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Iowa Interurban and Streetcar History


Published: June 2, 2023

By: Adam Burns

At its peak, Iowa contained 489 miles of interurbans, ranking it third among states located west of the Mississippi River.  Only Texas and California contained greater mileage.  Interestingly, Iowa's systems were somewhat unique in their ability to develop a substantial carload freight business, such as the Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern; Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern; Mason City & Clear Lake; and Cedar Rapids & Iowa City.

Those systems, and others, survived well beyond 1950 as a result.  Part of their success was thanks to the Chicago Great Western Railway, a notable Class 1 standard railroad of the 20th century that was very receptive to interchanging with local interurbans.  Most Class 1s, however, were quite hostile to these electrified networks even though they posed no real threat.

26082948782094900006.jpgFort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern B-B-B-B steeple cab #362. This particular locomotive was built by Spokane, Portland & Seattle's shop forces in 1944 for subsidiary Oregon Electric Railway. According to William Middleton's book, "Traction Classics: The Interurbans, Interurban Freight," it was 55 feet long, weighed 199,700 pounds, and could produce 50,000 pounds of maximum tractive effort (26,000 pounds hourly). It featured Baldwin 78-30-AA MCB trucks, Type M controls from General Electric, eight General Electric 222-G motors (capable of producing a total of 1,080 horsepower), and Westinghouse air brakes. The three units built (#60-62) were acquired by the Fort Dodge Line in 1947 and numbered 360-362.

Cedar Rapids & Marion City Railway

The Cedar Rapids & Marion City Railway was one of Iowa's first interurbans completed in 1892 on an 8-mile system connecting its namesake cities. It later became part of the United Light and Railways Company with the interurban rail service abandoned in 1938 in favor of buses.

Charles City Western Railway

The Charles City Western Railway was once part of today's Iowa Traction Railroad, the last remaining interurban freight railroad that still uses classic electric motors in regular service.

The CCW dates back to 1911 when its main line between Marble Rock and Colwell, Iowa was completed, a distance of about 21 miles. The railroad would eventually connect into downtown Charles City as well as a belt line route built around the town for freight service.  

Passenger was discontinued in 1952.  In 1963 it was acquired by the Iowa Terminal Railroad (predecessor to today's Iowa Traction system) and became the Charles City Division.  

In 1968 an F5 tornado hit Charles City and seriously damaged the road's overhead catenary, resulting in the discontinuance of electrified service.  

Two years later the line had been cut back to Waller, south of Colwell, with operations only extending on 15.7 of the original 21 miles.  Freight continued to decline on the Charles City Division and by the mid-1970s it was abandoned altogether

Des Moines & Central Iowa Railroad

The Des Moines & Central Iowa Railroad began operations as the Inter-Urban Railway, incorporated in 1899 and soon after in 1902 connected Des Moines to Colfax, a distance of 23 miles.

Four years later in 1906 the railroad built a 35-mile branch connecting Des Moines to Perry. In 1922 the system was reorganized as the Des Moines & Central Iowa Railroad.

Passengers services on the system were discontinued in 1949 and the remaining freight business was switched from electric to diesel locomotives, which lasted into the 1950s.

Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway

The "Crandic Route"  began operations on August 13, 1904 as a mid-sized interurban directly from the beginning serving Cedar Rapids, Iowa City, Swisher, and North Liberty (back from parent Iowa Railway & Light Company certainly helped its cause).

In 1914 it looked to extend further to Davenport but after seeing profits slip and what construction had been completed, and opened, was abandoned by 1928.

It continued to provide passenger service until May 30, 1953 when this was abandoned at which point the electricity was scrapped and diesels replaced the motorcars. Today, it remains a profitable shortline system.

Des Moines Railway

The Des Moines Railway was a small interurban railroad serving its namesake town between the late 1880s and early 1930s. It was abandoned in favor of buses.

Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern Railway

Also known as the Cedar Valley Road, the WCF&N was the second-largest in the state. It began life as the Cedar Falls Rapid Transit Company of 1895 building an eight-mile line serving Waterloo and Cedar Falls.

In 1901 a 14-mile extension reached Denver and two years later it was able to establish a connection with the friendly CGW and gained trackage rights to Sumner (it was later able to build its own line to serve the town).

By 1914 it also reached La Porte City, Urbana, and Cedar Rapids were it interchanged with the Crandic. The WCF&N was quite successful because of the importance it placed on freight operations, allowing it to operate top-notch and high speed passenger service.

It was the last interurban to provide passenger service when it abandoned the operation in 1956. Soon after it was purchased by the Illinois Central and Rock Island, which renamed the system as the Waterloo railroad.

Sioux City Service Company

The Sioux City Service Company resulted from the renaming of the Sioux City Traction Company, a local system created in 1899 to serve its namesake city. In 1922 the SCS became part of the Sioux City Gas & Electric.

Southern Iowa Railway

The Southern Iowa Railway was created in 1941 from several former companies which served Albia, Mystic and Centerville, which began as a route built by the Wabash Railroad.

After the Wabash the route came under the control of the Iowa Central Railroad (a Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway subsidiary), Southern Iowa Traction in 1910, Centerville Light & Traction Company in 1914, Southern Iowa Utilities Company in 1926 and finally the Southern Iowa Railway in 1941. Freight service on the railroad lasted until 1960.

Albia Interurban Railway

The Albia Interurban Railway served Albia, Hiteman and Hocking on an 11-mile railroad which opened in 1908. It was abandoned by 1925.

Tama & Toledo Electric Railway

The Tama & Toledo Electric Railway was a very small railroad serving its two equally small namesake towns. Passenger service lasted from the late 19th century through 1925 but interestingly freight service remained on the route until 1954.

Oskaloosa-Buxton Electric Railway

The Oskaloosa-Buxton Electric Railway began operations in 1907 connecting Oskaloosa and Beacon, a distance of three miles. It remained in operation until 1920.

Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern Railway

The Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern Railway was Iowa's largest interurban beginning operations in 1906 when it took over the little Newton & Northwestern.

The FDDM&S's main line operated between Fort Dodge and Des Moines along with branches reaching Ames, Rockwell City, Webster City and Lehigh. In total the system operated 147 miles of track.

The railroad abandoned electric operation for diesel locomotives in 1954 and a year later passenger service ended as well. In 1968 the railroad was purchased by the Chicago & North Western Railway from the Salzburg interests and much of the main line today continues to carry freight, particularly gypsum.


Wes Barris's SteamLocomotive.com is simply the best web resource on the study of steam locomotives. 

It is difficult to truly articulate just how much material can be found at this website. 

It is quite staggering and a must visit!