ELDON — Many southeast Iowans have a connection to the railroad. They may have retired from the railroad industry, worked railway mail or had family members who did.
Sunday afternoon’s Humanities Iowa program “Trains Across Iowa” provided an opportunity to share their memories and learn some more background about the fascinating history of railroads in Iowa.
With the historic Eldon Depot as the backdrop of the day’s presentation, Dr. Rudolph Daniels, assistant dean and department chair of Railroad Operations Technology at Western Iowa Tech Community College in Sioux City, took the audience on a trip down memory lane.
Before saying a word, Daniels gave the train call you would have heard in Eldon many decades ago. “Iowa’s Super Conductor Rudy,” as many around the state know him, then opened up the floor for personal storytelling. Those in attendance spoke of their days working railway mail and were able to say mail sent from anywhere in Iowa could make it anywhere else in the state overnight thanks to the railroad mail service. Others remembered traveling on the Rock Island Railroad to visit family or to take special trips.
Only one person in the room had never ridden on a train. Stories were told of growing up in a railroad family, riding the passenger trains and seeing other parts of the state through the windows of the train car.
This rich history is precious to those around southeast Iowa, and it goes back to the state’s beginnings.
“Just prior to it becoming a state, farmers could only move to Iowa and live along the rivers that were navigable,” Daniels explained. “Farmers needed to get their products to market, and before the railroad, they had to use the rivers. In the interior of the state, it was much harder to get their products to market.”
In the mid-1800s, the push began to help railroad companies build across Iowa. There was talk of the Transcontinental Railroad coming through, so the state became part of the gateway to the West.
By 1900, Daniels said, Iowa had a certain claim to fame. You could stand anywhere in the state, spin around three times and walk in any direction. Within six miles, you would cross a railroad track, that’s how densely populated Iowa was at the turn of the century.
In the 1880s, there were already 4,400 miles of track. By 1911, there were more than 10,500 miles of track and population had boomed to 2.5 million. More people were able to come to Iowa because there was now a better way to transport their goods.
Another Iowa first was the use of a cupola on the caboose. In other places, the conductor would just stick his head out the top of a box car and check out the bearings situation or overheating. This wouldn’t work in Iowa in January, Daniels said, so glassed-in viewing areas were installed to protect the conductor from the elements.
Lorenzo Coffin, a farmer and former minister, watched as a man was injured by the conventional way train cars would be linked together. He knew there had to be an easier and safer way, so once he became Iowa commissioner, he brought in the Janney coupler, and it became the standard.
Iowa was also known for having the biggest and best crooks in the railroad industry. Daniels told the story of how Jesse James made his reputation here in Iowa. James was a raider during the Civil War and decided to go into robbery as a profession. In 1873, he got wind of a gold shipment on the Rock Island line. The plan was to pull the rails apart and derail the train.
While they were waiting, James and his crew got hungry, so they went into the town of Adair and found a house with pies out cooling. When they were finished eating, they went back and robbed the train. Little did they know that the house they took the pies from was the home of the Rock Island superintendent.
The superintendent hired the best man of the day, Allan Pinkerton, to hunt down the culprits. He interviewed witnesses, and the system of description he created then is still used today.
At the end of the question and answer time, the Eldon Depot Museum was open for tours.