Our Iowa Heritage: Iowa City – The Railroad.

The Railroad Comes to Iowa City – January 1, 1856.

Railroad Arrives – 1856 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

Back in 1838, when Iowa first became a Territory and Iowa City was just a glimmer in one’s eye, there were dreamers, like John Plumbe, Jr. of Dubuque, who envisioned the day when the West would be connected with the rest of the world through the work of the Iron Horse.

Author Mildred Sharp, in her 1922 article, The M. and M. Railroad, describes it this way…


By the 1850’s, railroads back East were quite common, but if a person had a desire to venture further west than Illinois, the only options were by foot, horse or mule, stagecoach, or riverboat. As we discussed in an earlier post, roads were slow in developing across the Territory of Iowa, and even when we became a state in 1846, traveling from city to city was no easy thing.

Stage Ready – 1855 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

The stage coach business was buzzing but it’s understandable why the good people of the state’s capital, Iowa City, desperately wanted to bring the railroad to town. So, in 1853, a company was organized to build a railway from Davenport to Council Bluffs: the Mississippi and Missouri (M&M) Railroad.


(L-0067) Mississippi and Missouri Stock Certificates.

LeGrand Byington (hand raised) is depicted cheering on the M&M workers in Railroad Arrives – 1856 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

But, all this didn’t happen without some push back from others…

Iowa City vs. Muscatine! George Yewell‘s 1853 editorial cartoon stirred the pot! Click here to read more about George H. Yewell.
(L-0071) Muscatine Petitions the US Senate! The State Legislature of Iowa was petitioned by the good people of Muscatine for the proposed railroad to pass through their fair city. This 3-page report, dated January 20, 1853, spells out the State Legislature’s resolution that was duly recorded in the U.S. Senate. It’s this move that brought the Iowa City contingent to push even harder to overcome this growing support for Muscatine.

$50K Bonus Settles the Muscatine vs. Iowa City Issue.

Despite the strong opposition in Muscatine, the M&M executives agreed to focus, first and foremost, on completing their first line from Davenport to Iowa City, setting a deadline on the project for January 1, 1856. Most historians agree that this decision was made in Iowa City’s favor because the delegation from our city sweetened the deal by offering a $50,000 bonus if M&M completed the 55-mile track on or before January 1st!


Now, an obvious point we must insert here.

It would do little good for the citizens of Iowa to have a railroad, if it didn’t connect with the railway lines back east. That, of course, meant someone needed to overcome a huge obstacle called: The Mighty Mississippi River.


So now, by 1854, everything seemed to be falling into place…


…even though there was a bit of sarcasm in the midst of the progress…

M&MRailroad-p7a-8a 2

In the summer of 1854, the first locomotive was ferried across the Mississippi River since the bridge connecting the railroad in Illinois hadn’t yet been completed (1856).

Now, allow me to fast-forward one-and-a-half years to December 1855. If you recall, I mentioned earlier that the Iowa City delegation had agreed to pay M&M an extra $50,000 if the 55-mile track from Davenport to Iowa City was completed on or before the contractual agreement date of New Year’s Day, 1856. While construction had been successful throughout the year, on Christmas Day 1855, the M&M still had two-and-a-half miles to go. As temperatures dropped, machinery froze and numbed the hands and feet of workers, greatly retarding the work. Historian Irving Weber picks up the story on New Year’s Eve 1855

This is the bell of Mechanics Academy (1855-1897) – it’s very likely that this is one of those “church bells” that rung out on New Years Eve as the M&M train pulled into Iowa City! Click here to read more about the bells of Iowa City.

Another report from The Palimpsest states…

Yet despite the many obstacles, the last rail was laid by the stroke of midnight, and yes, the $50,000 bonus to M&M was paid!

Railroad Arrives – 1856 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

Two days later, on the afternoon of January 3rd, 1856, the first passenger train, pulled by the Oskaloosa, rolled into Iowa City. The booming of cannon announced its arrival. For years, the people of Iowa City had looked forward to this event. In celebration, they had prepared a feast for the visitors from Chicago, Rock Island, Davenport, and Muscatine; and although it was twenty below zero, visitors and townspeople joined in the Grand Railroad Festival in the Old Stone Capitol. Again, here’s Irving Weber to tell us more…

H.D. Downey organizes this big January 3, 1856 Grand Railroad Festival, offering free tickets to any easterner who will ride the Rock Island from Chicago to Davenport and then ride on the first M&M passenger train into Iowa City. Click here to read more.

And so, the Iron Horse era of Johnson County had begun.

The first M&M depot (1855-1898) was located at the south end of Johnson Street, four blocks to the east of the present Rock Island station. Click here to read more about the Iowa City depot.

Over the next 100+ years, passenger and freight trains alike would pull into Iowa City, connecting us with the rest of the world. But wait. The story continues…


On April 9, 1856, the Mississippi River bridge was, indeed, completed, but not without its own set of hiccups. Less than one month later, on May 6, the Effie Afton ran into the wooden structure, sinking the boat and heavily damaging the bridge (see pics below). The court case went all the way to the Supreme Court, with a lawyer from Salem, IL, one Abraham Lincoln, involved along the way.

Even after the good people of Davenport repaired their bridge, for four years (1856-1860), Iowa City was the end of the line for railroad travelers wanting to head west. The Panic of 1857 along with management difficulties resulted in sporadic progress. Yet, despite that fact, Iowa City became a busy, busy place. Look at the daily schedules below from 1856-1858…

In 1859, construction began on the M&M bridge, crossing the Iowa River on a single-track deck truss, and opening in 1860 – pictured below (on the right) in the 1868 bird’s eye map of Iowa City.


Irving Weber tells us…

But, train service didn’t reach Des Moines until after the Civil War (1866). This was the same year, M&M ran out of steam financially, and was bought out by the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad (Rock Island) which stepped in, completing their Iowa route to Council Bluffs/Omaha by 1869. That, of course, was the same year the Union Pacific completed their part of the transcontinental railroad from Omaha to Utah Territory, while the Central Pacific met them there, coming east from Sacramento.


In closing, here are just a few facts. In 1855, there were 3500 people living in Iowa City. Two years later, after the railroad came to town, the population more than doubled to over 8,000. In 1860, the state of Iowa had approximately 655 miles of track in operation and by 1870, that grew to over 2,600 miles. In 1900, that number grew to almost 9,200, finally peaking between 1911 and 1917 with more than 10,500 roadway miles of track.

(S-0021) 1869 – Locomotive postage stamp. In 1869, the Transcontinental railroad was completed, uniting the nation with one common link from the Atlantic to the Pacific. So, at the time of issue there was nothing quaint about the locomotive featured on this stamp – it was a shining miracle of modern technology. It represented freedom of movement – the opportunity to visit family and friends, or a chance to move on to a new life.

(S-0022) 1901- Pan-American postage stamp. The Pan-American series of six stamps commemorated the 1901 World’s Fair held at Buffalo, New York, and was a celebration of technology and its impact on America. In recognition of the tie that truly united America’s East and West, this stamp illustrates the Empire State Express. In 1901, this four-car locomotive was a truly modern machine and could easily travel over 100 miles per hour.

The Rock Island Railroad played a big part in our Boller history. Click here to read more about that part of Our Iowa Heritage…or shall I say, Missouri?

(M-0010) The Rock Island successfully operated in Iowa City into the 1970’s. Click here to read more about the Iowa City depot.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

83-Year-Old Murals Go Downtown While Longfellow Renovates, Zach Berg, Iowa City Press Citizen, May 20, 2017

The M. and M. Railroad, Mildred J. Sharp, The Palimpsest – Volume 3 Number 1 Article 2, January 1922, pp. 1, 3-9, 15

Iowa’s First Railroad, Frank P. Donovan, The Palimpsest – Volume 44 Number 9 Article 2, September 1963, p 386

Muscatine Opposition Political Cartoon, George H. Yewell, State Historical Society of Iowa

The Rock Island Depot, Historical Stories About Iowa City-Volume One, Irving Weber, 1976, pp. 32-33

The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad, Wikipedia

The Little Engine That Did – Another First for Davenport, The Davenport Public Library website, 2008

Transportation in Iowa-Chapter Two Railroad Construction and Influence in Iowa, Iowa Department of Transportation website

Rock Island Railroad Bridge Over Iowa River – 1860, Irving Weber, Historical Stories About Iowa City – Volume 2, Article 114, 1975, pp. 2-4

A Pictorial History of the First Railroad Bridge Across the Mississippi River, Curtis C. Roseman, RiverAction.com 2006

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