One last ride
Editor’s Note: This article is part of a monthly series on the history of Webster City and Hamilton County, written by local historian, Nancy Kayser.
While the advertising flier promoting the Railroad Excursion for June 27, 1954 proclaimed “Last Steam Train in Iowa!” – in reality it was also a last chance to be a railroad passenger on the Chicago and Northwestern line.
The Iowa Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society offered an all-day, round-trip excursion from Webster City to Jewell, Eldora, Iowa Falls and Alden. Cost was $5 with half-fare for children. The passenger train would halt at midday in Alden for lunch. There were also planned stops in the scenic valleys for photographs.
The railroad excursion on June 27, 1954 marked the end of two eras for Webster City.
At the beginning of the 1950s, railroads across the nation began replacing their dependable steam locomotives with more efficient diesel engines. War-time experiences proved the value and economy of a diesel powered machine.
In addition, all of the railroad’s steam locomotive powerhouses were aging. Most of those workhorses had been built between 1901 and 1908. They were in constant motion during the 1940s carrying troops and war supplies coast-to-coast. They consumed massive amounts of coal and water which had to be stockpiled at each depot to keep them running. Maintenance and fuel costs were becoming excessive.
The 1950s also began the era of families traveling by automobile. Newly built roads made trips less strenuous. Families were more affluent and could afford to own a car. Automobile manufacturers promoted travel by auto, selling the adventure with the machine.
Passenger travel on railroads declined so much that every railroad in the country sought formal approval to cancel local passenger train service due to loss of profitability.
In early 1950 both the Chicago and Northwestern and Illinois Central railroads filed formal requests with the Iowa commerce commission to suspend several passenger service trains to rural areas.
All the towns of Hamilton County protested at the state hearings. Webster City’s Chamber of Commerce, businessmen and citizens filed petitions claiming mail service would be adversely affected as the passenger trains carried from 25 to 50 percent of the mail. The smaller towns protested that freight delivery would hamper local businesses’ ability to supply consumers. The railroads argued the service was no longer profitable.
The commerce commission allowed the railroads to cancel some rail services to rural communities but required them to preserve at least one passenger train through the larger rural cities.
In 1954, the Chicago and Northwestern railroad again sought permission to cancel the north-south passenger service. The company claimed they had to hike freight rates to subsidize the little used passenger service. The commerce commission agreed with the railroad’s request this time around.
More than 200 people took part in the nostalgic steam pulled passenger train excursion on June 27, 1954. There was some question whether the event could take place as the earlier historic June flooding had caused roadbed damage in many spots.
Providing the steam power was the Class R-1 Ten-Wheeler, Engine No. 1329. The engine was built by the Baldwin Locomotive Company in January 1908 at a cost of $17,238. The 72-ton machine was used for both freight and passenger service. Retired in March of 1956, No. 1329 finished its service on the scrap pile, according to the engine card preserved by the Chicago & Northwestern Historical Society in Chicago.
The train “coaled up” going and coming at Jewell and Gifford, affording photographers a last chance to document the procedure.
At Alden, the rail fans enjoyed lunch while the steam engine lumbered onto the turntable for a turn around. During the procedure the air hose powering the table detached and needed considerable time and effort to repair.
Riders also got the opportunity to take turns riding in the engine cab. The passengers came from Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, Illinois and there was a New York City magazine writer.
The June excursion was not the final steam-powered passenger train for this area. The last group of passengers traveled over the Chicago and Northwestern from Des Moines to Eagle Grove and back on July 17, 1954 with its normal passenger stops.
Marking her own bit of history was Mrs. Amy Scott Donly, an 82-year-old Eagle Grove resident, as she rode the last passenger car from Webster City to Eagle Grove. She was onboard the first Chicago and Northwestern passenger train into Eagle Grove some 73 years earlier.
Ironically, railroad officials reported passenger patronage during the final week as phenomenal. Ticket sales jumped from five or six passengers a day to more than thirty a day the last few days.
Postal officials devised a modern solution to the mail transportation dilemma. A highway postal bus took over the Des Moines to Algona mail delivery previously carried on the passenger trains. As an introduction, the postal bus visited the destination towns allowing residents to tour the unique processing interior and to have letters stamped with a special cancellation mark heralding the first-run of the new service.
In September 1954, rail fans got another opportunity to ride the last electric interurban train running from Boone to Ames then to Fort Dodge. Thought to be the one of the last passenger-carrying electric lines in the country, the Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Southern Railway was also converting to diesel operations.
East-west passenger service continued on the Illinois Central rail line until 1970.
The Chicago and Northwestern depot between Willson Avenue and Seneca Street was torn down in 1959 to make room for more parking for the Morton Foods company. The railroad retained the freight depot, which they replaced with a more modern structure in 1966.
Rail fans can still experience the thrill of steam engine pulled passenger cars as preserved by many historic rail groups around the country. Coast-to-coast passenger service is still offered by Amtrak. But for rural residents, the convenience of hopping aboard a cozy passenger car at your hometown depot is gone.