Public Utilities in Fayette County, IA
From: Past and Present of Fayette County, Iowa
B. F. Bowen & Company
Indianapolis, Indiana 1910


The subject of railroads has been pretty thoroughly presented in a general way, in the article on state history, and a special article appears from the pen of Rev. J. L. Paine, on the history of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad in Fayette county. It therefore remains only to present a record of the early efforts of the people in this direction, and to present the history of the roads not included in Mr. Paine's article.

Unfortunately, Fayette county was outside of the routes chosen for the first trunk lines across the state, and this delayed the building of roads in this county until the through lines were established and "feeders" became a necessity. The people of the county were fully alive to the importance of this method of communication with the outside world, and meetings were held in the early fifties looking to the establishment of railroads, and were continued at short intervals from that time until the first road was finally built. Reference has been made to the building of the Iowa and Dakota division of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, as now downed and operated, and the various owners of that line, the tardiness in building, the willing contributions of the people in furtherance of its building, and the wasteful policy of handling the public domain when a railroad company was interested. But the Iowa and Dakota, though furnishing our first practical outlet to the eastern markets, did not touch Fayette county, though it passed near our northern boundary. Fayette county did not have a mile of railroad within its borders until the early seventies, notwithsanding the people were always ready and willing to encourage with their money and lands, any reasonable project which was presented to them.

The Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific was the first railroad corporation to run a train in Iowa, this being the line which subsequently ran west from Davenport, via Des Moines, to Council Bluffs and Omaha. The Rock Island was thus the pioneer railroad in Iowa, and its patrons along the Cedar Rapids and Decorah branch are inclined to the opinion that it has not lost all of its "pioneer" proclivities!

The first road which promised anything tangible for Fayette county was a proposition to build a narrow gauge road up the Turkey river valley, and numerous meetings were held in 1871-2 in furtherance of this project. Another line of narrow gauge road was proposed, to run from Des Moines, via Marshalltown and Waterloo, thence to intersect the proposed Turkey river line. These routes were both surveyed in 1871-2, but nothing further was accomplished. About this time the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Minnesota Railroad Company surveyed the route from Cedar Rapids to Postville, and promised completion if properly sustained and aided by the people.

The threatened building of these narrow gauge roads stimulated the officials of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Minnesota Company to prompt action, and a deputation of officers visited West Union and other points in Fayette county with a view to diverting attention from the other lines, though this was a difficult task, as many were already pledged to support the rival proposition, and such a thing as having two roads built at the same time was not then thought possible. And this was not strange, in that both roads were asking heavy bonuses. The first proposition was that Fayette county should contribute one hundred and thirty five thousand dollars to the building of the road through its boundaries. This sum was considered exorbitant, and the people through their committee. consisting of S. B. Zeigler, Milo McGlathery, William Larrahee, J. W. Rogers and William McClintock, made a counter proposition, agreeing to try to raise ninety thousand dollars. This was finally agreed to, and the committee above named went to Cedar Rapids and closed the contract with the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Minnesota, apparently to the satisfaction of all parties concerned. But while these conditions were under consideration at West Union, the rival narrow gauge company had representatives on the ground, they having completed their survey to that point, and the promoters of the rival roads met at West Union to decide the matter as to which of the two propositions should be the more acceptable to the people. The one offered a standard gauge road, with connections with other standard gauge roads both north and south; and having succeeded in reducing the bonus asked by forty five thousand dollars, the preference was given to the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Minnesota, and energetic efforts were at once put forth to raise the money required in accordance with the contract, as before mentioned. By the terms of this instrument the railroad company agreed to build, equip and operate a railroad from their present line of road, to intersect the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad at or near Fostville, by way of West Union and Clermont; that such road shall be completed within one year from the time that the stipulated aid is secured along the line; that said road shall be of a character similar to the one operated by said company, which will compare favorably with any road in Iowa; that depots or stations shall be established in the several townships, if the people along the line raise the required amount of aid and free right of way; that the citizens of Fayette county shall pay said railroad company ninety thousand dollars, in railroad taxes, legally voted, and in conditional notes of individuals, payable when the road is completed through the township where the notes are given; that the taxes of any township are not to be drawn from the treasury until the road is completed through said township; that the citizens shall give said company free right of way and depot grounds; that the taxes in West Union township are not to be drawn from the treasury nor the notes payable, until the road is completed and cars running into West Union, and one half of the grading done between Wrest Union and the point of intersection with the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul railroad. This contract was entered into on the 14th of July, 1871, and the people were to have sixty days after July 15th, in which to secure the amount of aid agreed upon, together with the right of way and depot grounds.

Railroad meetings were held in all the townships traversed by the proposed route, and all the townships except Harlan and Center voted a five per cent tax in aid of the proposition. Harlan defeated the five per cent tax, but afterward voted three per cent by a majority of six. With reference to Center township, it should be remembered that the Iowa & Pacific Railroad Company was asking similar aid at the same time, Center being the only township on the line of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Minnesota which would be traversed by the Iowa & Pacific, as then proposed.

But the voting of this tax was not all clear sailing. The people rebelled at the idea of impoverishing themselves to aid a supposedly rich corporation, and the justice of this opposition was shown soon afterward when the law authorizing such a procedure was repealed. In some instances men of limited means subscribed more liberally under the excitement of the occasion, than they should have done in justice to themselves and their families, and had the balance of a lifetime to regret their hasty action. West Union raised about fifty thousand dollars of the sum agreed upon, a large proportion of which was secured through private contributions. But there were enthusiasts all along the line, and it is safe to say that at least one third of the ninety thousand dollars was secured through private contributions.

The surveys were completed and work was commenced between Postville and Clermont on the 9th of November, 1871. The first iron rail in Fayette county was laid August 14, 1872, but the road was not completed through the county until the next year. The road was in operation at both ends of the line for nearly a year before it was completed across the county. From the south trains were run between Cedar Rapids and Center Point, and from the north they were in operation between Postville and West Union. The first through train passed over the line September 7, 1873.

Though built by a construction company under contract with the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Minnesota Railroad Company, the road passed into the possession of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railroad Company on the loth of July, 1876. This company operated it successfully, and with a reasonable degree of satisfaction to the patrons, for about thirty years, when it became one of the feeders to the great Rock Island system, and is now owned and operated by the pioneer railroad company of the state. While the "Rock Island" has made some needed improvements, and apparently has spent considerable money in changing grades, etc., it has not materially improved the train service. It seems to ignore the fact that it is bad policy to require a boy to perform the labor expected of a man! The Decorah branch seems to be the dumping ground for all the defunct engines of the entire system, and a train on time is the exception rather than the rule.

This road enters the county in Jefferson township, Oelwein being the first station in Fayette county, entering from the south. It runs almost due north and south through Jefferson, Harlan and Center townships, but at Donnan Junction it assumes an easterly course through the southeast corner of Windsor township, entering Union township on section 19, and continuing an easterly course through Union and Pleasant Valley townships until it reaches Elgin, on section 14, when it assumes a northerly direction and passes out of the county at the northwest corner of section 1, Clermont township. For a number of years Postville was the northern terminus, but the road was finally extended to Decorah, in Winneshiek county. The stations on this line are: Oelwein, Maynard, Randalia, Donnan Junction, West Union, Brainard, Elgin, Clermont and Waukon Junction, the latter being the point at which the Postville branch now leaves the main line. There is but twenty nine one hundredths of a mile of this branch in Fayette county. The entire mileage of the Rock Island in Fayette county is forty four and six tenths miles, valued for assessment purposes at four thousand two hundred dollars per mile, or a total valuation of one hundred eighty six thousand one hundred and two dollars. Except Oelwein, Pleasant Valley township has the largest railroad mileage in the county, eight and three tenths miles. Oelwein has, including Jefferson township, thirteen and four tenths miles of the Chicago Great Western, and six and eighteen hundredths miles on the line of the Rock Island.

Several other railroad enterprises have been brought to the attention of Fayette county people, beginning as early as January, 1868, when it was proposed to build a road from Clinton, via Cascade and Delhi, to some point in Fayette county. A number of men in this county were interested in this road as stockholders and contractors. But this project was abandoned, and a part of the grading merged into the Davenport & St. Paul branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul system, which now traverses the county from the southeast to the northwest. (See history of this system in Fayette county, by Rev. J. L. Paine.) At the inception of this enterprise the work was promoted by the Iowa & Minnesota Grand Trunk Railway Company, a corporation organized for this purpose. Taxes were voted in many of the towns and townships along the proposed line, but before the work was commenced the supreme court decided the law unconstitutional under which such aid was given. This decision had the effect to reduce the available assets by fully one half, and the work was discontinued, pending an amendment to the law. This was done at the succeeding session of the Legislature (1869-70), and continued in force until finally repealed through the agency of the Granger Legislature and its after effects.

The Iowa & Pacific Railroad, a proposed outlet to the east, was graded to Wadena in 1872, but work in this county was then discontinued for about six years, during which time it became the property of the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul system. The track was laid to Wadena in 1878, that being the western terminus until the line was extended to West Union in 1881. The original route as proposed, surveyed and partly graded west of Wadena, was a westerly course through Illyria, Westfield, Center and Banks townships; but the grading on this route west of Wadena was mostly abandoned, except that it was followed as far as Lima, in Westfield township.


Unfortunately this trunk line does not traverse the county. The townships of Banks, Fremont, Oran, Jefferson and Scott in the southwest corner of the county comprise all the favored territory. The road traverses but little more than one section of land in the southwest corner of Scott township, touches three sections in Banks, and scarcely more in Oran; but it passes diagonally through Fremont and Jefferson townships, Oelwein, in the last named township, being the point from which radiate the three branches of the Great Western in this county. These are the eastern line, via Dubuque to Chicago; the northwestern line, from Oelwein to Minneapolis and St. Paul; the southwestern line, from Oelwein, via Waterloo, Marshalltown to Des Moines, thence southwesterly passing out of the state at the southeast corner of Taylor county; another branch runs west from Oelwein to Waverly and New Hampton, connecting with the St. Paul and Omaha line at Clarion.

This road was built to Oelwein in 1886, and the radiating branches soon followed. Oelwein was soon designated as a division terminus, and immense shops were established for nearly all mechanical purposes connected with railroading. These give employment to a large number of skilled workmen, and this industry alone has been instrumental in promoting the growth of the town, while the regular railroad employes have contributed largely to the same end. With the increase in population came also the demand for more business houses, more professionals, greater church and school advantages, and in many other ways the little town of a few hundred inhabitants in the seventies was benefited by the coming of the Great Western. The reader is referred to the history of Oelvein for a further discussion of this subject.

There are fourteen and one half miles of railroad track in Jefferson township and six miles in the corporation of Oelwein. The average assessed valuation is six thousand five hundred ninety three dollars per mile.


These, like the electric light and telephone, are the product of the inventive genius of the last half century, and neither were in general use at the date of the last history published in this county. Unfortunately, the electric railway has not yet made its appearance in Fayette county, though numerous propositions to invade the territory have been made, and are now under consideration.

Dr. Werner Siemens, of Berlin, was the first to discuss the question of propelling vehicles by electrical power. This was in 1867, but it was not until 1879 that the idea took shape. From that time until the present the crude systems of Siemens and Otto have undergone many changes, and new inventions introduced which have revolutionized the system.

The entire country from the Atlantic to the Pacific, and from the Lakes to the Gulf, is now overrun with electrical roads, which, in most instances, are a great convenience to the people along the routes. Iowa had at the date of latest reports, twenty eight companies organized to build and operate electric roads, with a capitalization of thirty six million six hundred fifty three thousand two hundred dollars, with eight hundred and two miles of road in operation.


Since the first mentioned in this topic is inseparable from the railroads, and the others are revenue producers to the county and state, it seems proper to mention all in this connection.

There are two telegraph companies operating in the county, the Postal Telegraph Cable Company, with thirty five and thirty four hundredths miles of line, valued at sixty five dollars per mile for assessment purposes, and the Western Union Telegraph Company, whose lilies reach every town and township in the county that is located on any railroad line. There are ninety seven and eighty four hundredths miles of line in the county, valued at seventy five dollars per mile.

Since the introduction of the telephone into the county in 1878, this modern convenience has become almost a necessity in the permanent homes of the county. For a number of years following 1878, many of the farmers erected neighborhood lines for the accommodation of themselves and their friends and to test the virtues of the new invention. This was also true, to some extent, in the towns and villages. These crude appliances were without electrical power, the wire being stretched tightly and fastened inside of the bottom of a tin can. But however crude and imperfect, the lines so constructed served to demonstrate the practicability of the device and afforded a pleasant and instructive pastime for the children, while stimulating a desire on the part of their parents for more and better service.

The Bell Company was the first to invade the county, but soon local organizations of a rival nature were organized, and for a time there was hardly a town in the county that did not have a telephone company. There are now fourteen of these companies in existence whose lines reach every town and hamlet, besides fully one half of the farm homes occupied by their owners. There are eight hundred and twelve miles of telephone lines in the county, with an assessment valuation of thirty one thousand five hundred and twenty two dollars.

There are two express companies operating through the county, the United States and Wells-Fargo. Of the former there are ninety seven and eighty two hundredths miles traversed, and of the latter thirty five and thirty four hundredths, each being listed for taxation at thirty five dollars per mile.

By Rev. J. L. Paine.

About January, 1868, two gentlemen from Maquoketa, Iowa, came through Fayette county, from southeast to northwest, urging the feasibility of building a railroad along the line their course indicated. Their plan was to secure an old, partly graded road bed from Clinton to Maquoketa, thence northwesterly toward St. Paul. They canvassed in that trip Delhi, Yankee settlement (now Edgewood), Strawberry Point, Brush Creek (now Arlington). Fayette and Waucoma. Local meetings were called and delegates were sent to a general gathering at Maquoketa. Among those who represented Fayette county were J. P. Webster, of Waucoma, H. S. Brunson, Ben. Burch and President William Brush of Fayette, and Z. Allen and Ben. Shambaugh of Arlington. No organization was effected at that time, but steps were taken toward further agitation and a preliminary examination of the line. At a later meeting a company was organized under the name of the Iowa & Minnesota Trunk Railroad Company and a corps of surveyors was put to work. Meantime Davenport became interested and, through its activity, influence and greater capital, succeeded in capturing the enterprise and reorganized as the Davenport & St. Paul Railroad Company. Work proceeded slowly at first, but after a time the project was satisfactorily financed and construction proceeded more rapidly. Early in June, 1870, contracts were let to B. & H. M. Burch for grading, piling, mason work and ties from Fayette to the north line of Delaware county. In the summer of 1872 contracts were let for that portion of the line between Fayette and the south line of Minnesota. Burch, Lakin & Company had the grading and ties, J. P. Webster the mason work and R. Ballantyne and J. L. Paine the piling. From that time till the panic of 1873 work was pressed with great energy as far north as Cresco. In the earlier stages of construction, the promoters were forced to rely on local capital. To secure this, recourse was had to three methods, first, the sale of stock; second, persuading the various townships through which the line passed to vote a five per cent tax on all the taxable property in the township, as was permitted by a law then in force; third, donations of money and right of way. The citizens of Fayette subscribed twenty thousand dollars for stock. Arlington and Taucoma subscribed proportionate amounts. Nearly every township along the line voted the tax, and a large amount of right of way was donated. With this money the first sections of the road were completed and served as a basis for the sale of bonds. Scores of other roads were being built by comparatively weak companies. September 18, 1873, the great banking house of Jay Cooke & Co. closed its doors. By four o'clock of the second day following, banking houses representing more than one half of the moneyed capital of the United States had similarly closed. Zero weather fell in an instant on the luxuriant railroad growth of the country. Track laying had reached Arlington July 8th, and the cars first reached Fayette September 16th - two days before the crash Large amounts were due the contractors and mechanic's liens were filed in Delaware and all the counties north. Suits in court were instituted and judgments obtained. An execution was issued and the entire road north of the Delaware county line was sold by sheriff to Hon. William Larrabee as trustee for the creditors, the possession of the property remaining with the company, which continued to operate it. Meantime, appeals had been taken from court to court, till, in the spring of 1879, the supreme court of the United States handed down a decision in favor of the contractors, thus sustaining the opinions of all the lower courts. The creditors proceeded at once to take possession of the portion of the road above mentioned, and for some weeks ran regular trains from Edgewood to Fayette.

During this time joint negotiations were held with the Clinton, Maquoketa & St. Paul interests, and the whole property from Davenport north passed into the hands of that company. In this settlement, the creditors received their full claim, principal and interest, and after paying their attorneys and certain other minor expenses realized three per cent interest on their claims from the date of filing. The Milwaukee Company completed the road to a connection at Jackson Junction, following the old line to a point about one mile north of Waucoma, thence swinging eastward. The station at aucoma was opened for business May 4, 1882, by Mr. Webster, the first agent.


What is known as the West Union Line of the Chicago. Milwaukee & St. Paul road was promoted from Dubuque about 1871, under the name of the Iowa & Pacific Railroad, having as its initial point the mouth of the Turkey river and its destination Omaha. Its chief active promoters through Fayette county were Hon. William Vandever and Platt Smith. Taxes were voted, subscriptions made, right of way secured, work commenced and actively prosecuted until September, 1873. Track was laid nearly across Clayton county, but, as everywhere, the financial crisis put an end to all building. It was resumed, however, in 1878 and track laid as far as Wadena, track reaching that point in May of that year. In 1881 or early in 1882 the road was purchased by the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul and extended on the old road bed as far as Lima, reaching there November 2, 1882; thence, diverging to the north on a new grade, it reached West Union in the winter of that year. and that is the present terminus.

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