Travel by Rails

Train on Trestle, PrestonEarly railroads transported freight, mail and agricultural products. They also transported people. The railroad companies looked for ways to encourage people to use trains. Sometimes they built resort hotels and then built railroad lines for people to use to get there. The railroad companies advertised their resorts and the special train service for vacationers.

The Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway built a resort hotel at Spirit Lake in 1883. The following year the company opened the beautiful Hotel Orleans at the lake. Some said it was the finest hotel in the upper Midwest. The hotel had 200 rooms, bowling alley, billiard hall, tackle shop and boat house. Soon another railroad company, the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul, ran a line near Lake Okoboji. The lakes quickly became a favorite summer resort with campgrounds, cottages and hotels on the beautiful shores of the lakes.

Railroad travel was certainly a big improvement over travel by wagon or stagecoach, yet it was not always pleasant. In 1893 Carrie Carson wrote about the train trip home from her vacation in a summer cottage at Lake Okoboji:

We boarded the train for Des Moines at twelve o'clock; at one-thirty we reached Ruthven, where we had dinner. The ride was very hot and dusty and before we had been on the train an hour, we had breathed in more dust than we had seen in a month. We ate once more at Des Moines. We had expected to leave Des Moines on a train which would get us home about one o'clock, but found that it did not stop at Marengo, so we had to wait for a train which left at one o'clock. We were so tired that we went to Munger's, [a hotel] and went to bed. We rested and were called in time for our train. Just before reaching Newton we ran into a derailed freight car, and had to wait until it was removed. We had to wait a long time and grew very cold, but at last we started on and reached home an hour and a half late. It was between four and five in the morning when we reached Marengo.

In the 1890s train travel may not always have been pleasant or fast-trains averaged about 25 miles per hour with all the stops to let off or take on passengers. Railroad passenger service, however, made it possible for Iowans to travel places they would not have been able to visit before.

Rail Travel Decreases

At the beginning of the 20th century passenger trains were the dominant mode of intercity transportation in the country. But as early as 1915 the increasing availability of the automobile began to affect the railroad's passenger business. Rail's share of travel continued its downward trend throughout the period between 1929 and 1950. This trend changed only during World War II— a time of curtailed auto production, gas rationing and large-scale troop movement by train.

Following World War II passenger rail service was at a critical stage. Railroad companies were no longer financially strong. Rail beds, bridges and buildings were in need of repair. After the war, improvements in the highways system encouraged more automobile travel. This, combined with increased use of air travel, led to severe drops in rail passenger use.

By 1970 it was clear the government needed to be involved if rail passenger service was to continue. Congress passed the Rail Passenger Service Act in 1970 to establish a national system called Amtrak. Iowa is served by two Amtrak routes. The Southwest Chief travels 20 miles in Iowa in Lee County with a station in Fort Madison. The California Zephyr crosses Iowa from the Mississippi to the Missouri with stations in Burlington, Mount Pleasant, Ottumwa, Osceola and Omaha, Nebraska.

People were excited when passenger trains first came to Iowa. It was an improvement over travel by stagecoach or wagon. And for many years Iowans used trains to travel between cities or for special excursions. But as the car became more available and affordable, Iowans— like people all over the country— abandoned train travel for their cars.

Adapted from original article in The Goldfinch 5, No. 2 (Nov. 1983). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa



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