Iowa - Electric Traction in Iowa

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Iowa Traction 54 crossing 19th Street in Mason City. Photo by Peter Ehrlich.


Iowa has had a rich electric traction history. Street railway systems existed in Des Moines, Dubuque, Sioux City, Waterloo, Marshalltown and other cities and towns. The Hawkeye State also featured a somewhat disconnected interurban system, many components of which lasted well after the core Ohio and Indiana interurbans vanished--up to 1954. The lines were distinctive in their own right--Cedar Rapids & Iowa City (Crandic), which ran speedy lightweights acquired used from Ohio's Cincinnati & Lake Erie; the long Ft. Dodge, Des Moines & Southern; Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern, the last operator; Southern Iowa Railway, which in latter years was owned by the Iowa Chapter of the NRHS; and others.

Today, traction in Iowa exists in several locales. Up in Mason City, near the Minnesota border, Iowa Traction operates the last electric freight railroad in the United States, using ancient Baldwin-Westinghouse motors. The Boone & Scenic Valley, in central Iowa, runs an interurban from Charles City along a portion of the old Ft. Dodge, Des Moines & Southern through the back streets of Boone, and steam and diesel recreational trains across the spectacular Des Moines River trestle. In southeast Iowa, the Midwest Threshers Museum and Reunion in Mt. Pleasant operates a streetcar line running on big city traction-type frequencies during the annual Labor Day Weekend reunion and gathering of owners of steam tractors and other farm implements.

There is also the Fenelon Place Elevator, a funicular which climbs the steep Mississippi River bluffs in Dubuque, and in Ida Grove, an active manufacturer of vintage-style trolleys--Gomaco Trolley Corp.

Mason City--Iowa Traction

Iowa Traction operates on what was once the Mason City & Clear Lake Railway (later Railroad), which began passenger and freight service in 1897. The road built up its freight service base over the years, but shut down passenger operations in 1936. The railroad changed owners and its name became Iowa Terminal Railroad in 1961. In 1987, there was another ownership change to the present management, which called it Iowa Traction.

The line's four Baldwin-Westinghouse electric locomotives were built between 1917 and 1923, and acquired used by IATR's predecessors between 1948 and 1968. Iowa Traction's biggest customer is AGP, a soybean-processing company, and IATR switches several loads of covered hoppers into its facility nearly every day, and interchanges them with the Union Pacific (ex-C&NW) and Iowa, Chicago & Eastern railroads. There is also a scrap metal customer adjacent to the railroad's Emery home base, and a smattering of small, infrequently-used customers elsewhere along the line. The outer extremities of the line, to Clear Lake on the west, and 15th Street on the east, are rarely used, even though the track on the Clear Lake end was rebuilt several years ago when the Trolley Park museum was in operation. Although it was closed for a time, it has now reopened, but with a focus on railroad artifacts and exhibits. There are no streetcars in the collection any more.

In addition to the steeplecabs, Iowa Traction also owns ex-Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee interurban coach 727 and box motor 33. These are used for charters.

Boone--Boone & Scenic Valley

The Boone & Scenic Valley operates about 12 miles of the former Ft. Dodge, Des Moines & Southern interurban railroad out of Boone. The FDDM&S traced its beginnings as a steam road in 1893. By 1907, it had electrified and operated between Fort Dodge and Des Moines through Boone, with branches to Ames, Webster City and other towns. Passenger service ended in 1954 and the line was dieselized in 1955, eventually becoming part of the Chicago & Northwestern. C&NW gave up this branch in 1983 and the portion of the line including the spectacular trestles was bought by the Boone Railroad Historical Society, and began transporting passengers on this preserved line. In 1989, the Boone & Scenic Valley assumed ownership of the line. The last Chinese steam locomotive built by the Datong Locomotive Works, 2-8-2 JS8419, was purchased in 1989 for recreational train use. Ex-Rock Island and other coaches were also bought for this service.

In addition, a mile-long portion of the FDDM&S route through the backyards of Boone went into operation as an electric route using former Charles City Western interurban combine 50, which was built in 1915, and was powerful enough to haul up to three freight cars. Some other trolleys, including a McGuire-Cummings car from Des Moines (the only known survivor of the Des Moines Railway) are undergoing restoration.

Steam and diesel trains and the CCW 50 operate on weekends throughout the summer and on into October each year.

Mt. Pleasant--Midwest Old Threshers Museum and Reunion

The Midwest Old Threshers Museum and Reunion is well-known for its annual Reunion Festival--a five-day event which occurs every year around the Labor Day Weekend, beginning the Thursday before Labor Day. Here, farmers and old tractor enthusiasts gather at the Reunion grounds for fun and demonstrations of steam tractors, early gas tractors and other period farm implements. There are tractor pulls, a narrow gauge steam train loop circling the exhibit area, even a steam-powered merry-go-round, and much more. It's like an old-fashioned state fair, but its emphasis is on living history in the agricultural world.

The exhibitors park on the south end of the site, bringing their motor homes, house trailers and tents in. To bring the exhibitors, visitors and friends up to the fairgrounds, a counter-clockwise loop trolley line was built, dubbed the Midwest Electric Railway. On this loop line, streetcars from Iowa, Illinois and all over the world, operate on city transit-like headways, oftentimes with standing loads. The streetcars do operate at other times throughout the year, but it is at the Reunion that they give their best performance.

The operating fleet consists of Southern Iowa Railway 9, an interurban combine built in 1910; Chicago, Aurora & Elgin wooden interurban 320, built 1914 (?); ex-Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern lightweight 381, originally built for Knoxville, TN by McGuire-Cummings; two ex-Rio de Janeiro "Narragansett" 15-bench open cars 1718 and 1779, built 1911; and the newest addition, ex-Milan, Italy "Peter Witt" 1945, vintage 1928. There is also ex-Boston MBTA line car 3279.

Ida Grove--Gomaco Trolley Company

Gomaco, primarily a producer of heavy road-building equipment, began its Gomaco Trolley Company adjunct around 1989, with construction of two open trolley replicas for the Lowell National Historic Site in Lowell, MA. These cars represent the large open trolleys which were prevalent throughout New England in the early 1900s. Running gear from ex-Melbourne W2 trams was used in the construction. They followed this with four Council Crest replicas for Portland, OR, this time using PCC parts from Boston and Chicago--arguably, the only wooden-bodied PCCs ever built. Then Gomaco began restoring several Melbourne W2s for Memphis. But its first steel car production began in 2000 with 8 Double-truck Birney replicas for Tampa, FL, followed by more for Little Rock, Charlotte and Memphis. In each case, parts for these came from a large group of Milan, Italy Peter Witts, which were scrapped in Italy while the parts came across the Big Pond. Six complete Witts were also purchased, and three of these have since been restored for Mt. Pleasant, IA and St. Louis, MO.

Dubuque--Fenelon Place Elevator

Dubuque's Fenelon Place Elevator is a 296' long funicular railway which takes passengers from 4th Street in Dubuque up to Fenelon Place, where commanding views of historic downtown Dubuque and the Mississippi River can be had. It dates its beginnings to 1882, when a steam-powered car traveled up the bluffs. Following two disastrous fires, the present funicular line, similar to Angel's Flight in Los Angeles and others throughout the world, was built in 1894. At one time, there were several other funiculars in Dubuque, but this is the only surviving one. Its original cars were rebuilt in 1977. Today, the Elevator operates every year between April 1 and November 30. Fare is $2.00 round trip or $1.00 one way.

Photo Gallery

Five Random Images

Image 46439

(151k, 660x495)
Photo by: Jon Bell
Location: Iowa Traction--West End/Taft Avenue/Emery Yard Area

Image 46465

(153k, 720x478)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Midwest Threshers Museum -- South Forty

Image 46485

(125k, 720x478)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Midwest Threshers Museum -- South Forty

Image 46502

(142k, 720x520)
Photo by: Ron Sims/Boone & Scenic Valley

Image 54890

(188k, 864x574)
Photo by: Peter Ehrlich
Location: Iowa Traction--West End/Taft Avenue/Emery Yard Area

More Images: 1-50 51-100 101-150 151-160


Official Site - Boone & Scenic Valley.

Official Site - Midwest Old Threshers Museum.

Official Site - Gomaco Trolley Company.

Official Site - Fenelon Place Elevator.

Jon Bell's History of the Iowa Traction.

Jon Bell's Fenelon Place Elevator Images.

Davesrailpix Fenelon Place Elevator Images.

Page Credits

By Peter Ehrlich.

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