Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

Controversy concerning the Des Moines Valley Railroad

It has often been written and taught that railroad building in Van Buren County ended with the start of the Civil War and did not continue until near the end of the war, or after the war.

“Not so!” says Larry White. Several weeks ago he e-mailed me information that showed the possibility of the Des Moines Valley Railroad reaching points in Wapello County prior to the war. If so, this had to mean that the railroad line was completed through the entire length of Van Buren County if indeed it had reached Wapello County at this time.

In Van Buren County, Iowa: A Pictorial History, Joy Hansen writes, “The train line heading west was built up to Bentonsport in 1857, where it stopped construction until 1865, after the Civil War.” Several pieces of prior writing back her statement completely, such as Ray Hollenbeck’s website which says, “Bentonsport had an estimated 1,000 people and was on the terminus of the Des Moines Valley Railroad, and was the end of the line for several years.”

Further research shows that Bentonsport only reached a population of 515 (about 750 if you include Vernon across the river.) In a disclaimer at the end of his website, Mr. Hollenbeck admits that the statements made “might not be totally accurate.”

County historians will note that there are two trains of thought (pardon the pun) in terms of the railroad. I used the other story in the Keosauqua portion of the book mentioned above, when I stated, “In 1856, Keosauqua raised money to finance tracks into Van Buren County, assuming the railroad would come through the horseshoe bend. Near the defunct town of Lexington at Rock Port Siding, the railroad stopped in 1858 and waited two years for Keosauqua to raise $75,000 to bring service through town. When bond issues failed twice, the railroad bypassed the bend in 1860 and continued its route through the county.”

In The Keosauqua Experience, Clay Lanman corroborates this and says, “The first track of the Des Moines Valley was a narrow gauge line laid without ballast in the summer of 1857 when a point east of Mt. Zion at Rock Creek was reached.” He also mentions the wait for Keosauqua to fork over money. “When no money was forth-coming, grading which by-passed Keosauqua was resumed. The first train reached Summit (Mt. Zion) on September 14, 1860 and (within a short time) trains were running to Independent (Selma).” 

In the Douds portion, Jon Finney (Van Buren County, Iowa: Pictorial History) mentions the maiden voyage of the Des Moines River Valley Railroad in August, 1866. He says that Douds Station was named by the officials of the new railroad, and was shortened to Douds when the post office opened in 1869.

Work was delayed for awhile during the war, but only for a short time.

In the History of Wapello County, A. T. Andreas’ Illustrated History Atlas of the State of Iowa, 1875, says “In 1860 the Des Moines Valley Railroad, now the Keokuk and Des Moines Railroad, was completed to Ottumwa, by the aid (as in the case of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad) of a liberal issue of Wapello County bonds.”

It was not the first railroad into Ottumwa. The Burlington and Missouri Railroad had already reached Ottumwa in 1859. The first train into Eldon, was not until October 28, 1870 but a point called Ashland (which no longer exists) near the present town of Eldon, was also reached by rail in 1859 (probably in connection with Ottumwa.) 

According to the History of the Rock Island Railroad, trains began operating from Keokuk to Eddyville in 1861. At this time, the Civil War halted work on the railroad until 1864. In that year (1864) the Des Moines Valley Railroad reached Mahaska County. When it was finally completed to Des Moines in 1866, it was heralded as the first railroad to reach Iowa’s capital city. As Jon Finney stated, the first voyage from Keokuk to Des Moines took place in August, 1866.

I think we can draw an accurate picture of the railroad progress from these sources. Thank you, Larry White, for your contribution on setting the record straight in terms of the crossing of Van Buren County by rail.

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