also had a celebration, but the editor of the Review indicated that it did not reach the magnificent proportion of the day in Rock Rapids. (The Berkholtz Mill was located just about straight north of where the municipal swimming pool is now, and the area which is now the west part of Island Park, was then known as Berkholtz Park.)

Rock Rapids was slated for a second bank when B. L. Richards came here in July of 1879 and bought property for the erection of a bank building. The new building was to be 24 x 40 feet in size, and work was to start at once. Thompson Brothers, who had operated a private bank here, also planned for a new building and a state charter. They were bringing in O. P. Miller, cashier of the Citizens Savings Bank of Elgin, to head the new bank and Wm. Larrabee, was to be associated in the ownership of the bank. (Larrabee was later governor of Iowa.)

"The Iron Horse Is Here!" That was headline in Rock Rapids' newspaper on October 8, 1879. It told of the arrival of the lines of the Worthington and Sioux Falls Railroad in Iowa, from Luverne. The reporter said that workmen rushing to lay their lines across the county, reached Rock Rapids. The first train pulled into Rock Rapids on the date the paper came out. It was composed of 21 flat and freight cars. The band was out, all of the business houses closed, and everyone was on hand when the "iron horse" puffed into town. The laying of rails on to Doon was being rushed to meet the deadline in the agreement when the bonus was approved. The work to Doon had to be completed by the first of November if the line was to collect the money raised by the special levy. The arrival of the train in Rock Rapids was listed as a "festive occasion." But the arrival of that train was as nothing compared with the arrival of the first passenger train the following day. It was a "special" and the train, including the president of the line's special coach, carried newspapermen, railroad officials, and foreign dignitaries, including "a refugee Russian, Baron Strifel. Strifel left a 90,000 acre Russian farm, and fled when it became known that the Russian government was hunting him down as a Nihilist." Plans were announced for a great Railroad Ball to be held at the county courthouse on November 5.

The last week in October the fall term of school started. Forty-seven students were enrolled in the school of the Independent District of Rock Rapids.

Frequently discussed in those early days was whether Rock Rapids was ready to be incorporated as a village. The matter was finally brought to a vote the middle of December 1879. There was a little interest in the election and the vote turned out 22 in favor of incorporation and 30 against. The decision was said to be a consensus of most people that it was not necessary at this stage of development of the community to have a legal incorporation.


Shortly after the first of the year 1880 the Rock Rapids Bank opened for business. The bank was a branch of the Beaver Valley Bank of Parkersburg, Iowa. The bank was owned and operated by Parker & Richards. Their new building was reported to be the epitome of style and convenience.

Informal religious services had been held in Rock Rapids for about ten years, but not until January of 1880 was the first Catholic Mass said in the county. The Rev. Father Joseph Leach came to Rock Rapids from Sheldon, and said mass at the courthouse. "P. C. Cavanaugh's little child" was baptized. Father Leach announced that mass would be said once a month in the future.

On March 31 the Lyon County Coal Company was formed to proceed with drilling for coal in eastern Lyon County. The shaft was down to 324 feet and backers were optimistic that something would come of their endeavors.

The New Year found most of the settlers in Lyon County optimistic. They were convinced that the grasshopper period was over and they hoped for a good growing season. Farmers were being urged to break up more grassland and plant it to flax, which it was said, would "break down the soil," after it was first plowed. It was also listed as a fine cash crop.

Berkholtz Brothers were pushing construction of their new mill south of town. The north mill was very busy and was attracting many customers from a wide area, Many coming as far as 40 miles to get their grains ground.

A deal was worked out at the April meeting of the board of supervisors in which they took over the commitments made by Rock Township to Herman Berkholtz, for 20 acres of land for cemetery purposes. This later became the Riverview Cemetery. The land was originally sold to Rock Township for $308.40, and that was the amount the county paid in taking over the property.

Poor were still a major problem with the county. The years of poor crops and grasshoppers had taken their toll. There was also a suspicion that some of the money put up for care of the poor had been diverted to other uses. Early in April of 1880 the county supervisors entered into a contract with Dr. E. W. McCord to take care of all county poor cases. He was to provide the necessary medicines also. He was to receive $500 per year for this assignment.

Late in April the new Lyon County Bank was completed and opened for business. The 22 x 40 foot, two-story building was praised as being "outstanding in design and construction." T. C. Thompson, who had been running the bank, turned the job over to a new resident in the community, O. P. Miller. Thompson was planning to devote his full time to his legal practice.

The optimism, which was felt in the community, extended to its informal church groups, and the Methodist Society decided to build a church. M. D. Hathaway, who in the early days owned much property in the community, gave the church "an excellent church site," in block 22. The society immediately started building a 26 x 50 church. They received a small grant from the national Methodist organization and a small loan, and the rest of the cost was to be paid by public subscription. It would be Rock Rapids' first church. (This church was located at the present location of Immanuel Lutheran Church. The structure built in 1880 was used for about 15 years, when the congregation out-grew the building and the present Methodist Church was built. At that time the original church was sold to the Lutheran Congregation, and they used it until about 1950 when the present Immanuel Lutheran Church was built. Then the original church was moved to a new location and was used by the Christian Reformed Congregation until 1975.

The June 2, 1880 issue of the Review reported on a shooting accident of interest. Dr. Budge and a traveling salesman, Mr. Barney, were out shooting with revolvers. Barney's revolver accidentally discharged and the ball entered Dr. Budges leg just below the knee. Dr. McCord was called and he probed extensively for the ball, but could not locate it.

In June the Close Brothers of LeMars, contracted for the construction of 45 more houses on their extensive holdings in this county. These English capitalists were reported to be investing more than $1,200,000 in northwest Iowa.

Late in July record was made of Catholic services held at the courthouse by "the new Canadian priest."

Plans of the Milwaukee Railroad to build a road across northern Iowa, which would pass through Beloit, were changed that summer of 1880 and the road instead was being built on the other side of the river, passing through Canton. This was a body blow to the future of Beloit, and many residents there moved to the Dakota town. E. E. Carpenter, Beloits' leading promoter, was shocked by the switch, and there was a period of depression for the community. He announced plans for the construction of a woolen mill in Beloit. He bought machinery in Des Moines for the enterprise and lined up experience help for the project. Carpenter also announced that negotiations were going forward with a Wisconsin college to move to Beloit.


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