Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Catching the Fever

It was the middle of the 19th century. Settlers had poured into the Iowa region from the east and south, and shared a common concern for the development of adequate transportation. Since the earliest times they had been shipping produce down the streams to St. Louis and New Orleans, but now Iowans were catching railroad fever!

Actually, the nation’s first railroad had been built near Baltimore in 1831 but had gone unnoticed. Then by 1860, Chicago was served by a dozen railroad lines. Iowans, like all Midwesterners, were anxious to build railroads throughout the state.

In the early 1850s, officials in the river communities of Dubuque, Clinton, Davenport and Burlington began to organize local rail companies knowing that railroads built west of Chicago would soon cross the Mississippi River. The railroad crossed the Mississippi in 1857 but the Civil War halted activity for awhile. As soon as the war was over, the frenzy began all anew. 

Completion of five railroads across Iowa brought economic changes. Iowans could travel every month of the year. Small towns as well as cities had passenger trains six times or more each day, which was far superior to anything steamboat traffic could offer. Railroads provided year-round service for farmers to ship corn, wheat, beef, pork, equipment, etc. Across the nation to eastern, southern or western markets--anywhere in the world.

Railroads brought major changes to Iowa’s industrial sector, as it brought manufacturing into focus. New industries sprang up related to agriculture. Oats processing, meat packing, and distribution of dairy products were among the first leaders.

The new Republican Party sprang up from out of Iowa, and the population of the state almost doubled between 1860 (675,000) and 1870 (1,200,000). The ethnic composition changed also, as Iowa began attracting immigrants, particularly Swedes, Norwegians, Danes and Dutch.

Iowa’s railroad building fever continued after the Civil War. During the decade of the 1870s, Iowa built a vast network of rails connecting many towns and villages, particularly east and west across the state. By the 1880s, three lines crossed Van Buren County, plus a small spur that connected Mt. Zion and Keosauqua. 

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick