Iowa City – Here Comes The Railroad!

Railroad Arrives – 1856 an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

Back in 1838, when Iowa first became a Territory and Iowa City was just a glimmer in Chauncey Swan’s eye, there were dreamers, like John Plumbe, Jr. of Dubuque, who envisioned the day when the West would be connected with the rest of the world through the work of the Iron Horse. Author Mildred Sharp, in her 1922 article, The M. and M. Railroad, describes it this way…

By the early 1850’s, railroads back East were quite common, but if a person had a desire to venture further west than Illinois, the only options were by foot, horse or mule, stagecoach, or riverboat. As we discussed in an earlier post, roads were slow in developing across the Territory of Iowa, and even when we became a state in 1846, traveling from city to city was no easy thing.

Stage Ready – 1855 an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

The stage coach business was buzzing, but it’s understandable why the good people of the state’s capital, Iowa City, desperately wanted to bring the railroad to town. So, in the early 1850’s, a small railroad company that was first organized in Davenport in 1847 – The Mississippi & Missouri Railroad – came on the radar screen for those in Iowa City who wanted to see the iron horse come to Iowa’s capital city. Allow me here to give you some background…

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 – the builders of the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River (1856).

In 1852, the State of Iowa granted M&M permission to buy land across the Hawkeye State via Land Grant H.R.12 (see below). M&M had a very aggressive business plan – building in three directions – Route 1) from Davenport to Council Bluffs via Iowa City and Fort Des Moines, Route 2) from Muscatine to the Missouri border via Oskaloosa, and Route 3) from Muscatine to the Minnesota border via Cedar Rapids. Read more about the M&M’s other major competitor – the Lyons-Iowa Central Railroad.

The proposed route for Mississippi & Missouri Railroad to connect with Chicago & points further east.
(L-0067) Mississippi and Missouri Stock Certificate.

With these plans in hand, and the State of Iowa approving the land purchases, the Board of M&M in Davenport began soliciting additional funding from local communities. And, it’s at that point, the good folks of both Iowa City and Muscatine began to squabble about which M&M route should be built first.

Historian Mildred Sharp tells us more…

Iowa City vs. Muscatine! George Yewell‘s 1853 editorial cartoon stirred the pot! Click here to read more about George H. Yewell.
(L-0071) Muscatine Petitions the U.S. Senate! The State Legislature of Iowa was petitioned by the good people of Muscatine for the proposed railroad to pass through their fair city. This 3-page report, dated January 20, 1853, spells out the State Legislature’s resolution that was duly recorded in the U.S. Senate. It’s this move that brought the Iowa City contingent to push even harder to overcome this growing support for Muscatine.

Despite the strong opposition in Muscatine, and the fact that some politicians were favoring Muscatine, the M&M executives still agreed to focus, first and foremost, on completing their first goal – Davenport to Iowa City – setting a deadline on that project for December 1, 1855, with a completion of the entire line to Council Bluffs by January 1, 1857! Read more about the four Iowa railroads racing to be the first line to stretch from Chicago to the Missouri River.

Most historians agree that this decision was made in Iowa City’s favor because the delegation from our city sweetened the deal by offering a $50,000 bonus if M&M completed the 55-mile track on or before January 1, 1856!

LeGrand Byington (hand raised) and Peter A. Dey of Iowa City is depicted (below) cheering on the M&M workers in Railroad Arrives – 1856 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.
Read more about the Rock Island Bridge Company.

Now, an obvious point we must insert here. It would do little good for the citizens of Iowa to have a railroad, if it didn’t connect with the railway lines back east. That, of course, meant someone needed to overcome a huge obstacle called: The Mighty Mississippi River. For that story – click here.

In the summer of 1854, the first locomotive was ferried across the Mississippi River since the bridge connecting the railroad in Illinois hadn’t yet been completed (1856).

Railroad Arrives – 1856 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

Now, allow me to fast-forward one-and-a-half years to December 1855. If you recall, I mentioned that the Iowa City delegation had agreed to pay M&M an extra $50,000 if the 55-mile track from Davenport to Iowa City was completed on or before the contractual agreement date of New Year’s Day, 1856. While construction had been successful throughout the year, on Christmas Day 1855, the M&M still had two-and-a-half miles to go. As temperatures dropped, machinery froze and numbed the hands and feet of workers, greatly retarding the work. Historian Irving Weber picks up the story on New Year’s Eve 1855

This is the bell of Mechanics Academy (1855-1897) – it’s very likely that this is one of those “church bells” that rung out on New Years Eve as the M&M train pulled into Iowa City! Click here to read more about the bells of Iowa City. Another report from The Palimpsest states…

Yet despite the many obstacles, the last rail was laid by the stroke of midnight, and yes, the $50,000 bonus to M&M was paid!

Two days later, on the afternoon of January 3rd, 1856, the first passenger train, pulled by the Oskaloosa, rolled into Iowa City. The booming of cannon announced its arrival. For years, the people of Iowa City had looked forward to this event. In celebration, they had prepared a feast for the visitors from Chicago, Rock Island, Davenport, and Muscatine; and although it was twenty below zero, visitors and townspeople joined in the Grand Railroad Festival in the Old Stone Capitol. Again, here’s Irving Weber to tell us more…

(L-0066a) H.D. Downey – Iowa City banker – organized this big January 3, 1856 Grand Railroad Festival, offering free tickets to any easterner who would ride the C&RI (Rock Island RR) from Chicago to Rock Island, ferry across the river, and then ride on the first M&M passenger train into Iowa City. Click here to read more. And so, the Iron Horse era of Johnson County had begun. Over the next 100+ years, passenger and freight trains alike would pull into Iowa City, connecting us with the rest of the world.

The first M&M depot (1855-1898) was located at the south end of Johnson Street, four blocks to the east of the present Rock Island station. Click here to read more about the Iowa City depots. The Rock Island successfully operated in Iowa City into the 1970’s.

Over the next four years (1856-1860), Iowa City became a busy, busy place – the end of the M&M line for railroad travelers wanting to head west. Look at the daily schedules in and out of Iowa City (below) from 1856-1858…

In 1859, construction began on the M&M bridge, crossing the Iowa River in Iowa City on a single-track deck truss, and opening in 1860. The bridge is pictured below (on the right) in the 1868 bird’s eye map of Iowa City. Read more about the bridges of Iowa City here.

1856-TransportationB

Irving Weber tells us about what came next…

Train service finally reached Des Moines after the Civil War (1866). This was the same year, M&M ran out of steam financially, and was bought out by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad (C&RI) which stepped in, completing their Iowa route to Council Bluffs/Omaha by 1869. That, of course, was the same year the Union Pacific completed their part of the Transcontinental Railroad from Omaha to Utah Territory, while the Central Pacific met them there, coming east from Sacramento. Read more here.

In closing, here are just a few facts. In 1855, there were 3500 people living in Iowa City. Two years later, after the railroad came to town, the population more than doubled to over 8,000. 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.

The Rock Island Railroad played a big part in our Boller history. Click here to read more about that part of Our Iowa Heritage…or shall I say, Missouri?


Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

History For Lunch – Passenger Rail Transportation in Iowa City, Tom Schulien, Iowa City Library

83-Year-Old Murals Go Downtown While Longfellow Renovates, Zach Berg, Iowa City Press Citizen, May 20, 2017

The M. and M. Railroad, Mildred J. Sharp, The Palimpsest – Volume 3 Number 1 Article 2, January 1922, pp. 1, 3-9, 15

Iowa’s First Railroad, Frank P. Donovan, The Palimpsest – Volume 44 Number 9 Article 2, September 1963, p 386

Muscatine Opposition Political Cartoon, George H. Yewell, State Historical Society of Iowa

The Rock Island Depot, Historical Stories About Iowa City-Volume One, Irving Weber, 1976, pp. 32-33

The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad, Wikipedia

The Little Engine That Did – Another First for Davenport, The Davenport Public Library website, 2008

Transportation in Iowa-Chapter Two Railroad Construction and Influence in Iowa, Iowa Department of Transportation website

Rock Island Railroad Bridge Over Iowa River – 1860, Irving Weber, Historical Stories About Iowa City – Volume 2, Article 114, 1975, pp. 2-4

A Pictorial History of the First Railroad Bridge Across the Mississippi River, Curtis C. Roseman, RiverAction.com 2006


Click here to go on to the next section…

Click here for a complete INDEX of Our Iowa Heritage stories…