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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Comparison of narrow and standard gauge railroad track.
NARROW GAUGE RAILROAD. Narrow gauge railroads held great interest among businessmen and railroad promoters in the 1870s. It was said that a narrow gauge could be built and equipped for half the cost of a traditional railroad. Operating a narrow gauge was claimed to cost 5/8ths of what a regular railroad cost. Claims were also made that half of the railroads west of the Missouri River were narrow gauge. If Iowa would only develop narrow rather than traditional gauge railroads, promoters said lines could be merged with that would take commerce all the way to the Dakotas. (1)

In 1848 the people of Cascade grew anxious as discussions developed about railroads. Without direct access to navigable rivers and the MISSISSIPPI RIVER over 36 miles away, their community's future could be dim.

In 1877 Dr. W. H. Francis of Cascade gave up his medical practice to operate a narrow gauge railroad. The Bellevue & Cascade Railroad was formed with $200,000 in capital. On September 19, 1878 John Tripp of Cascade threw the first shovelful of dirt to lay the wooden ties as an estimated three thousand people watched. Narrow gauge railroad tracks lay three feet apart instead of the "standard gauge" of four feet. The line stretched thirty-six miles and gave freight access to the people of Cascade, Fillmore, Bernard, Washington Mills, LaMotte and Bellevue.

In 1877 hope arose in Dubuque that the city could be tied to the IOWA PACIFIC. It meant changing the railroad into a narrow gauge and using a route that had no previously been seriously considered. The route would have the railroad leave Dubuque by way of the Chicago, Dubuque and Minnesota tracks as far as the BEE BRANCH. It would then proceed up the Couler Valley to Thompson's Mill and then follow the north branch of the Maquoketa River to Holy Cross. Proceeding westward to Strawberry Point, it would follow a third rail on the Davenport and Railroad to Fayette where it would tie into the Iowa Pacific. It was estimated that with $5,000 per mile it could be developed to Belmond where the line would meet another narrow gauge that would take it to Fort Dodge.

The first wood burning narrow gauge engine arrived in December, 1879 and the train began operating in 1880 as a branch line of the Milwaukee Road. Freight cars were considerably smaller than standard gauge cars. One standard gauge stock car was the equivalent of two narrow gauge cars and it took four narrow gauge grain cars to make up one standard gauge grain shipment. The company owned three engines, two passenger coaches, 36 stock cars, 12 flat cars and 50 box cars. Most of them were made and repaired in the MILWAUKEE RAILROAD SHOPS in Dubuque.

Narrow gauge railroads were constructed for short hauls. Running at about twenty miles per hour, the train made good time on flat ground, but steep hills posed problems. If the train had more than ten cars, half of the cars were left at the bottom of hill while the front half was pulled up the grade. After these cars were left at the top on a siding, the engine had to return to the bottom of the hill to pick up the remaining cars. The cars were then connected and the trip continued.

In 1880, the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway purchased the River Road, which included the narrow-gauge branch line to Cascade. Overjoyed at having a larger company involved, anticipation for the widening of the rails to standard gauge grew quickly. Further hurting the business of the narrow gauge line was the need to unload the smaller cars before freight could be shipped on standard gauge lines. The growth of highways and the trucking business posed financial obstacles too large to ignore. Narrow gauge tracks and telegraph lines were taxed as private property while highways were paid for by taxpayers. Trains also had to carry a full crew while trucks only needed a driver.

In 1933 the Twin City Coach Company purchased all the narrow gauge equipment from the Milwaukee Road and discontinued passenger service. The company continued to lose business, however, and finally went out of business in 1934. The LaMotte depot sign disappeared in 1957 and the station houses at LaMotte and Zwingle were later used as warehouses.



1. "A New Railroad," Dubuque Herald, September 12, 1877, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18770912&printsec=frontpage&hl=en