Iowa Railroads And Railfanning In "The Hawkeye State"

Iowa railroads are known for traveling through flat, open countryside and farmland as far as the eye can see. The state, rich in railroad history, and even today is home to several important main lines, particularly those heading east and west. Historically, the state's importance to railroads has been its strong base in agriculture. This could be witnessed by the amount of branch and secondary lines once sprawling all across the state during the early and mid-20th century. Unfortunately, Iowa has also shown what can happen when farms stopped relying so heavily on moving their products by rail as the state has lost significant trackage since it peaked during the 1920s. In any event, along with the state's nearly 4,000 miles of operating railroads it is also home to several museums and excursion trains. In all, the Hawkeye State offers a little of everything!

In another time perhaps scenes like this would have been commonplace... Iowa Interstate's Rock Island heritage unit is tied down with train BICB-08 as Norfolk Southern's Pennsylvania heritage unit passes by at South Amana Yard (IA) on December 9, 2015. "The Iowa Interstate Railroad has an agreement with Norfolk Southern to run 80 grain trains across its rails via Peoria, Illinois to Heartland Co-op in Des Moines for loading. On one of its trips to load up, NS sent the PRR heritage unit #8102 along. When the train departed Des Moines on a Tuesday, it had to lay over at Newton overnight until a fresh crew was available. Lucky for me, the day they departed on Wednesday from Newton was my day off from work. So I set out to chase the train from Newton to South Amana, Iowa." - Buddy Burton

The state's railroads begin in 1853 when the Mississippi & Missouri was chartered to build a line between Davenport, Iowa City, and Muscatin which was completed in 1855. While this railroad would become part of the now-classic Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific system it has a much more significant footnote in history. When a steamboat hit its Government Bridge across the Mississippi River (the first such structure to cross the body of water when it opened in 1856) the steamboat company sued the railroad to have it removed as a hazard to water traffic. The M&M hired attorney Abraham Lincoln to defend them. The case eventually went to the Supreme Court which ruled in the railroad's favor in 1862.

Surrounding State Histories





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A set of Rock Island FT's are seen here in Council Bluffs, Iowa on December 24, 1952. Acquired in May, 1944 these particular FT's had already witnessed nearly a decade of service. Note #93's "RF" logo which stood for "Rocket Freight," meant to evoke the company's high-speed freight service.

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Iowa Short Lines And Regionals

Surviving Iowa Stations

Iowa Train Rides, Information And Locations

Chicago, Burlington & Quincy E7A #9932-B leads the "Nebraska Zephyr" into Ottumwa, Iowa during the 1950's. This particular service connected Chicago with Lincoln, Nebraska via Omaha.

In any event, following the opening of the M&M Iowa would be home to most of the west's and Midwest's best-remembered classic railroads from the Rock Island and Milwaukee Road to the Chicago & North Western Railway and Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Others include the Santa Fe (whose Transcon line clips the southeastern corner of the state for 17 miles), Illinois Central, Chicago Great Western Railway, and the Wabash Railroad. With so many classic railroads once dotting the state, and its sprawling web of agricultural branch lines, it is not surprising that Iowa ranked near the top in terms of rail mileage. While today it carries just 40% of its original railroad infrastructure, Iowa is still home to several important rail lines.

* Iowa's first railroad was the Mississippi & Missouri, formed in 1853 to link the state's two major rivers; the Mississippi at Davenport with the Missouri at Council Bluffs.  It was a component of the Chicago & Rock Island to continue its westward expansion, a system which later became the modern Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific.   The line's first 12 miles were completed in June, 1855 when the locomotive 'Antoine LeClair' pulled an excursion that month between Davenport and Walcott.   In April, 1856 the M&M completed a bridge across the Mississippi River into Davenport, marking the first such structure to span the mighty waterway.  In his book, "The Rock Island Line," author Bill Marvel notes the locomotive 'Fort Des Moines' marked the opening by crossing the 1,528-foot bridge on April 21st.  

Today, Iowa's trackage is mostly operated by Class Is; BNSF Railway, Union Pacific and Canadian National. The rest of the Hawkeye State's rail network is operated by regional Iowa Interstate (whose livery is inspired by the University's of Iowa and Iowa State although it also retained rights to use the Rock Island's former shield logo) as well as shortlines Burlington Junction Railway, Appanoose County Community Railroad, the historic Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway, D&I Railroad, interurban Iowa Traction Railroad, Keokuk Junction Railway, and Iowa Northern Railway.   While the Rocket, City, and Hiawatha passenger fleets may no longer operate through Iowa, Amtrak does dispatch its California Zephyr and Southwest Chief through the state.

Nearing the end of its career, streamlined Chicago & North Western 4-6-4 #4006 (E-4) steams into Council Bluffs, Iowa in the summer of 1952. Nine examples (#4001-4009) were manufactured by American Locomotive in 1938. Externally, they were quite similar to Milwaukee Road's F-7's.

Passenger and freight trains aside, Iowa railroads are also home to a number of tourist lines and railroad museums, the most famous of which is likely the Union Pacific's own, the Union Pacific Railroad Museum based in Council Bluffs (it alone, is worth the trip to see!). Others include the Milwaukee Road Shops Historic District, Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, Delmar Depot Museum, Hobo Museum, Midwest Central Railroad, Rails West Railroad Museum, Trainland USA, and the Hub City Heritage Corporation.   Finally, don't forget about the company Rail Merchants International, a dealer in used railroad equipment for sale to the general public, which is based in Iowa. If you have the resources you can own your own boxcar or caboose! 

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Header Photo: Drew Jacksich

Researching Rights-Of-Way

A popular pastime for many is studying and/or exploring abandoned rights-of-way.  Today, there are tens of thousands of miles scattered throughout the country.  Many were pulled up in the 1970's and 1980's although others were removed long before that.  If you are researching active or abandoned corridors you might want to check out the United States Geological Survey's (USGS) Historical Topographic Map Explorer.  It is an excellent resource with thousands of historic maps on file throughout the country.  Just type in a town or city and click on the timeline of maps at the bottom of the page!

Studying Diesels

You will be hard pressed at finding a better online resource regarding diesel locomotives than Craig Rutherford's  The website contains everything from historic (fallen flags) to contemporary (Class I's, regionals, short lines, and even some museums/tourist lines) rosters, locomotive production information, technical data, all notable models cataloged by the five major builders (American Locomotive, Electro-Motive, General Electric, Fairbanks-Morse, and Baldwin), and much more.  A highly recommended database!

Electro-Motive Database

In 1998 a gentleman by the name of Andre Kristopans put together a web page highlighting virtually every unit every out-shopped by General Motors' Electro-Motive Division.  Alas, in 2013 the site closed by thankfully Don Strack rescued the data and transferred it over to his site (another fine resource).  If you are researching anything EMD related please visit this page first.  The information includes original numbers, serials, and order numbers.