As America was expanding westward into, what is today, the Greater Mississippi River Valley, there was a huge debate on how that expansion should take place. The tried-n-true option was traveling by water – and with the modernized steamboat of the 1840’s and 50’s, one could go from the western edge of civilization – Cincinnati, or from the southern port of New Orleans, and be in St. Louis, Burlington, Davenport, Lyons, Dubuque, or even St. Anthony (Minnesota) in a matter of days. From there, many believed the abundant rivers of the Midwest would be sufficient to carry folks well into the uncharted west. In Iowa, for example, we had the Des Moines, the Skunk, the Iowa, the Cedar – all major tributaries heading west off the Big River.
But, on the other hand, there were these dreamers who believed that riverboats were too slow and too limited. Oh sure, if you wanted to travel north and south, the large rivers like the Mississippi and Ohio would work. But this American expansion was a westward movement where rivers were less common, and from everything the folks back East had discovered, railroads could not only move people faster, but one steam engine pulling a line of freight cars could move goods faster and more efficiently than a fleet of steamboats. Historian William H. Thompson tells us more…
As early as 1838, a dreamer from Dubuque named John Plumbe, Jr. petitioned the U.S. House of Representatives to fund the first link of a Transcontinental Railroad. His suggestion was laughed right out of Washington D.C. Read more here. But now, in 1850, Plumbe’s outlandish project was no longer a pipe dream, with big-name investors pouring some pretty big money into the idea.
So, here, on this page, I’d like to introduce you to the earliest railroads of Iowa. Most of them had names that very few people recognize today – and fewer still, know the stories of how these railway companies were formed. But know this – all were formed in response to the great American dream of building one great Transcontinental Railroad – one that would stretch from New York City, Boston, and Washington D.C, through Ohio, into Chicago, over the Rocky Mountains, and into the promised land called California – a place where gold was being discovered by anyone brave enough to get themselves there. And in the 1850’s, it was Iowa that had become the launching pad – the bridge – for any journey headed west. Again, William H. Thompson tells us more…
To accomplish a project as big as this one – a Transcontinental Railroad – it took lots of money, lots of time, lots of planning, and lots of people. As you’ll see, it included wealthy investors, courageous people – risk-takers, politicians, and yes, even some lawyers – including one young attorney from Springfield, Illinois named Lincoln! And, as we mentioned earlier – everything relating to building Iowa railroads in the 1850’s had to do with connecting four major Iowa communities, not with St. Louis, but with Chicago – the new hopping-off railway center of the expanding West.
So, briefly, here’s the list of the four major players who successfully made it from Chicago, through the Prairie State, to The Great River – including some commentary from William H. Thompson…
The CRI reached Rock Island, Illinois – opposite Davenport, Iowa – in February 1854 – the first railroad to reach the eastern shore of the Mississippi.
The CB&Q – via one of their affiliates – the Peoria & Oquawka (P&Q) – reached East Burlington, Illinois – opposite Burlington, Iowa – in 1855.
The IC – reached Dunleith (East Dubuque), Illinois – opposite Dubuque, Iowa – in 1855.
The C&NW – via their affiliate – the Galena & Chicago Union (G&CU) – reached Fulton, Illinois – opposite Lyons/Clinton, Iowa – in 1855. Just a quick FYI – in the 1850’s, Lyons was the Iowan city to focus on – not it’s lesser sister – Clinton. Read more here.
So, there you have it – by the mid-1850’s there were four major railroad lines positioned to cross the Mighty Mississippi – 1) The Chicago & Rock Island (C&RI) – Rock Island/Davenport, 2) The Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) – East Burlington/Burlington, 3) The Illinois Central (IC) – Dunleith/Dubuque, and 4) The Chicago & North Western (C&NW) – Fulton/Lyons.
FYI – There was actually one late-comer – a fifth railroad coming into Iowa – not from Chicago, but from Milwaukee. The Milwaukee & Mississippi (Milw&M) Railroad came into Prairie Du Chien, Wisconsin – opposite McGregor, Iowa – in 1857 and eventually became known as The Milwaukee Road. Since our discussion here is focused on the four major Iowa railroads that connected us with Chicago and were a part of the race toward a Transcontinental Railroad, we’ll save this Milwaukee Road story for another day.
In 1842, A.C. Fulton (above) of Davenport picked up on the 1838 dream of John Plumbe, Jr., urging for the building of a railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean and bridging the Mississippi River between Rock Island and Davenport. In that same year, he made soundings and measurements of the river at Davenport with this idea in view. In 1845, with the building of the Rock Island and LaSalle Railroad in Illinois, The Davenport Gazette – in its issue of December 18, 1845, valiantly encouraged those promoting “the scheme,” arguing for both its importance and its feasibility in connecting the Illinois and Iowa shores by a bridge over the Mississippi River.
While everything about building a railroad into Iowa was expensive, the biggest obstacle proved to be crossing the Mississippi River. The first railroad – on the Iowa-side of the Great River – ready to start taking on passengers was the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad. In July of 1854, the first C&RI locomotive – the Antoine LeClaire (above) – was ferried across the Mississippi. What an amazing feat! Read more here.
But wait. The story continues. In 1855, while the M&M was getting itself prepared to transport passengers around Iowa, those same passengers coming from back East still needed to board a ferry in Rock Island, Illinois in order to cross the Mississippi into Davenport, since no river bridge – while talked about for many years – had still not been built!
So, here’s that story – which involves a name I believe you will recognize. Let’s allow William H. Thompson to tell us the details…
The Rock Island Bridge Company had been formed in 1853, but it wasn’t until April 9, 1856, when the long-awaited Mississippi River Bridge – spanning from Rock Island to Davenport opened. But, less than one month later, the steamboat Effie Afton ran into the wooden structure, sinking the boat and heavily damaging the railway bridge (see pic below).
The accident was considered a bit suspicious, with some believing the steamboat industry – which stood to lose a lot of business to the railroads – pre-planned the “accident.” The legal case surrounding the incident went to court, eventually making it all the way to the Supreme Court, with a lawyer from Springfield, IL, one Abraham Lincoln, representing the railroads along the way.
While the legal battles took years to settle, the bridge to Davenport, itself, was repaired quickly, bringing it back on-line within a few months of the “accident.”
So, with the first Mississippi River bridge now open (1856), the State of Iowa – working alongside the U.S. Government – began moving forward in encouraging four new, start-up Iowa railroad companies to build tracks across Iowa. Using the same subsidy plan that had worked for the Illinois Central in Lincoln’s home state, here was the Iowa plan…
Now, with adequate state and federal funding in place, the race was on! Allow me, here, to introduce you to the four start-up railroads that were given Iowa Land Grants in 1856…
In an 1848 report, U.S. Deputy General Surveyor, George B Sargent (above) records the October 25, 1847 beginnings of the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad (M&M). Four individuals – A.C. Fulton, Antoine LeClaire, G.C.R. Mitchell and James Grant were instrumental in bringing the M&M Railroad into existence. They were also actively involved in the expansion of the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad (C&RI) in Illinois, and were key investors in the Rock Island Bridge Company we mentioned earlier.
The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad with additional partnerships from other investors around the state – particularly in Iowa City – was the first Iowa-based railroad to actually lay tracks and successfully run a steam locomotive here in the Hawkeye State – with its first run in Iowa from Davenport into Iowa City on December 31, 1855. Read all the details here.
The M&M successfully ran between Davenport and Iowa City for several years, but struggled to expand the line west of Iowa City until 1860 – when a bridge was finally constructed over the Iowa River. Read more here. Finally reaching Des Moines in 1866, the M&M was bought out by the Chicago & Rock Island (C&RI), completing their tracks into Council Bluffs/Omaha in 1869 – just as the Transcontinental Railroad was completed.
The Burlington and Missouri River Railroad (B&MR) was incorporated in Burlington, Iowa in 1851, with headquarters eventually placed in Omaha. The railroad began operations on January 1, 1856 with only a few miles of track. In 1857, the B&MR connected to Ottumwa, followed by Murray – southwest of Des Moines – in 1868, operating 13 locomotives and 429 cars, mostly freight, with net earnings of $299,850 in 1867.
In 1868, the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) completed bridges over the Mississippi River at both Burlington and Quincy, Illinois, giving the CB&Q through connections with the B&MR in Iowa and the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad (H&StJ) in Missouri. In 1860, the H&StJ carried the mail to the Pony Express in St. Joseph, Missouri, and in 1862, the first Railway Post Office was inaugurated on the H&StJ to sort mail on trains across Missouri. Read more here about the development of RPO’s – Railway Post Offices.
The B&MR finally reached the Missouri River in Council Bluffs/Omaha in 1869 – the same year as the C&RI – expanding into Nebraska in the early 1870’s, and was acquired by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad in 1872.
The Chicago, Iowa and Nebraska Railroad (CI&N) began laying track out of Lyons/Clinton in 1856, reaching Cedar Rapids by 1859. But as it was with many start-up railroads, financial problems forced the company to fold, but on June 14, 1859, a new company was formed – The Cedar Rapids and Missouri River Railroad (CR&MR) – composed largely of stockholders from CI&N. Under new management, the Cedar River was bridged in Cedar Rapids, and then, the line headed west – reaching Marshalltown in 1862, State Center in 1863, Nevada by July 4, 1864, and finally into Boone in 1865.
FYI – one footnote here – Before the CI&N formed in 1856, there was an earlier Iowa-based railroad that worked out of Lyons. The Lyons & Iowa Central (L&IC) Railroad formed in 1850, built tracks nearly half-way toward Iowa City, but failed financially in 1854. Read more here.
The CR&MR actually became the first Iowa railroad to reach Council Bluffs/Omaha on January 17, 1867 – two years before its major competitors – C&RI and CB&Q. This achievement allowed the building of the Transcontinental Railroad west into Nebraska – receiving supplies by rail rather than by steamboat or wagon from St. Joseph, Missouri. Thus, the CR&MR – won the race to the Missouri River – playing a major role in the famed 1869 connection of East and West near Provo, Utah – the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad!
After many years of working alongside the Chicago and North Western Railway, the two companies merged into the C&NW in 1884.
In 1851, Iowa’s two U.S. senators – George W. Jones and Augustus Dodge – proved instrumental in getting the Illinois Central Railroad to extend its line from Galena to Dunleith (East Dubuque), Illinois. With that in place, Jones, along with C.H. Booth, Lucius H. Langworthy, and others formed the Dubuque & Pacific Rail Road Company (D&P) – which was chartered on April 28, 1853. At the time of its organization, there was not even one mile of railroad constructed in Iowa, but all agreed this was a worthy investment. The first division, Dubuque to Dyersville, Iowa, about 29 miles, was completed in May 1857, and the second division, Dyersville to Jesup, Iowa, about 49 miles, was completed in March 1860.
(JP-020) Here’s two rare postal covers postmarked on the Dubuque & Pacific RPO route – circa 1858-1860.
In 1860, after many ups and downs as a company, the D&P finally re-organized as the Dubuque & Sioux City Rail Road – reaching Cedar Falls by 1861. The Civil War brought everything to a standstill, but by April, 1866, the first train left Dubuque for Cedar Falls. Funding continued to plague the company, and it was eventually taken over by the Illinois Central (IC).
In 1860, the state of Iowa had approximately 655 miles of track in operation and by 1870, that grew to over 2,600 miles. In 1900, that number grew to almost 9,200, finally peaking between 1911 and 1917 with more than 10,500 roadway miles of track. Historian William H. Thompson gives us the details…
Here’s a tip of the old hat to those early Iowa railroads who laid those early rails across the Hawkeye State – making Iowa the bridge that connected Chicago and the major cities of the East with the ever-expanding West.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.