Beginning on January 3, 1856, Iowa City had its very first taste of rail transportation. It came via the Mississippi & Missouri (M&M) Railroad and it was the very first passenger train to travel westward into Iowa – coming from Davenport and the shores of the Mississippi River. Sadly, today, there is no passenger rail service in and out of Iowa City – only freight – running on that very same route first built by the M&M over 160 years ago.
Over a period of 120 years of Iowa City history (1850-1970) there have been five railway systems that have attempted to bring passenger rail service into our community. One of those railroads was very short-lived, while others were here nearly that entire time. On this page, I’d like to briefly tell you about each of those five railway companies…
When Iowa joined the Union in 1846, transportation in and around the Hawkeye State was very limited. Riverboats, of course, worked well in connecting the larger communities located on the Mississippi River, but for the good people of Iowa City, traveling outside of the capital city was limited to horseback, horse-drawn carriage, and stagecoach. Back east, the railroads were becoming quite abundant (see map above), but the closest train station to Iowa City was in Chicago.
In 1850, investors in the Lyons-Iowa Central Railroad were given permission to buy a strip of land – one hundred feet wide -across the state of Iowa from Lyons (near Clinton) to Council Bluffs – a distance of about 300 miles. When completed, the railroad would connect Iowa City and points west to Chicago via Fulton, Illinois, a town opposite Lyons on the Mississippi River.
Records indicate that several investors from back east were able to raise nearly one million dollars with one businessman from Syracuse, New York – Henry P. Adams – becoming the face of the project. Adams traveled the state, raising expectations and securing local investments, and as you can see from the 1853 business report (below), the good people of Johnson County invested $50,000.
By February, 1854, nearly five hundred men were at work on the Lyons-Iowa Central road and it was promised that there would be many more employed in the spring of that year. At a huge fund-raising banquet, Adams proudly proclaimed that the first seventy-five miles of the line – from Lyons into Iowa City – would be completed by the first of April, 1855. He also projected that the second leg of the project, which extended west to Fort Des Moines, would be graded as soon as money was subscribed by the people, or the counties, along the way. In Iowa City (see map below), the work of clearing land and preparing the track bed was nearing completion.
Suddenly, in June of 1854, all work on the railroad came to screeching halt – as it was announced that the company had run out of funds. Apparently, Adams had secretly pocketed a lot of money, leaving employees scrambling for back pay. The Lyons-Iowa Central quickly went belly-up, and with no cash available, the employees were left with payment of back wages via a supply of groceries, dry-goods, and reams of calico – thus the name – The Calico Railroad. Iowa historian, Ruth Irish Preston tells us more…
Today, in Iowa City, traces of the Calico Railroad’s track bed can still be found on the city’s north side – particularly near St. Joseph’s Cemetery.
In the early 1850’s, every community across the Hawkeye State was clamoring for the railroad to come their way. Iowa City, as the state capital, was on everybody’s map, and the good people of our community were anxious to receive whatever railroad company could get the job done as quickly as possible. As we said earlier, $50,000 was raised in Johnson County to fund the Lyons-Iowa Central Railroad. Yet, at the same time, other investors were pouring funds into a second option: The Mississippi & Missouri Railroad – founded in 1853, and working out of Davenport.
You can read the full story here, but suffice to say that a $50,000 bonus was offered to M&M investors, if they could get one of their steam locomotives into Iowa City before January 1, 1856. Despite the icy cold weather conditions, the M&M engine arrived on New Years Eve, 1855, just prior to midnight! An exciting story, indeed!
As we mentioned earlier, three days later – on January 3, 1856 – the first M&M passenger train arrived in Iowa City from Davenport – and a grand celebration was held that day in the state capitol building. Read more here.
The first M&M depot was built on Johnson Street – four blocks to the east of the present Rock Island station – and it faithfully served Iowa Citians until 1898. Read more here.
The Rock Island Railroad bought out the struggling M&M company in 1866, building a new, state-of-the-art Iowa City depot in 1898 – the one that still stands today. From the 1870’s into the 1960’s, the Rock Island played a huge role in the life of all Iowa Citians, continuing daily passenger service in and out of Iowa City until 1970. After that, the Rock Island ran a few special Hawkeye football trains in from the Quad Cities, with the last one arriving in 1974.
The Cedar Rapids and St. Paul Railway Company was incorporated in 1865, and then consolidated into the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Minnesota Railway Company in 1868. The mission was to have a railroad coming from the south (Burlington) via Wapello, West Branch, Cedar Rapids, Vinton, and Waterloo; and into the state of Minnesota. Plans moved forward – branches (plugs) were built along the way, including the Iowa City plug – until fall 1873, when all construction stopped due to financial panic. Bonds were defaulted and the railroad fell into receivership in May 1875 and was sold to the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Northern Railway on June 19, 1876.
The BCR&N Branch- called The Plug Line began service between Iowa City and Elmira – approximately eight miles northeast of Iowa City – in October 1873.
The BCR&N Plug tracks came into Iowa City from the south from Hills, running parallel to Ralston Creek under the College Street bridge; then diagonally northeast across Washington Street and Iowa Avenue to Jefferson Street. On Jefferson Street, the street was shared for three blocks with horse-drawn vehicles. Then running diagonally, the tracks continued southeast across College Street and 7th Avenue, with continuation across Court Street, south of the Iowa City fairgrounds (present-day City High). The line continued east and then northeast through Scott and Graham Townships of Johnson County to Elmira.
Elmira (see above) was the junction for the branch or “plug line” into Iowa City. Elmira was never a town, only a busy railroad switching center. At Elmira, the Iowa City BCR&N plug line connected with two other lines – one east to Clinton and the other – north & south to Minneapolis and Burlington. At its peak, Elmira was made up of a hotel with a lunchroom, and also a water tower.
In 1903, the BCR&N Plug Line was bought out by the Rock Island Railroad and became part of their expanding freight system, with passenger service ending in 1924. In late October 1915 into the fall of 1916, a start-up company leased the southern part of the Plug Line, attempting to run a small passenger service from Iowa City south to Iowa Junction and then east into Muscatine. The 1916 SUI MECCA Parade (below) featured a float made to look like an Iowa City/Muscatine Interurban train car. This short-lived passenger service ran on the BCR&N Muscatine/Montezuma railroad line, going under the name of the Muscatine & Iowa City Railway. By August 1916, the company folded.
By 1930, most of the BCR&N Plug Line track in and around Iowa City was removed with a very small portion remaining in use for freight purposes until the early 1960’s (see map below).
Today, the walking trail in Court Hill Park – off Friendship Street – has stone remnants from the original BCR&N Plug Line bridge over Ralston Creek.
Construction on the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Interurban Railway (CRANDIC) began in 1903. Formally established under the name Iowa Railway and Light Company, the CRANDIC’s original design was for a high-speed 27-mile “interurban” rail system connecting the metropolitan areas of Cedar Rapids and Iowa City.
(P-0075) On August 13, 1904, the first CRANDIC electric cars carrying passengers made their inaugural trip over the Interurban. On the same day, a booster power station was started for the first time – and that power station would eventually become the Iowa Electric Power and Light Company – later becoming the CRANDIC’s parent company – Alliant Energy.
As you can see from the maps (above) the CRANDIC came into Iowa City from the west, crossing the Iowa River and looping around downtown Iowa City.
Above – (M-0007) CRANDIC Railroad Patch, (M-0008) CRANDIC Tickets, (P-0078) CRANDIC train car in Cedar Rapids. Below – 1922 CRANDIC timetable schedule.
In 1939, the CRANDIC purchased six high-speed light-weight interurban cars called Red Devils from the recently abandoned Cincinnati and Lake Erie Railroad, leading to the popular saying “Swing and Sway the CRANDIC Way” – referring to the motion caused by high-speed cars running on the CRANDIC’s very uneven track! For similar reasons, these Red Devils were also known as the “Vomit Comets”.
But, despite the jokes, the CRANDIC did a booming business in its heyday, running 13 trains daily, with each trip taking 75 minutes. Many benefited from the CRANDIC’s hourly departure from either city – beginning at 5 a.m. and ending at midnight.
No one group characterized the CRANDIC’s typical passenger: they came from towns or farms, and included men, women and children of all ages. Children took the train to school on popular cars such as the “Hot Shot” – a car that traveled south through North Liberty at 8 a.m. carrying 40-50 students to high school in Iowa City. Other cars, such as the “Milk Can Special” picked up both milk and students who had missed earlier cars. In a typical day, that train would carry 300 gallons of milk.
Many passengers took the Interurban to the SUI hospitals – both located in the downtown area of Iowa City- for medical care. Others went to see a show, eat dinner or take a simple tour of the countryside. The CRANDIC also provided special trains to events such as Iowa Hawkeye football and basketball games and the Iowa Dairy Show.
(L-0065a/b) After World War II, and with the advent of the automobile, the CRANDIC shut down all passenger service on May 30, 1953, but continues today as a major mover of freight in the greater Iowa City/Cedar Rapids area.
(P-0289) When service between Iowa City and Cedar Rapids ended in May 1953, CRANDIC #118 – one of the Red Devils – was sold to The Seashore Trolley Museum in Maine. This 1978 postcard (below) features the old girl in her new setting. For the complete story – visit the museum’s website.
The final Iowa City rail passenger service we want to share with you here is the Iowa City Electric Railway and its traditional street car or trolley. Like the CRANDIC Interurban, the street cars of Iowa City were powered by overhead electricity, but traveled throughout our fair city for only a short period of 20 years (1910-1930) before being replaced by motorized buses.
The vision for the street car began with James H. Maggard (1854-1924) – a successful businessman in Iowa City who, at the turn of the 20th century, owned a farming implement manufacturing company just outside the city limits of Iowa City (see red box in map above). Maggard has been called “the Mark Twain of writers on engineering” and is remembered for his innovative farming inventions. In 1908, Maggard proposed a new city addition called Rundell (black box in map) – located between, what was then, Iowa City and East Iowa City. Here, Maggard and his investors sold 274 lots to new home owners, with the promise that the city would help him develop a street car franchise that would service the new neighborhood.
Two years later, Maggard’s dream became a reality, and on November 17, 1910, the first Iowa City street car was rolling from the Rundell neighborhood into downtown Iowa City (see map above).
Over the next five years, street car routes increased dramatically (see map above) in order to better serve a larger segment of the Iowa City population.
In 1909, one year before the street cars of Iowa City began running, the Park Road Bridge was built, linking the city on the eastern side of the Iowa River to City Park on the west. This new bridge provided easy access to the newly-opened Manville Heights area, and soon, street cars were running Iowa City park-goers to the west side of the river.
In 1914, the Iowa City Electric Company was bought out by the newly-formed Mississippi Valley Electric Company, and under that ownership, the street car system provided Iowa City with reliable service until around 1930 – when the Iowa City Coach Company replaced all street cars with motorized buses.
As we said earlier, today, there is no railway transportation in Iowa City or Johnson County and none since the Rock Island Railroad was replaced by Amtrak in the mid-1970’s. Will high-speed trains ever come into town? Will electric or solar-powered railway service ever be developed? Who knows? Above is a tentative plan for a Midwest Regional Rail Initiative. In it, there is a proposal to run a high-speed passenger rail service from Omaha to Chicago. But until such a plan is actually approved, we give a tip of the old hat to Iowa City’s rich railway heritage. Five amazing stories of five railway systems:
The Lyons-Iowa Central RR – The Calico (1850-1854)
The Mississippi & Missouri (M&M) / Rock Island RR (1853-1974)
The Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern (BCR&N) RR – The Plug (1873-1924)
The Cedar Rapids & Iowa City (CRANDIC) Railway (1904-1953)
The Iowa City Electric Railway (1910-1930)
Gone – but not forgotten!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.