1853 – The $50,000 Investment In Iowa City’s Future.

As we discuss in another post, on October 25, 1847, four Davenport businessmen – A.C. Fulton, Antoine LeClaire, G.C.R. Mitchell and James Grant formed a new company – The Mississippi & Missouri Railroad – The M&M. This Davenport quartet was already actively involved in the expansion of the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad (C&RI) in Illinois, and will prove to be key investors in the Rock Island Bridge Company – the builders of the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River (1856). In other words, they were key movers-n-shakers in bringing the railroad to Iowa.

While the M&M was being formed in Davenport (1848-1850), there were other investors around the state quickly forming other railroad companies (see above) – all hoping to be the first to lay tracks into Iowa, connecting with those railroads in Illinois that were building their lines quickly toward the Mississippi River. Read more here.

Over in Iowa City, in the fall of 1850, local businessmen such as LeGrand Byington, H.D. Downey, and others helped form The Davenport & Iowa City (D&IC) Railroad Company, sending word to the owners of the M&M Railroad in Davenport that the good people of Iowa City planned to cooperate with their efforts to bring the railroad into Iowa, and, by the way, we resolve that Iowa City be assigned your highest priority! Read more here.

The proposed route for Mississippi & Missouri Railroad to connect with Chicago & points further east.

In another post, we discuss, in detail, the three-pronged business plan that the M&M executives announced in 1852. Here’s a quick review: Priority 1) West – from Davenport to Council Bluffs via Fort Des Moines; Priority 2) South – from Muscatine to the Missouri border via Oskaloosa; and Priority 3) North – from Muscatine to the Minnesota border via Cedar Rapids.

And, it’s at this point when the good folks of Iowa City and Muscatine began to squabble with each other – and with the M&M board – over why their city should be the first station stop on M&M’s East-to-West route. Historian Mildred Sharp tells us more…

All this competition finally came to a head when two business men from Iowa City were sent to the C&RI Board Meetings in Chicago, commissioned by our fair city to twist some arms while also sweetening the deal just a bit. So, in May 1853, LeGrand Byington and William Penn Clarke headed off to The Windy City with Iowa City’s railroad future in their hands. Johnson County historian – Clarence Ray Aurner – tells us more…

Apparently, in March 1853, Iowa City leaders decided to approve a $50,000 bonus – payable to M&M Railroad, and in May, the two conditions of that bonus were spelled out –

1) Iowa City must become M&M’s first destination on their proposed East-West line, and

2) M&M must complete their 55-mile track into Iowa City on or before January 1, 1856!

Let the record show that Byington & Clarke’s $50K offer hit the sweet spot in Chicago, and the M&M board approved the completion of their track into Iowa City – with it all culminating on New Year’s Eve 1855! Read more here.

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

So, who were these two Iowa City railroad barons – LeGrand Byington & William Penn Clarke – who secured, in 1853, not only Iowa City’s railroad future, but also our city’s lifeline once the state capital moved to Des Moines in 1857?

Born in Connecticut in 1816, LeGrand Byington had a rough childhood, growing up as an orphan. In 1851, he got a job as an apprentice at a printing office, but three years later, had become the publisher of the newspaper! In 1836, LeGrand moved to Ohio, where he became the editor of the Elyria newspaper and began studying law. By 1839, Byington had planned to head west to St. Louis, but along the way, was convinced by a friend to stay in Chillicothe, Ohio, where he, once again, became editor of the local newspaper, opening his first legal office. Elected – as a Democrat – to the Ohio General Assembly in 1841, LeGrand served two terms before heading west to Iowa. In October 1849, Byington came to Iowa City, where he became a very successful businessman, serving for nearly six decades as both a lawyer and a land investor. Historian C.R. Aurner gives us this overview…

After becoming involved with the Davenport & Iowa City Railroad Company in 1850, LeGrand took his skills as a lawyer and land investor, and working alongside Peter A. Dey and others, began plotting out new communities along the proposed M&M route from Davenport to Council Bluffs – with Iowa City, of course, being at the center of those plans! In 1852, Cyrus Sanders of Iowa City was hired to survey two new villages west of Iowa City – Lafayette, and a little community that decided to name their town – LeGrand – after their Iowa City-based benefactor!

Here’s a biographical piece (below) on Byington from Iowa City historian Irving Weber, and a copy of the 1850 U.S. Census featuring LeGrand, his wife Mary, and their extended household. Between 1850 and 1862, five more children – besides their oldest son, Charles – joined the family.

(JP-063) Here’s a rare postal cover & letter from LeGrand Byington to Hiriam H. Hobbs – dated March 15, 1852. Byington – a lawyer & land investor – is reporting the sale of a piece of land – most likely in Iowa.

(JP-064) Here’s a rare 1875 post card from Byington to the Iowa Secretary of State in Des Moines asking for General Assembly law records from 1858 & 1860 for his legal office in Iowa City.

LeGrand & Mary Byington celebrated their 62nd wedding anniversary in 1907, with LeGrand dying at age 91, later that same year, and Mary dying, at age 85, in 1911. Both are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

Interestingly enough, the two men who headed off to the C&RI Board Meeting in Chicago – while both successful Iowa City-based businessmen – were dramatically different when it came to politics. LeGrand Byington, as we mentioned earlier, was a staunch Democrat – serving as legislator and a newspaper editor in several Ohio locations before coming to Iowa City. Undoubtedly, LeGrand was a reader of The Iowa Capital Reporter – the Democratic newspaper in town, while William Penn Clarke – a committed Whig/Republican – would have been reading The Iowa Republican.

Read more here about Clarke & The Iowa Republican.

William Penn Clarke was born In Baltimore, Maryland in 1817, and after learning the printing business at Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, William worked his trade in Pittsburgh, publishing The Daily News in partnership in Cincinnati, and for a short time, was the editor of The Gazette in Logan, Ohlo. As we’ve discussed on other posts, being a newspaper editor in the 19th century was one of the more influential political positions a businessman could have. So, it’s not surprising that both Byington & Clarke – with their deep interest in politics – had a lot of life experiences in the newspaper business.

In 1843, Clarke moved west to Iowa City, immediately involving himself with local politics, publishing several articles in The Iowa Standard, and eventually serving two short spans as the paper’s editor – in 1845, before it became The Iowa Republican (1848), and again in 1856.

During his first few years in Iowa City, Clarke was also admitted to the bar, opening his law practice in 1846. Over the next 25 years, Clarke became one of Iowa City’s best-known lawyers and one of Iowa’s most prolific abolitionists – becoming a major contributor to the cause to end slavery and to The Underground Railroad. His obituary from The Iowa City Republican (1903) tells us much more…

Click here to read about one of Iowa City’s best known abolitionists – William Penn Clarke.

So, as we close, we salute LeGrand Byington, William Penn Clarke, and The Davenport & Iowa City Railroad. Though they both held deep political convictions that often conflicted, these two Iowa Citians knew that, together, they could work toward the common goal of making Iowa City all she could be. Here’s to LeGrand, William & that $50,000 investment in our fair city!

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

Iowa City Railroad, Clarence Ray Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, 1912, pp 220-222

Davenport & Iowa City Railroad-Board, Gil. R. Irish, The Iowa Citizen, May 10, 1905, p 3

LeGrand Byington, Clarence Ray Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa – Vol 2, 1912, pp 205-206

LeGrand Byington notes, History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1883, pp 259-260

History of the Community – LeGrand, Iowa, LeGrandIowa.com

LeGrand Byington, 1850 U.S. Census, Ancestry.com

LeGrand Byington, Chronology – 1841/1979, Iowa City Press Citizen, February 9, 1979, pp 20

Mary McCollister Byington, Find-A-Grave

LeGrand Byington, Find-A-Grave

Wm. Penn Clarke, Iowa City Republican, February 9, 1903, p 5

William Penn Clarke, Find-A-Grave

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