Rock Island Rail

Cedar County, Iowa

Following is the first of a three part series I originally wrote in March of 2012, on a now dormant blog. It has sustained significant interest through the years so I wanted to repost it here, on on my current website, where I know it will be preserved and remain accessible for the long-term. While the history here is in no way exhaustive, it does offer a glimpse of turn of the twentieth century Cedar County, Iowa- specifically the story of the Rock Island Railroad line which passed through Tipton and neighboring communities- and remnants which can still be seen today.

As I repost these in January 2023, it's been nearly eleven years since the entries were first shared. In that I do cringe a bit; partially at some of the photos and/or processing that I put in public view at the time (fortunately, I think my work has evolved for the better since then...) but honestly more so in my own awareness that in those years, the implications of how the railroad and European settlement impacted indigenous people weighs on me more and more. I'm still fascinated by all facets of history and believe that we should take interest in learning how society has advanced- especially on a local level. It's important that we explore these stories for our own deeper understanding and to pass them along to generations to come. I just want to clarify that any excitement portrayed in these essays reflects the act of discovery and getting a fuller picture of the chapters that preceded my family's time on this land; and an era that was previously only known to me through text books and Hollywood re-enactments coming into tangible view. It is not meant to whitewash the bigger story or ignore the original inhabitants of this land. Their chapters are extremely significant and of great interest to me, and I do plan to further study the Native history of this land in depth.

You can find the second and third parts of this series linked at the bottom of the page.

"Rock Island Rail"

Originally published- March 24, 2012

The photo above is of an arch from an old railroad bridge that has long been a fixture on my family’s farm (from long before it was my family’s farm.) It has always fascinated me. As kids we used to climb to the top and toss stones into the muddy waters of Rock Creek coursing below. Though I was aware it had historical significance (the date 1890 is chiseled on its side) back then it seemed just another part of the landscape. It blended naturally with the trees, the pasture and the creek itself. It was just another landmark; a symbol of home.

As I grew older, I became more cognizant that the old bridge was something special, providing a unique connection to a bygone era. I vividly recall one night while in high school having a dream where I was standing beside the stone arch. From my position in the pasture to the north, everything was normal, appearing as it does in modern day. Looking through the archway, however, everything was in black and white and I could see into the past. Ever since that dream, I have had an intense curiosity for local history. I wonder and try to imagine how things appeared in this place I have known for life, long before I came around. I question how the farmsteads looked, the different businesses in town, and of course the seemingly bizarre sight of steam engines chugging through our quiet little patch of countryside. I wonder how things looked even before that; when the area was first settled, or earlier yet when various native tribes roamed the land.

Unfortunately (since the archway hasn’t proven itself an interdimensional time portal since the night of that dream) I must rely on scarce vintage photographs from the turn of the last century and historical records to recreate such scenes in my mind. I actually hadn’t given this much thought for awhile, but last week after this photograph was taken, I climbed to the top of the bridge to remove the small cedar tree growing off its side. My uncle and I had spoken, and we were both concerned that the trees roots might cause eventual damage to the structure, so I volunteered to cut it down. While up there, I got to thinking about the age of the bridge (now 122 years old) and realized what a feat it must have been to move the massive limestone blocks in its construction. I know we’re not exactly talking about the pyramids here, but still, the thought of a steam crane out there in the post-Civil War era was enough to peak my imagination once more.

Today I had the chance to go down and visit with my grandparents, and asked what they knew about the bridge. The railroad had pulled out before they moved onto the farm in 1956, and both had lived in different parts of the county growing up, so they didn’t remember a whole lot about it. Grandpa explained to me how the road had changed (there are also remnants of an old car bridge just upstream) while grandma dug out a book on the history of Cedar County (Cedar Land 1836-1980, by Don and Dorothy Stout.) We visited for some time and I ended up borrowing the volume to study the chapter on Cedar County’s railway history a little bit more.

(Admittedly, the information that follows will probably only be of interest to those living in this area, or history buffs in general; so I won’t be offended if anyone bails now.)

In looking through this information tonight, I discovered much I hadn’t previously known.

-I realized and was surprised by the extent of rail traffic in the area from about 1880-1940. There was a spur running from Stanwood to Tipton (I believe that one actually continued longer) and there used to be a line running from Wilton to the Cedar Valley quarries to haul limestone. On top of that, there were constant proposals for construction of new routes. It’s interesting to read of how towns that are now barely or not even any longer in existence once competed for potential rail access. It makes you realize the importance of railways as a primary means of transportation during the time. These were the main links of commerce, and while laying new track was no easy task, neither was hauling grain by horse and wagon fifteen miles along muddy country roads to the nearest depot.

-As for our bridge, ground was first broken for a line connecting Tipton with points west at this very spot along Rock Creek in 1871. The project was started by the Iowa Southwest Railroad, but went unfinished. In 1881, the right of way was sold to Chicago-Rock Island- and Pacific Railroad and they developed a route for a spur out of Rock Island all the way across Cedar County. This ran through Bennett, Tipton, Buchanan, and all the way to Elmira (a tiny town outside of Iowa City. I’m not sure if anything is there now, or if the tracks extended beyond there.)

-Timber arrived for a trestle at Rock Creek in 1884, and I’m assuming that this meant a temporary bridge was put in place here, much like they did for the Cedar River crossing at the time. However, I also found a passage that said the route was constructed in two sections, and the later work (done under Davenport, Iowa and Dakota Railroad) was completed in 1888 and 1890, so I’m guessing that’s the outfit that built the permanent bridge. (The book I obtained this from has a wealth of information, but is a bit confusing as it keeps jumping back and forth between different railway lines by year.)

-The Rock Island spur ran across this stretch of the county for several decades. The line provided both freight and passenger service, though passenger cars were temporarily taken out of commission during World War I.

-The railroad ultimately chose to cut the route, first from Tipton to Elmira, and then from Bennett west, in 1939. The tracks were removed from the Cedar River near Buchanan to Tipton in October of 1940; sixteen years before my grandparents arrived on the farm.

That’s about all I was able to gather in my few hours of research tonight, but I’m definitely encouraged to follow up and try to learn more on this; and the fascinating yet often overlooked history of Tipton and Cedar County. It’s kind of cool, because rediscovering an appreciation for the local history is reinvigorating the sentimental connection I feel has been lacking since I moved back. It’s all about roots, and knowing where we came from; something that to me has always meant a lot.

Finally, I did find a few old photos of some train depots on the Rock Island spur this evening through the University of Iowa digital archives. These are posted below, and as noted on their website, for educational purpose only.

I’ll end for now, but if any of my neighbors have further comment or information on this topic, I would love to hear from you. Like I say, this is what I was able to learn tonight, primarily from Don Stout’s book, but I feel it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I’m eager to discover more; not just about the railroad, but of our Cedar County history.

Tipton Depot, circa 1950,380
Buchanan Depot, late 1930's after the route had been abandoned.,367
Elmira Depot.,1021
Steam engine in Elmira, Iowa. Rock Island Line.,2745

All historic images accessed through and property of Iowa Digital Library, The University of Iowa Libraries. For educational use only.