The Ottumwa Courier

Local News

November 12, 2013

Workin' on the railroad


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.

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