History of Transportation in Wapello County, IA
From: History of Wapello County, Iowa
By Harrison L. Waterma, Supervising Editor
The S. J. Clarke Publishing Co. Chicago 1914


Ottumwa is a railroad center of no mean proportions. It has four separate and distinct roads, radiating out of Ottumwa in various directions, which bring the place in close and direct touch with Chicago and the East; St. Paul and Minneapolis in the North; St. Louis, Kansas City and the great Southwest; and Omaha, Denver and the West and Northwest. The traveler may leave Ottumwa on either one of two main lines and reach Chicago in from seven to nine hours. These roads furnish direct routes to Kansas City and St. Louis, St. Paul and Minneapolis, Omaha and Denver. On these four roads centering here, Ottumwa ships to all parts of the world of her products.

The railroad history of Ottumwa is interesting and instructive. Her means of transportation may be said to have begun soon after the organization of Wapello County, when work was immediately commenced on the laying out and building of roads. These were utilized for teams and wagons, by which freight was transported into and from towns of the county. Later they were traversed by the stage coach, which was the common carrier of the day for passengers and the mails. A step further was attempted in 185o, when a meeting was called in Ottumwa for the discussion of a plank road movement. The object was to build a thoroughfare of this description to connect with a similar highway between Burlington and Mount Pleasant. The project was accepted with general favor in this section, and a committee of prominent citizens was designated to represent the county at a plank road convention, to be held at Mount Pleasant, on the 27th of February, 1850, consisting of J. W. Norris, J. D. Devin, H. B. Hendershott, J. C. Ramsey, Thomas Ping, F. Newell, J. H. D. Street, S. M. Wright, Judge Baker, Dr. Flint, Gideon Myers, B. Boyston, B. Jones, Joseph Hayne, J. M. Peck, Doctor Yeomans, Uriah Biggs, G. B. Savery, Doctor Wood and W. S. Carter. When subscription books were opened Ottumwa raiied $8,700; Agency City, $5,000; and Ashland, one of the extinct towns of the county, $4,500. For some reason the scheme fell through and then the attention of the people was directed to the movement for a railroad. A great deal of agitation and the subscription of $100,000 of stock of the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad, now the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, was the result. The Burlington Road was obtained, although its completion into Ottumwa was not realized until October 13, 1859. Some time before this, the road had reached Agency and that point was the terminus until the extension into Ottumwa. The road was formally opened to public use in Ottumwa, September 1, 1859. Work from Ottumwa west was begun in 1865, and the road was finished to Albia November 1, 1866, and to Pacific Junction in 1869.

The day that the Burlington & Missouri River Railroad entered Ottumwa was made memorable by a great gathering of people in the county, speeches, toasts and responses. Tables had been provided, on which was spread a free dinner, beneath shade trees, but before an orderly serving of the eatables was attained, a rush and a grasp was made by the undisciplined gathering, and everything was swept off the tables and much of it destroyed. As far as the dinner was concerned, that part of the entertainment was a failure.

The Keokuk & Fort Des Moines, known as the Des Moines Valley Railroad, now incorporated in the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad system, followed the Burlington & Missouri River into Ottumwa within a few months. This road was extended to Eddyville, where it had its terminus until 1866. After the close of the Civil war, a period of railroad construction began and it is not surprising that a craze obtained here for railroad building, as elsewhere. Among those projected was the St. Louis, Ottumwa & Cedar Rapids Railroad. To this end a company was organized, which gave way to the St. Louis, Kansas City & Northern Railway Company. This line was built to Ottumwa in 1869 and eventually passed into the hands of the Wabash. Private subscriptions of $125,000 by citizens of the county was no small factor in securing this utility.

As the financial panic of 1873 cleared away the clouds of fears and doubts, railroad building took on new impetus and the Cedar Rapids, Sigourney & Ottumwa Railroad was built, having been graded to Sigourney in 1871. Nothing further was done until 1883, when the Chicago. Milwaukee & St. Paul occupied the grade and built from Cedar Rapids to Ottumwa, the first train of cars reaching that point from the north, December 31, 1883. It is known as the Marion-Ottumwa branch, which was continued south in 1887, and the main line from Ottumwa to Kansas City was constructed. In 1893 another branch was built to Davenport, leaving the Marion-Ottumwa line at Rutledge, just north of the city. Another road came to Ottumwa-the Chicago, Fort Madison & Des Moines, a Santa Fe line between Ottumwa and Fort Madison, which was later absorbed by the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy.

These railroad enterprises operating in Ottumwa give employment to probably one thousand of its citizens, which means a yearly payroll in the neighborhood of one million dollars. The Burlington dispenses yearly to its employes here the approximate sum of $475,000; the Milwaukee, $425,000; the Rock Island, $40,000; the Wabash, $20,000. In 1888 the Burlington and Rock Island roads constructed a splendid union depot, at the foot of Washington Street. The Milwaukee and Wabash roads have a depot which they jointly use at the foot of Jefferson Street.


Gen. John M. Hedrick, a leading, energetic and public spirited citizen of former days, (who was instrumental in securing the Milwaukee road for Ottumwa) founded the city street car system in Ottumwa in 1881. The line was two miles in length, extending from McPherson and Second, east on Second to Market, south on Market to Main, and east on Main to Cherry Street. Two cars drawn by mules made up the first rolling stock of the enterprise. The receipts averaged about ten dollars a day. L. E. Gray owned a sanitarium near the east limits of the city. In 1885 he built a horse car line to connect with the Hedrick line at Cherry Street, about a mile in length. It ran east on Main Street to a point a little beyond the terminus of the present East End line. But one car was operated. Two years later R. T. Shea built a horse car line connecting South Ottumwa with the north side. This improvement extended from the cemetery on North Court Street to a point near the terminus of the present Ward Street track and was about three miles in length. It was operated on practically the same streets as the Ward Street and Court Hill lines. The Shea Railway had cars which were in the way of an innovation in that they were heated by hard coal stoves during the winter months. The Shea Company eventually abandoned their Court Hill line, the franchise of which was secured by the Ottumwa Railway Electric & Steam Company, which was organized, franchised and began operations in 1889. The same corporation secured the franchise and property of the Hedrick and Gray street railway companies and in 1891 purchased the balance of the Shea line, which extended across the river.

In 1884 a company of local capitalists organized the Ottumwa Electric Light Company, operated in a small way for a time, and then passed into the hands of the Ottumwa Railway Electric & Steam Company, which was reorganized in 1892 as the Ottumwa Electric Railway, with a capital of $300,000 stock and $260,000 in bonds. This company went into the hands of a receiver in 1896. It was bid in by the bondholders in 1898 at receiver's sale and reorganized under the name of Ottumwa Electric & Steam Company. The company was again reorganized October 1, 1901, as the Ottumwa Traction & Light Company, which extended its lines the following summer on to Jefferson Street, Sheridan Avenue, and made other desired improvements. A few years thereafter the property east of the power house on Jefferson Street was purchased, the site cleared, and the erection of a new power house began, but while this improvement was under way negotiations were entered into with H. M. Byllesby & Company, of Chicago, for the sale of the plant, which finally took place November 7, 1905, when a reorganization was formed and the name of the corporation became the Ottumwa Railway & Light Company. Under the new management the property was rebuilt and put in first class condition. A new power house and car barns were constructed, old tracks relaid with new, and an extension on Main Street to the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railroad crossing laid. Five new summer cars and six Brill semi convertible cars were purchased. The power house was equipped with new machinery and the company fitted out offices and waiting rooms in the large brick building Bon the corner of Second and Market streets. Today the service and equipment of the street railways in Ottumwa have been brought to a high standard and the utility ranks among the foremost in the state. The acting manager is Charles E. Fahrney, who has been connected with the Ottumwa Railway & Light Company through every administration from the time it was founded by W. R. Damn.

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