Still Working on the Railroad

Cedar County, Iowa

Following is the final post in a three part series, originally written in the spring of 2012. You can find the first and second entries linked at the bottom of this page.

Still Working on the Railroad

Originally published- April 6, 2012

I’ve been off on a bit of a tangent lately with the Iowa Public Lands Legislation (still no vote on the bill or proposed amendment to strike the DNR portion) so today I’d like to return to the tangent I was on before this tangent, and possibly embark on another.

For starters, I have some more photos of the old railroad bridge located on my family’s farm west of Tipton. These offer a different vantage for those of you not from the area or who have never gotten the chance to see it up close.

Bridge viewed from the pasture to the east.

1890 Date chiseled on north side.
View from the top.

The remaining arch sits on the east side of Rock Creek. There once would have been a matching structure found on the opposite bank, and the track crossed between the two on an iron span. I’ve been curious as to what happened to the rest of the bridge, so I stopped the other day to visit with my grandparents and see what they could recall.

Neither my grandpa nor grandma had the chance to see the bridge while it was still in use, or the bridge in its entirety while it still stood. The railroad pulled out in 1939 when they were both very young, and they’d each spent their childhoods in another part of the county. My grandpa had been told that most of the bridge washed away during a devastating flood in 1944. He remembered the flood. It was shortly before he joined the Navy and left for the war, and he recalled riding his bicycle to witness the swollen waters of another creek closer to where he lived at the time. My grandmother also remembered that flood. By then her dad, my great-grandpa Mente, had bought their farm southeast of Tipton, and the family raced to move their cattle out of the path of swollen Sugar Creek. Grandma said it was terrible. They had to walk through the flood waters, and she cringed at the memory of snakes brushing against her legs, as they too had been caught in the quickly rising torrent and swam for higher ground.

Slab on the west side of the creek where the second arch once stood.
Old road bridge, with railroad arch and current bridge to the south.
There are still chunks of limestone buried in the ground between the two locations. These were most likely washed away from the road bridge and deposited here in the flood of 1944.

By the time Grandpa and Grandma moved onto our current farm, in 1956, only the standing arch remained, along with the relics of an old road bridge found 1/8 of a mile upstream. The road has changed course over the years, now running along the southern edge of our property, but once cut deeper into the front pasture. Grandpa also remembered being told that at one time, the road crossed the creek and cut sharply to the south to cross the railroad tracks beneath the western arch. Sure enough, I found an old plat map from the early 1900’s that showed it doing just that.

In actuality, the old railroad bridge isn't entirely out of use. We've had a pair of Canadian Geese choose to nest in an odd but suitable location on the bridge pedestal for the last several years.

As mentioned in a previous entry, once I started looking into the history of these bridges on our land, it dawned on me that there are probably similar, hidden away like time capsules, all across the countryside. With that in mind, I took an impromptu detour on my way home from school the other day. Turning off of Herbert Hoover highway a little before West Branch, I made my way to the tiny settlement of Oasis, one of many area towns that were once rail stops, but now consist of little more than a small cluster of houses along a forgotten country road. Oasis was on a branch of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific line that came up from West Branch and points south, so it sat on a different route than the one running through Tipton and the central part of Cedar County. However, these two tracks once joined just west of here, near a town called Elmira. My spur of the moment detour focused on a goal of finding this spot.

I didn’t have any maps with me, and wasn’t (and still am not) sure where Elmira sat or if any evidence still exists. However, the railroad right-of-way passing through Oasis is easy to sight- a tell-tale narrow swath of trees slicing straight as an arrow across the land. I used this as a base of navigation and kept the green indicator in my peripheral as I drove parallel down nearby gravel roads. Within a couple of miles, I spotted my first bridge. A small piling of limestone blocks over a seasonal spring. It looked very similar to the one that sits hidden in the right-of-way on our farm, perhaps in slightly better condition, and was unconcealed about seventy yards off the road in a horse pasture.

First bridge I found (unfortunately shot looking into the sun.)

Less than a mile away, I found a second bridge, this of a different design. It was a little larger and crossed a broad little stream, supported by stone pillars holding up a slabbed top. This bridge was just off the road, and I was able to stop and examine it a bit closer. It also seemed to be in decent repair, and standing above it was possible to walk the path of the right-of-way without realizing there was a bridge beneath your feet at all (kind of like driving over a culvert in the road.)

I never did find any sign of Elmira. Maybe there’s nothing there, or maybe I wasn’t looking in the right place. It seems odd to me that a town that served as the juncture between two spurs of the railroad wouldn’t have some lingering evidence. I’ll have to return sometime after studying some old maps and take another look.

Second bridge, a few miles northwest of Oasis.
This one has kind of an angled construction.
Honestly, if this was an active railroad I wouldn't give it a second thought. There's just something about these forgotten stone relics that I find appealing, though.

Driving back I followed unfamiliar roads, steering in the vague direction of Tipton and letting the path lead where it would until I could find a recognizable landmark to direct me the rest of the way home. This is a beautiful time of year to explore the Iowa countryside, and I passed several rustic farmsteads that I had never before seen, despite growing up just fifteen miles away. It made for a very pleasant ride; one that allowed my mind to wander with the scenery and contemplate the curiosity that had led me on this spontaneous little adventure. To consider why, all of a sudden, I have this fascination with local history.

I think part of the reason is I don’t want to be the type of person who is unable to see the world beyond them self. I have this strong desire to understand the lives and experiences of those who shared this space beyond the realm of my own existence. And there’s a degree of solace in what I find. It’s evidence of a simpler time, when Iowa was more unique, and had far more character. People didn’t live in this trap of commuter subsistence, connected to the population centers by a ribbon of interstate; rushing to the city at seventy five miles an hour for work, school, shopping and every other need. Small towns were the center of life, and each had its own distinct identity, unlike the paint by number suburban commercial areas that you see today. There must have been so much more passion to life here back then; when people poured their heart and soul into their own communities, built their own homes and barns and provided for themselves everything they would need. Everything they did was centered on the long term well being of family, and neighbors were both helped and counted on. And nothing was disposable. People appreciated what they had because they had to earn it.

For this, I have such respect for those people and times. They established our roots here, and the basis of our collective identity. The Midwestern values people always talk about: hard work, neighbors helping neighbors, respect for the land and life; that’s where it came from. People still cling to that image today, but too often it’s only a façade. People think it’s a matter of automatic qualification, a birth right to lay such claims, yet many fail to exhibit the actions which support them. For me, I don’t want that to be the case. I want to remain in touch with those roots, and honor that legacy by living with values reflective of the ways of old. This research keeps me humble, and always mindful of those ideals.

Beyond that, studying local history has provided me a new way to explore. Setting off into the unknown has been such a big part of my life for the past, uh-hmm…, fifteen years; and now I find myself planted firmly back in a place where everything is familiar. Trying to look into the past has resurrected my sense of wonder, something I don’t feel I’ve experienced here since I was a kid. I’m enjoying being here again.

Finally, there is one other reason that these bridges, and old railroad corridors in general, are appealing to me. And that’s trail potential. This one outside of Oasis technically constitutes part of the Hoover Trail, and is therefore part of the greater American Discovery Trail network. When I look at these old right-of-ways, my mind races with possibilities.