| October 14, 2005 | October 19, 2005 | October 20, 2005 |
Putnam County gets a railroad - after a long wait
By: Barney Winger - Contributing writer
Building the American railroad system was our nation's most important event in the 1800s, because the railroads opened up the Midwest and West for development. Railroads linked this country like no other event in our history, and rail travel meant Americans could travel from coast to coast in days rather than months. Though plans were made for railroad expansion before the war between the states, the long and costly Civil War essentially stopped progress.
After the Civil War, and as American pioneers moved into the Great Plains in increasing numbers, railroad people quickly made plans to lay tracks from Chicago across the Mississippi River and westward to Omaha, Nebraska. One of the several routes would pass through southern Iowa into Putnam County, Missouri, and south to Kansas City.
Citizens along potential railroad routes were excited, because a railroad meant an end to isolation, an economic boom for farming communities and greater opportunities for their children. Competition was often intense between the small communities, where railroad companies were planning routes. As it was with every railroad town, the effect the rail linkage had on the growth and development of Putnam County was considerable.
For many years before the railroad came, settlements in Putnam County received their supplies by sending oxen and horse-drawn wagon trains to Alexandria, Mo., a commercial town on the west bank of the Mississippi River. Because the supply trains might experience all kinds of weather and obstacles, the journeys would take a week or more. Traveling to visit kinfolks a hundred or so miles away was virtually impossible.
With a railroad, a trip between Unionville, Mo., and Burlington, Iowa, could be made in one day. The train's speed of 20-25 miles per hour may not seem like much in the 21st century, but it could be likened to taking an airplane to London instead of a ship. More importantly, trains delivered freight in a timely manner.
In 1867, Putnam County officials and businessmen wanted to see a railroad built through the county. The Alexander and Nebraska Railroad had expressed an interest in building a rail line through Unionville. A meeting was soon held in Unionville by community leaders to elect delegates to a Railroad Convention to be held in Lancaster, Mo.. At this meeting it was proposed that a county bond be issued to help finance the building of Putnam County's first railroad.
In many cases during those early railroad building days, the American railroad system was built by a conglomerate of forming companies, whose intent was to build short lines between towns that were sometimes less than 50 miles apart. The forming companies were railroad developers whose main purpose was to make contact with interested community leaders, to raise construction funds and to plan and organize. The counties, towns and wealthy individuals would put up the money for railroad construction through their community, and then the line would be part of a major rail system, such as the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q).
Eager to be linked to the outside world by railroad, Putnam County's voters approved a county bond in the amount of $150,000 for the construction of a railroad through the county. Unfortunately, the county's hopes were dashed when the Alexander and Nebraska Railroad decided to build through Centerville, Iowa, and to become part of the CB&Q line across southern Iowa. Putnam's citizens were angry! They believed Centerville had stolen their railroad. Actually, the railroad people made the decision based on economics. And anyway, compared to Putnam County, Centerville raised more money for railroad building.
Two years later, in 1869, another railroad surveyed an east to west route through the county. This was to be the Mississippi and Mo. line but even though the bond was available, the line was never built. Again, Putnam County citizens were disappointed.
Within a short time, the Chicago & Southwestern (C&SW) expressed interest in building a line through Putnam County. After the $150,000 bonds were again approved, the railroad decided to enter Mo. in Mercer County and pass through Princeton. That line became the main railroad for the Rock Island, and today that same track is the main north-south line of the Union Pacific.
Undaunted by repeated failures to link Unionville with the great American markets by railroad, the proud citizens of Unionville demonstrated their resilience and determination. Finally, in 1871, the Burlington and Southwestern (B&SW) proposed to build a line through Unionville. The line would start in Viele, Iowa, run west through Farmington, Bloomfield, Moulton, Cincinnati and Unionville. With a branch running south to Linneus, Mo., the line would then continue west to St. Joseph, Mo..
By late summer 1871, 18 miles of track was built and construction to Unionville was finally underway. The final rail into Unionville was laid on June 8, 1873. Some grading was done west of Unionville, but no track was laid. The B&SW Railroad was in financial trouble and had to limit further expansion. What was to be a branch line from Unionville to Laclede was completed in 1876 and became the main line. The tracks from Unionville to St. Joseph were never completed.
After many years of waiting, Unionville would finally get its' railroad. Plans were quickly made for an overdue celebration.
By: Barney Winger - Contributing writer
Regardless of the size of the communities, the largest and most important event any Midwestern town could experience was the arrival of the railroad. Most of the communities were young, and everything was controlled by the speed of a horse and buggy. The arrival of the first train in every community was cause for a grand celebration. Unionville was no exception.
On June 6, 1873, two days before the last spike was driven into a rail, Mr. H. D. Mitchell of Unionville wrote a letter to the B&SW Railroad people and invited them to come to Unionville to celebrate the long awaited completion of the railroad.
Mr. James Putnam, vice president of the B&SW, answered on June 7 to report that Tuesday, June 17, would be the day the first passenger train would arrive in Unionville. Putnam wrote: "We will send a special train over the road, leaving Burlington, Iowa, at 6 a.m. It will arrive at 12 noon, leave Unionville at 3 p.m. and return to Burlington at 9 p.m. The train will consist of four passenger coaches and one baggage car, with accommodations for 150-200 people."
For sometime, the proud and industrious people of Unionville had been working on celebration plans to honor the B&SW Railroad officers and employees and Burlington businessmen who would be on the first train. Committees had been formed, speakers selected, food and flowers determined, and the schedule for the celebration was set.
On June 12, 1873, just five days before the biggest celebration the town had ever put on, an editorial in the Unionville Republican reminded the readers of the anger and bitterness they had experienced in getting their railroad.
Though the editorial began by describing the bright and prosperous future Unionville would enjoy with a railroad, it went on to accuse others for Unionville's failure to get a railroad sooner. The writer pointed out: "We have been deprived of an immense amount of business that justly belonged to us for want of shipping facilities, while our neighbors have been accommodated in this direction.
"We now send the edict to all those towns on the nearer railroads that have been taking our trade, that we now have a railroad of our own and expect to give them a little trouble in retaining business that does not belong to them. Centerville, Iowa, and Glendale, Missouri, have been parasites upon us, drawing their riches from the people of our county long enough, and Unionville now bids them defiance. We intend to do our own business in the future, and shake off the leeches that have long sucked our blood."
Though the lengthy editorial continued its' literary attack against outside parasites, it concluded with this positive note: "Unionville, in the course of sixty days, will be in direct connection by rail with the markets of St. Louis and Chicago. We can then take our choice of markets and trade where it is in our best interests. We will become a strong, prosperous and independent community."
June 17, 1873 was a cool day with a refreshing breeze when 175 of Burlington Iowa's, best citizens were welcomed at the Burlington depot for their ride to Unionville. They were entertained by the Cornet Band, before boarding the gaily-decorated train. Instead of five cars, the train had swollen to twelve.
Since this was a special train, all the communities along the 130 mile route cheered and celebrated its' passing. More people joined the train with the largest number joining at Moulton, Iowa. Over 300 enthusiastic people soon crowded into the passenger cars.
The excitement and anticipation of the train's arrival had overwhelmed Unionville. Twelve o'clock noon had come and gone and the citizens were increasingly anxious. Because of all the people the train had to pick up along the route, it was running late. As the minutes passed, people strained to hear the first blast of the whistle. Finally, after what seemed to be hours of waiting, the first distant sound of the whistle could be heard as it left Howland, descended the hill east of Blackbird Creek, crossed the bridge and started the climb up the hill to Unionville.
At about 1:50 p.m., the train came steaming into Unionville along Monroe Street, crossed Washington Street and pulled into the station southwest of the intersection of Main and 22nd Streets. A new beginning for Unionville had just arrived, and no event before or after has ever been so anticipated and exciting.
Soon after the train had come to a noisy halt and the passengers had been welcomed by community leaders, the Burlington and Unionville town bands led the huge crowd of citizens and guests to the square. There a scrumptious feast awaited the hungry guests.
Unionville citizens went all out to welcome their first train. When the first CB&Q train had arrived in Fairfield, Iowa, 980 feet of tables were set up to feed everyone. Not to be outdone at their later celebration, Ottumwa set up 8 tables with each one 400 feet long. It is not known how many tables were set up around the Unionville square, but there had to be many. Tables were set up on the west, south and east sides of the square. The ladies of Unionville had been cooking for days to feed all the hungry guests who arrived on the first train and,of course, to feed the town's own citizens.
After a lunch of boiled ham, chicken, potatoes, bread and butter, pies and cake, everyone moved to the shady side of the square for the formal festivities. One can assume this ceremony took place on the north side. Short speeches were presented and the official dedication of rail service to Unionville was completed. Everyone then walked back to the station, with the bands leading the procession. The guests boarded the train and left Unionville at 4 p.m., and they arrived back in Burlington after midnight.
The newspaper accounts in Unionville, Burlington, Fort Madison and Keokuk hailed the Unionville celebration a huge success. After years of waiting, the daily work of running a railroad through Unionville could finally begin.
By: Barney Winger - Contributing writer
The Burlington & Southwestern Railroad ran due west from Fort Madison through southern Iowa to Cincinnati. At Cincinnati, the railroad turned straight south towards Unionville. From Unionville, the line proceeded through Lemons, Pollock, Boynton, Milan, and finally joined the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad at Laclede. There were two reasons for the southerly turn toward Unionville. First, as stated earlier, Putnam County's citizens had pledged $150,000 to have a railroad built through Unionville. The second reason was the coal mines at Mendota.
Other than hauling farmers' livestock to market from stockyards near railroad stations in some communities, Putnam County never provided a lot of freight for the railroads to haul. The main freight was coal from the four coal mines around Mendota. A branch line ran 6 miles southeast to Mine #2.
After the railroad entered Putnam County northwest of Mendota, it followed a creek west of the mining town and eventually turned southwest towards the little town of Howland, which was 9 miles southwest of Mendota. The line continued in a sweeping curve to the south and then proceeded towards Blackbird Creek. At the Blackbird Creek Post Office the railroad followed the creek southwest to Unionville.
According to the Unionville Republican, "the first depot in Unionville was nothing more than a flat car with a wooden shanty for the station agent's quarters." Eventually, the railroad company furnished the accommodating agent and operator, W. J. Eareckson, with comfortable quarters in what was one of the nicest depots around. The newspaper noted: "Mr. Eareckson looks as happy and contented as a boy with a new sled."
In 1881, Charles Perkins became president of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy (CB&Q) Railroad. Perkins, who lived in Burlington, was fighting to keep the CB&Q in business because of continued conflicts with Jay Gould. Gould was one of the great railroad builders of the 1800s, but he was ruthless and intended to takeover or destroy the CB&Q.
Because of the conflict with Gould, Perkins leased the B&SW Railroad in 1881 in order to get a connection to western lines at Kansas City. With CB&Q money, the line to Carrollton was built; however, the Gould empire collapsed in 1885, and the line from Carrollton to Kansas City was never finished.
On January 1, 1901, the CB&Q bought the B&SW, and this transaction completed the construction of railroads through Unionville, but not in Putnam County. Two more railroads were built in the area. These railroads went through Powersville and Lucerne in west Putnam, and the Iowa & St. Louis Railroad followed the Chariton River and passed through Livonia, Lickskillet and Worthington in the east end of the county (more on these lines in later articles).
It should be noted that most people today think of a train as being a mile or more long string of coal and oil cars, loaded flat bed cars, and covered freight cars that come barreling along at 50 to 60 miles per hour.
Such descriptions were not the trains of the 1800s. The number of cars coupled to a train was determined by the pulling power of the locomotive. Because the steam powered engines of the 1800s and early 1900s had limited power, a passenger train of four cars or twenty freight cars was all the engine could handle. Steam locomotives were used until the 1930s, when trains were powered by diesel-electric engines. Early freight and passenger cars were rickety structures made of wood, and luxury and comfort were not characteristics of the passenger cars that carried Americans in the 1800s and early 1900s.
There were never a lot of trains going through Unionville. In the 1880s, a passenger train left Unionville for Burlington at 3:10 a.m. and returned at 9:10 p.m. A freight train left at 8:15 a.m. and returned that evening. The 1920 timetable listed a daily passenger train going southbound at 1:12 p.m., and a northbound at 2:00 p.m. This train ran everyday, except Sunday.
The only passenger services on Sunday were the freight trains. Unionville passengers could catch a southbound freight train on Sunday at 9:00 a.m. and a northbound at 12:25 p.m. To provide passenger service on freight trains, it was not unusual for a passenger coach to be attached to the end of the freight train. Passengers could also ride in the caboose. Freight carrying trains were usually much slower than a passenger train, but they provided a needed service.
Ed Hudson was born and raised in Mendota and attended Unionville High School in the late 1930s. He says, "On Friday evenings I came home on the northbound passenger train. Going back to school on Sundays, I rode in the caboose of a freight train going south."
It appears that the daily trains through Unionville consisted of one passenger and one freight each way. Mendota, Unionville, Lemons and all farming communities had small stockyards near the railroad stations, where farmers could load their livestock on trains for transport to markets. Businesses in these small railroad towns usually submitted their orders to visiting salesmen who ensured their respective companies shipped the goods. With no trains, the visitors would have had a difficult time filling the needs of the community's citizens.
During World War II, the beautiful Unionville depot was a beehive of human activity. Families saw their loved ones leave for and return from war from that old station. Before, during and immediately after the war, the productive Mendota coal mines justified the freight service, but the passenger service would noticeably decline. Since the line through Unionville was only a branch line, the community's days of having passenger service were numbered. After World War II, the popularity and affordability of the automobile made running passenger trains costly for all railroad companies, and they petitioned government agencies to discontinue the service. With the building of the Interstate Highway System, large trucks provided a cheaper way to move freight over long distances. Many branch lines were abandoned.
The railroad between Cincinnati and Unionville was the first to be discontinued, but the exact year is unknown. Even after the Mendota mines had shut down, the service continued for awhile.
Both Ed Hudson and Tom Starns are lifelong citizens of Putnam County, and neither can recall exactly when the railroad north of Unionville ceased operations. They each agreed that the service ended in the late `40s or early `50s, but the CB&Q continued the Unionville to Laclede route until the 1970s.
Records do indicate that on September 28, 1970, a hearing was held in Unionville to discuss the abandonment of the Unionville to Milan line. On June 9, 1971, a notice was served that opponents of the abandonment had thirty days to file exceptions. A final abandonment order was signed in the summer of 1971.
The history of railroading through Unionville lasted for 102 years. During those years there were several owners of the railroad, beginning with the B&SW and ending with the Burlington Northern. While nothing memorable ever happened, like continued building of branch lines to better serve the community, the railroad did benefit the people and businesses of Unionville. The railroad linked Unionville with the rest of the world.
Today, traces of the old railroad can be seen in Unionville and even south and west of Mendota. Traveling south towards Lemons on Highway 5, the old tree lined railroad bed is visible for several miles along the east side of the road. For those of us who have lived and enjoyed the days when trains came through America's tiny communities, we are touched by nostalgia when that era becomes a conversational subject. There was something especially romantic and exciting about those trains. Our nation hasn't been the same since that era ended!