Railroads Create Change

Railroads brought many changes to life in Iowa. Many new jobs were created. And new ways of shopping came to Iowans. Even the way people got their mail was affected by the coming of the railroad.

Wish Books Are Hard to Resist

As soon as railway lines began running, express companies quickly switched from stagecoaches to the faster, more reliable railroad cars. With such good transportation available for shipping goods, a new way to buy things developed. Stores in large cities began to sell their goods through a mail order business. Large picture-filled catalogs became "wish books" for people who did not get to the cities. It was exciting to choose from the many wonderful things in the catalog and receive packages from far away at the nearest railway depot. This new way of shopping worried local merchants in towns because the mail order companies were strong competitors. Local newspapers encouraged shoppers to do business with the local merchants. But many people couldn't resist the mail order catalogs.

A Travelling Post Office

Railroads replaced stagecoaches in another way. The United States Post Office officials decided mail should travel by rail instead of the slower stagecoach. The mail was sorted and sacked at post offices and placed on the railroad for delivery to another point. As the number of letters increased, delays occurred at the sorting centers. To solve this problem, a special car was built for use as a traveling post office. Mail clerks sorted the mail as the train raced through the countryside. The first regular railway post office began on the Chicago & Northwestern railroad from Chicago to Clinton, Iowa in 1864. The railway postal car system grew rapidly in the West. But even the railway postal cars were eventually replaced. In the 1960s the post office officials decided to use trucks and airplanes to move the mail.

Working On the Railroad

It took many people to keep the railroads running smoothly. Railroad workers lived in towns along the railroad lines in Iowa. Locomotive engineers and firemen, passenger and freight conductors, porters and brakemen worked on the moving trains. Many more people worked in railroad shops, roundhouses or depots. Mechanics, carpenters, blacksmiths, painters, and machinists worked in shops keeping cars and locomotives in good repair. To keep things on the tracks and in the rail yard running safely, there were watchmen, section hands, switchers and gatekeepers. Agents, clerks and telegraph operators worked at the busy railway depot selling tickets, keeping records and sending messages.

Railroads greatly impacted the lives of Iowans. Life would never be the same for most people after the railroads came to town. Railroads brought new products to people living on isolated farms and in small towns. Packages and letters from other parts of the country came more quickly than in the past to Iowa. And many new jobs were created for people along the rail lines. Railroads continue to play a role in the lives of Iowans. Most towns are intersected by a set of tracks and railroad tracks snake across the Iowa countryside. While the products carried by the trains and the jobs provided by the railroad companies have changed over time, railroads continue to play an important role in Iowa's story.

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

 

 


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