Railroads in Iowa Pt. 2
How did the railroad impact the people of Iowa?
Iowa boasts 25 percent of the world’s Grade A farmland. From the hills of northeast Iowa across the flat central prairies to the gently rolling countryside of southern and western Iowa, Native Americans and early pioneers encountered a rich countryside that quickly became a breadbasket of the world.
Rivers were the most important feature for early Iowans. Both Native Americans and early settlers resided in the woodlands along the state’s major waterways, bordered in the east by the Mississippi and in the west the Missouri. River towns along the Mississippi — Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport, Burlington and Keokuk — were the first major settlements in frontier Iowa. Steamboats brought pioneers and goods up the river and connected the state with St. Louis, Missouri, and New Orleans, Louisiana. Across the eastern two-thirds of the state, rivers flow toward the Mississippi. Pioneers used them as early highways and towns sprang up along their banks. As the population moved west, the capital of the state was moved from Iowa City to Des Moines where the Des Moines River and Raccoon rivers flowed together. In western Iowa, the rivers emptied into the Missouri River. Sioux City and the Council Bluffs-Omaha area became important cities for western Iowans.
Rise of the Railroads
In the 1850s, the first railroads reached the state from the east. Rail transportation was safer, quicker and more reliable than riverboats, and they quickly had a major influence. The federal government gave four railroad companies substantial grants of land to build lines connecting the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. In consequence, Iowa farm goods flowed into Chicago, not New Orleans, and merchants purchased goods from Chicago warehouses on the return trips. Railroads aggressively encouraged settlement. They printed and distributed brochures in foreign languages extoling the merits of Iowa and giving instruction on how to get there. Railroad companies were also town builders. Towns sprang up where the railroads created depots and refueling stations, often every seven or eight miles along the track. In the 1870s and 1880s, railroad construction was at its peak and soon almost no Iowans lived more than 10 miles from a rail line. The railroads also opened new economic opportunities. Farmers could move their grain to markets much more cheaply. The invention of the refrigerated rail car allowed meatpacking plants to open close to the source of the livestock and to ship fresh meat to eastern cities. Trains also made it easier for people to travel from town to town and out of state.
Investment in Roads
The introduction of the Ford Model-T in 1909 and other car makes brought another major transportation revolution. Farmers could get into town and back home much more quickly. Farm kids could attend town schools and still live at home. While families relied on local stores for most of their purchases, it was easier to take an occasional trip to the larger city to shop in department stores. Trucks allowed farmers to transport their livestock to meatpacking plants where they got the best prices. Responding to the increased travel, the state began to majorly invest in road improvements including creating major highways connecting major cities. Cities began expanding into the suburbs. Workers could commute from their homes in the suburbs to downtown. The federal government in the 1950s began construction of the massive interstate highway system that today carries enormous numbers of cars and trucks. Airports extended the transportation networks to cities around the world.
Agriculture Shapes Iowa's Landscape
Throughout all of these changes, agriculture remained a central feature of the Iowa scene. When settlers first arrived, the state was 85 percent grassland and 15 percent woodlands. Farmers had to adapt to new farming practices. Today, very few acres of virgin prairie exist and huge expanses of north central Iowa have become fields of either corn or soybeans. Southern and western Iowa, where hills make crop farming more difficult, continue to produce livestock. Northeastern Iowa has a strong dairy industry where the pastures provide hay and winter forage. The land remains one of the most important features of this state, often called “the land between two rivers.”
What did the railroad carry long ago?
- Business Done by Railroad in Pella, Iowa, 1873 (Document)
- Pullman Car Interior, between 1880 and 1899 (Image)
- Union Pacific Posse Car (Special Railroad Car Loaded with Men and Horses), 1900 (Image)
- Farmers Load Potatoes onto Train, 1903 (Image)
- Freight Traffic by Commodities from Union Pacific Annual Reports, 1922 and 1931 (Document)
- Railway Post Office in Des Moines, Iowa, 1938 (Image)
- Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern Railway, June 1, 1943 (Image)
How did the railroad change daily life?
- Union Pacific Railroad Time Schedule No. 3, November 4, 1866 (Document)
- Railroad Interview with Mrs. Will H. Berger, 1938 (Document)
- "Standard Time" Clock, 1950 (Image)
- Pacific Fruit Express, Date Unknown (Image)
Where are railroad lines located in Iowa, and what does the railroad carry today?
- Intermodal Transportation Infographic, 2016 (Image)
- Iowa DOT State Railroad Map, 2016 (Map)
- Iowa Grain Facilities Rail Map, 2016 (Map)
- Key Railroad Facts About American Railroad, 2016 (Document)
- Railroad Tons and Revenue Chart, 2016 (Document)
- What Fits in a Rail Car? Infographic, 2016 (Image)
- What Fits in an Agriculture Rail Car? Infographic, 2016 (Image)
- Chronology of Iowa Railroad Abandonment Map, July 1, 2016 (Map)
- Passenger Rail Service in Iowa, July 1, 2016 (Map)
Business Done by Railroad in Pella, Iowa, 1873
Pullman Car Interior, between 1880 and 1899
Union Pacific Posse Car (Special Railroad Car Loaded with Men and Horses), 1900
Farmers Load Potatoes onto Train, 1903
Freight Traffic by Commodities from Union Pacific Annual Reports, 1922 and 1931
Railway Post Office in Des Moines, Iowa, 1938
Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern Railway, June 1, 1943
Union Pacific Railroad Time Schedule No. 3, November 4, 1866
Railroad Interview with Mrs. Will H. Berger, November 21, 1938
"Standard Time" Clock, 1950
Pacific Fruit Express, Date Unknown
Intermodal Transportation Infographic, 2016
Iowa DOT State Railroad Map, July 1, 2016
Iowa Grain Facilities Rail Map, July 1, 2016
Key Railroad Facts About American Railroad, 2016
Railroad Tons and Revenue Chart, 2016
What Fits in a Rail Car? Infographic, 2016
What Fits In An Agriculture Rail Car? Infographic, 2016
Chronology of Iowa Railroad Abandonment Map, July 1, 2016
Passenger Rail Service in Iowa, July 1, 2016
- Locomotive by Brian Floca
This Caldecott Medal-winning book highlights the working of the railroad in 1869. The book includes details of the trip and the sounds, speed and strength of locomotives.
- Union Pacific Railroad Company Museum Website
- Teacher’s Resource on Standard Time
This multi-page packet includes directions on how to tell time on the railroad through a number of activity sheets.
- Teacher Toolkit
The teacher toolkit was created by the Union Pacific Railroad Museum and centers around the story of the first American transcontinental railroad.
- Teacher’s Resource on Standard Time
- Buxton, Iowa State Bystander, 6 December 1907This collection is of eight newspaper pages that contain photos and articles about Buxton, a southern Iowa town that merged the coal and railroad business to create a flourishing community with a large African-American population.
- American Association of Railroads, Washington, D.C.: Overview of Iowa, 2012
The document includes fast facts about railroads in Iowa in 2012, such as the number of freight railroads and freight railroad mileage.
- Iowa Department of Transportation: Railroad Maps
This website includes a collection of maps pertaining to the railroads in Iowa. There are numerous maps, such as ones showing the location of railroads, railroad abandonments and grain loading and processing facilities.
- BNSF Railway: Virtual Tour
The interactive tour was created by the BNSF Railway, which is one of the largest freight railroad networks in North America. The tour shows different types of train cars.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (4th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are elementery-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for fourth grade students.
- SS.4.8. Evaluate how civic virtues and democratic principles have guided or do guide governments, societies, and/or communities. (21st century skills)
- SS.4.19. Explain influences on the development and decline of different modes of transportation in U.S. regions.
- SS.4.20. Compare and contrast events that happened at the same time.
- SS.4.23. Explain probable causes and effects of events and developments.
- SS.4.24. Develop a claim about the past and cite evidence to support it.
- SS.4.25. Analyze the impact of technological changes in Iowa, across time and place.