Railroad Challenges

Passenger TrainIowans were excited to see the railroads move into their towns and cities. The coming of railroads meant faster freight service and passenger travel. There was much to like about railroads. But there were problems too.

Powerful Railroad Companies Irk Iowans

After working hard to bring the railroads to almost every part of the state, farmers found railroad companies were not as wonderful as they had thought. The goal for the railroads was to make as much money as possible. Rates were set unfairly. Some railroad companies charged more for short hauls within the state than they did for freight going all the way to Chicago. Competition between railroads on similar routes should have meant lower fares, but companies often made agreements to charge the same price or to pool their earnings and split the profits.

As railroads grew in size they also grew in power. Legislators were unwilling to make laws affecting railroads. For many years they had received free railroad passes. Legislators thought they might lose this special treatment if they passed laws the railroad owners did not like. The problem came to a head in 1888. Were railroads meant to serve the public welfare or their owners?

Iowa’s Governor Leads the Way

Iowa Governor William Larrabee considered the railroad question very important. He believed there should be some controls over the prices railroads charged. He led a campaign to control railroad rates and told the public about the way railroad companies did business. The campaign succeeded and the legislature passed a law that controlled freight rates. A commission of three was organized to review the rates. They were to decide on a fair charge to the customer and a fair rate of profit for the railroad. At first, the railroad companies tried to find a way to block the law. After their failure to win in court, the companies’ leaders decided to adopt the Iowa commissioners’ rates. The Iowa railroads continued to grow in size and earnings. Lower rates encouraged new manufacturers to build factories in Iowa, and the railroads had more business. Governor Larrabee had done his job well for all the people of Iowa.

Railroad Workers Were Unhappy

Sometimes there were problems between the railroad employees and the railroad owners and managers. Employees often worked 10, 12 and even 16 hours a day. Sometimes they did not receive extra pay for the extra hours they worked. Conditions on the job were often very dangerous. Workers joined together to improve their poor working conditions and increase their salaries. They formed labor organizations with leaders to represent the workers in talks with their employers.

The year 1888 was a tough one for railroad owners. The legislature in Iowa was busy making laws to control railroad freight rates. And along the Burlington Route the railroad locomotive engineers and firemen went on strike. They refused to work because they believed the Burlington officials were not paying them fairly. Other railroad workers who supported their cause walked off their jobs too.

The Burlington officials hired other men to work the strikers’ jobs and announced the passenger trains would run on schedule. As the weeks passed with the Burlington officials standing firm, some strikers turned to violence. Dynamite charges exploded at Creston near the railroad shops. The violence only hurt the public’s opinion of the strikers. After 11 months the workers decided they could not get what they asked for and called off the strike.

The strike did have an effect. Because the Burlington could not keep all its freight trains running, the company lost money. The strikers lost their jobs and eventually had to find work somewhere else. The union lost the faith of the workers. The business people in railroad towns were affected too. Railroad employees had been good customers, and the strikers had less money to spend after they quit their jobs. The enginemen’s leaders learned lessons from the strike that would help them to be successful in settling future disagreements with railroad officials.

Mixed Feelings

While the railroads brought benefits to the people of Iowa, they also brought problems. Faster freight service and passenger travel were offset by high prices. People saw the railroad companies earning excessive profits, and this didn’t seem right to frugal Iowa farmers and business owners. People who worked for the railroads saw the companies earning excessive profits while they were paid low wages. When people heard the whistle of the trains as they chugged into town, they had mixed feelings about what that meant.

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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