Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick


Shortly before the Civil War, the railroad industry reached Van Buren County. The villages along the Des Moines River had used the river for transportation as long as they could, but the alarming problem of silting of the river led to an abandonment of funding for the Des Moines River Project that had once ensured support for locks, dams and river trade. By the late 1850s the industry was doomed.

Already a shift in emphasis had taken place in river communities as they prepared to expand into a transportation system that provided remarkably more efficient and dependable service than the steamboat industry could assume.

As soon as the railroads extended west of the Mississippi River, promoters were busy campaigning in the major towns bringing bond issues before the voters that would raise capital in an effort to allure the attractive industry to Van Buren County.

Between 1857 and 1860, the Keokuk-Des Moines and Minnesota Railroad entered Van Buren. It was later a part of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific and served Farmington, Bonaparte, Bentonsport, and Douds Station. The Burlington and Southwestern line was built in 1871 and 1872 serving Milton, Cantril, Mt. Sterling and Farmington. The Peavine (which became part of the CBQ) linked Stockport and Birmingham with Ft. Madison in 1882. The three railroads revived some of the villages and brought new communities into existence as it provided a new, quick means for farmers to market products.

Many citizens of Keosauqua failed to see the importance of securing the railroad for a variety of reasons. Others realized the importance, but felt that they were being asked to pay for it twice! Keosauqua had raised money for railroad building, but suddenly felt like they were being held for ransom when the railroad builders asked for more money! The end result was, Keosauqua was left high and dry without the railroad!

In 1856, citizens of Keosauqua raised $37,400 in a bond issue that provided $17,000 for financing the railroad from the east into Van Buren County. Somehow Keosauqua was under the impression that this money ensured that the railroad would enter and exit through the horse-shoe bend and through the city of Keosauqua.

By 1858 the railroad had reached Farmington, Bonaparte, Bentonsport and Columbus. At Rock Port in Washington Township near the defunct town of Lexington on Rock Creek, the railroad builders waited for Keosauqua’s decision. A $75,000 bond was twice presented to voters that would have provided service through Keosauqua, but both times it was rejected by the voters. In 1860, the railroad continued the line through Summit (Mt. Zion,) Kilbourne, and on up the river as it continued through the county.

When the Des Moines River was declared unfit for navigation in 1870, an end came to the already imperiled steamboat industry. Without the steamboat and the railroad, Keosauqua declined 9% in population within five years, and voters in 1875 were required to pass a bond issue for the amount of $100,000 to build a 4.5 mile spur that linked Keosauqua with the railroad at Summit in order to revive the town.

A return track was never built, thus until a switch was built in 1895, passenger trains could not serve Keosauqua and railroad passengers were required to complete their trip to Keosauqua by stage coach. Mainline trains would wait on a sideline while a switch engine operated between Keosauqua and Mt. Zion that picked up and left cars in Keosauqua. After the switch was built in 1895, trains could either go forward into Keosauqua and back out, or back into Keosauqua and then pull out forward to Mt. Zion.

Rail service at all levels declined after World War I, and again at an even sharper rate after World War II. Although the railroad provided a means for industry to prosper, large industry never got off the ground and continued to bypass Van Buren.

The steady population base that had helped develop the railroad began to erode and disappear. As the railroad industry began declining, it was challenged with many of the same problems that the steamboat industry had once faced.

It served to jump-start the economy of Van Buren County, but its future was no more secure than the previous water transportation industry. For awhile there was a network of small towns intertwined in trade with small industries successfully pumping the economy, but the system failed to grow and did not meet the needs of the people. Eventually, this industry also became a phantom of the past.

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