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Out and About: Fort Madison, Iowa

posted on January 16, 2008 at 3:07 PM


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Fort Madison, a city often identified with imprisonment, is named for a Fort, which was in turn named for James Madison, who became President in 1809. The town is one of two county seats in Lee County, and it’s the only county in Iowa where the courthouse battle was resolved that way, courtesy of a special act by the then General Assembly. As “Out and About” correspondent Dan Kaercher explains, this old railroad town is getting back on track.

Fort Madison has a rich history. The fort it’s named for was the first U.S. military post on the upper Mississippi. Built in 1808, it was abandoned in 1813 and burned. This is a reconstruction of that fort. And what really impresses is understanding how small it was and how isolated the soldiers here were. The camera really can’t tell that story.

Iowa was still a territory in 1839 when it decided to build a prison here. This courthouse, completed in 1842, is the oldest in continuous use in the state of Iowa. By the late 1800s and early 1900s the town flourished, as witnessed by the many elegant Victorian homes. There’s a great driving tour that highlights Fort Madison’s architectural history.

In the beginning, of course, it was a river town. Then came the railroads. In 1887 the Santa Fe Railway routed its main line from Chicago to the west coast through Fort Madison. The rest, as they, say is history.

And the railroads are still important. Every day 80 to 90 trains cross the Mississippi at Fort Madison, carrying, as locals like to boast, 30 percent of the nation’s GNP. Built in 1927, this bridge is still the largest double-track, double-deck, auto/train swing span bridge in the world.

A new addition to the community is this library which opened December 3, 2007. It replaces two libraries, one of which had served the town for about one hundred years, but would have been too costly to maintain.

Steve Ireland, Mayor, Fort Madison: "There are a lot of good things that can come out of a library whether it’s economic development, whether it’s quality of life, whether it’s educational issues."

Sarah Clendineng, Library Director: "I would like to see this building become kind of the living room of the community, a place for people to meet, to hold meetings, as well as a place to find books and information and read."

On the business front, in the fall of 2007, Siemens Power Generation started manufacturing the blades for wind turbines just southwest of town. Siemens created 260 jobs and there’s the possibility it will add even more. And city and county development groups hope they can expand on that.

Ireland: "We do know now that there is a tower company that is going to be coming to the area, and we would like to seek out other companies, possibly a turbine company and/or other companies that could help facilitate Siemens and what they do here."

But not everything happening here is powered by companies. Individuals are also making a difference one at a time. That’s what’s happening in this house that Joe Ilmberger is restoring. The house, at least eighty years old, was close to being torn down. But Joe remembered walking by it as a kid when he went to school.

Joe Ilmberger: "It broke my heart to see a house like this just fall apart and end up being demolished. I wanted to rebuild it, bring back some of its character, and then keep it, rent it out, keep it part of the environment and part of the city."

Preserving the past to build for the future is happening all over town. Downtown, several blocks were recently named to the National Register of Historic Places. The buildings may be old, but new businesses have come in, from a bistro to a winery.

On the riverfront, the depot that was the home of what started as the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad was turned into an Art Center a few years ago. And while the 1909 Santa Fe depot has been part of a historical complex for a number of years, it might soon welcome passengers again. Mayor Ireland is working with Amtrak and the museum to have passenger trains stop here.

Ireland: "Lee County has had the highest unemployment rate of any county in Iowa for many years. And through the city’s efforts, mine, and some economic development groups here in town, we want to reverse that."

Tags: business Fort Madison history Iowa tourism travel

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