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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.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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      In 1850, before the Illinois Central System's first
      line was built in Iowa, only one of every 131 acres
      of land in the counties later traversed by the rail-
      road was under cultivation. Today one out of every
      one and one-half acres is under cultivation. Where
      there were fewer than 88,000 acres in crop land in
      these counties in 1850, there are now more than
      7,700,000 acres classified as crop land. (1)

In 1927, the Illinois Central Railroad stretched over twenty-nine Iowa counties and included some of the oldest railway lines in the state. (2)

The history of railroads in Iowa began with the passage on September 20, 1850 of the Illinois Central Land Grant Act by the United States Congress. (3) Federal land grants of nearly 2,600,000 acres provided the economic incentive; the initial investment of $27 million came largely from British and Dutch interests. (4) This act led the way for the passage of the Iowa Land Grant Act and the construction of the Illinois Central between Dubuque and Sioux City.

In 1850 the twenty-nine counties that would be crossed by the Illinois Central had less than 5,000 families with more than 3,000 of these living in Dubuque and Linn counties. (4) Iowa senators George Wallace JONES and Augustus C. Dodge had added to the Illinois Central bill that the proposed railroad should have a branch line extending from its northern terminus at La Salle, Illinois to Dubuque in the state of Iowa. (5) President Millard Fillmore on September 20, 1850 signed the law making the Illinois Central the first land-grant railroad in the United States and more than twice the length of the longest railroad then existing in America.(6)


The Illinois Central was officially chartered by the Illinois General Assembly on February 10, 1851. Upon its completion, the Illinois Central was the longest railroad in the world. (7) The IC completed its “Charter Lines” (705 miles in Illinois) in September 1856. The “Chicago Branch” (from Centralia to Chicago) opened a year earlier, giving that city its most important link to the South. The trunk of the railroad extended from the MISSISSIPPI RIVER at Cairo northwest to the Mississippi opposite Dubuque, Iowa. (8)

Settlers streamed to Dubuque where Lucius Hart LANGWORTY, Jesse P. FARLEY began making plans for a railroad westward from Dubuque. Such an idea had existed in the community for several years through the effort of John PLUMBE, Jr. On April 28, 1853 a meeting was held for the purpose of organizing the DUBUQUE AND PACIFIC RAILROAD. (9)

In July 1855 the construction of the Illinois Central had reached Dunleith (now East Dubuque) where the EAST DUBUQUE RAIL TUNNEL was later constructed. In a grand celebration held on July 18, 1855 visitors from New York, Buffalo, Cleveland and Chicago with local residents listened to speeches from Stephen A. Douglas and George W. Jones. The number of arrivals to Dubuque hotels in 1855 reached 85,045. (10) The Dubuque Land Office sold 1,610,363 acres of land. (11)

The financial difficulties of the Dubuque and Pacific Railroad led to it being forced into receivership by Morris K. Jesup. On August 13, 1860, the company was reorganized as the DUBUQUE AND SIOUX CITY RAILROAD. The company's first annual report for the year 1860 showed ownership of four locomotives, six passenger cars, sixty-five box cars, and thirty-five flat cars. (12)

While the Dubuque and Sioux City inched its way towards Cedar Falls, work had been started on the CEDAR FALLS AND MINNESOTA RAILROAD incorporated on April 16, 1858. (13)

In 1867 the Union Pacific Railroad was under construction. The Chicago and North Western Railroad had crossed Iowa and was near to establishing a junction with the Union Pacific at Council Bluffs. Council Bluffs was also the goal of the Rock Island and Burlington railroads which were building across Iowa.

Setting itself up as a rival to Council Bluffs and a gateway to the West was Sioux City. With anticipation of the Dubuque and Sioux City Railroad, the Sioux City and Pacific Railroad had been organized. This was to connect with the the Union Pacific at Freemont, Nebraska. The pressure was put on the Dubuque line to hurry. (14)

The track between Iowa Falls and Sioux City became the project of John I. Blair. A millionaire iron manufacturer, miller, and railroad promoter, Blair was involved in the construction of the Sioux City and Pacific as well as the Cedar Falls and Minnesota project. (14) Every road he built was for cash. His railroad ventures led to his investment of $26 million, advanced from his personal fortune and raised from his friends. Not one dollar was raised by putting stock on the market. (16) In an agreement with the Illinois Central, Blair organized the Iowa Falls and Sioux City Railroad on October 1, 1867. (17)

Town sites were an important part of Blair's strategy. Through Blair's town site company, sites that became Manson, Fonda, Storm Lake, Marcus, and Remsen were offered for sale as rapidly as the track to them could be laid. The Iowa Falls and Sioux City Railroad led to the founding of an estimated twenty communities--all named by Blair except for Le Mars. As the rails reached that spot, Blair hosted a group of prominent citizens and their wives on a special train. He suggested that such a distinctive and beautiful place should have an appropriate name and asked his guests do the naming. It was decided to use the first letter of each woman's name. (18)

Construction under Blair began at both end of the route. The line was completed between Iowa Falls and Fort Dodge and Sioux City and Cherokee by the summer of 1869. Regular train service between Chicago and Fort Dodge was established on July 8, 1870 after the completion of the DUNLEITH AND DUBUQUE BRIDGE. The "golden spike" in the construction of the Illinois Central's main line across Iowa was driven at a point three miles west of Storm Lake. (15) Regular service between Sioux City and Chicago was started on October 10, 1870. (19)

The same year the line was completed to Sioux City, the Cedar Falls and Minnesota Railroad was opened to the Minnesota border. At the end of 1870, the Illinois Central was operating 405 miles of railroad in northern Iowa. (20)

As soon as its lease of the Iowa lines went into effect, the Illinois Central realized a significant growth in total operating revenues. Between 1868, the first full year of the lease, and 1880, the Iowa-leased lines contributed between one-seventh and one-fifth of the total annual operating revenues of the Illinois Central system. (21)

Business was so good that in December, 1895 the railroad added another train to Chicago. Dubuque would then be served by a train arriving in Dubuque at 4:45 a.m. which would arrive in Chicago at 10:00 a.m. The new train would be made up in Dubuque and, with the first Pullman car ever to be seen in Dubuque, leave at 7:30 to arrive in Chicago at 1:30 p.m. (22)

The Illinois Central Railroad (IC), sometimes called the "Main Line of Mid-America," had primary routes connecting Chicago, Illinois with New Orleans, Louisiana and Birmingham, Alabama. A line also connected Chicago with Sioux City, Iowa (1870). There was a significant branch to Omaha, Nebraska (1899) west of Fort Dodge, Iowa and another branch reaching Sioux Falls, South Dakota (1877) starting from Cherokee, Iowa. (23) The Illinois Central has claimed many "firsts." In 1866 the first shipment of fruit under refrigeration upon any railroad in the United States was carried by the Illinois Central from Cobden, Illinois to Chicago. In 1867 the railroad began operating the "Thunderbolt Express," the first all-strawberry train ever operated in the nation between southern Illinois and Chicago. (24) Dubuque residents in January 1882 were warned that the upcoming excursion train to New Orleans would "positively be the last excursion south this winter." The trip cost $25 for the round trip. (25) Land speculators also employed the railroad. In January 1882 an "excursion" was planned to Le Mars, Iowa for the round trip cost of $5 which was fully applied toward the purchase of 100 acres of the sponsoring company's land. (26)

Constructed at Jones and Iowa STREETS, the building was still standing in 1975 without its porches, tower, and upper story dormitory. It had been remodeled into a freight station after WORLD WAR II when passenger service declined. (27) Library of Congress
Depot location.
Illinois Central freight warehouse at First and Iowa.

Throughout the 1870s, and 1880s the IC acquired an estimated one hundred smaller railroads. (28) Railroads were extended throughout the southern United States. IC lines crisscrossed the state of Mississippi and went as far as New Orleans, Louisiana to the south and Louisville, Kentucky in the east. In the 1880s, northern lines were built to Dodgeville, Wisconsin, Sioux Falls, South Dakota, and Omaha, Nebraska. Further expansion continued into the early twentieth century.

To encourage interest in the earnings of the railroad, company President Fish allowed employees to take payroll deduction beginning in 1890 to purchase stock in the company. (29)

On May 5, 1936 the Illinois Central's new "Green Diamond" streamlined train arrived in Dubuque. Among the passengers was Iowa Governor Clyde L. Herring who was interviewed by WKBB. The radio station broadcast again from the train that evening. Over 3,000 people toured the new diesel-powered train which had five cars--a power car, mail car, chair car, lounge car and an observation car. A 8:00 p.m. dinner was held at the JULIEN HOTEL. (30)

In the 1950s and 1960s, the Illinois Central provided passenger service through Dubuque aboard the "Land O' Corn" between Chicago and Waterloo and west to Sioux City aboard the "Hawkeye." (31)

This photo is of the yard master tower that was in front of the CB&Q depot. A man in this tower controlled the flashing lights on the crossing signs at 3rd and 4th Streets, and possibly 1st and 2nd Streets, before the Highway 61/52/151 reconstruction. The tower was manned twenty-four hours daily each day of the year. Information courtesy: Mark G. Gayman, former ICRR telegraph operator

The Canadian National Railway gained control of the IC in 1998. (32)

Railroad pass
Railroad pass

In 1972, the IC purchased its main competitor, the Gulf, Mobile & Ohio Railroad, forming the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad.

The following years were a time of decline. The Iowa Division was dismantled and along with many others were sold to the Chicago, Central & Pacific Railroad in 1985. Although the ICG changed the name back to Illinois Central in 1988 and purchased back the Iowa Division in 1996 competition became too great. In 1998, the IC was sold to the Canadian National Railway which later purchased the Wisconsin Central in western Wisconsin and several other railroads. The CN continues to operate this line with about 5 trains a day. (33)

See: Roswell B. MASON



1. "Iowa and the Illinois Central," Illinois Central Magazine, Nov. 27, 1927, p. 13

2. Ibid., p. 3

3. Ibid.

4. "Illinois Central Railroad," Encyclopedia of Chicago. Online: http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/627.html

5. "Iowa and the Illinois Central," p. 4

6. Ibid.

7. Corliss, Carlton J. Trails to Rails: A Story of Transportation Progress in Illinois, Chicago: Illinois Central System, 1934, p. 24

8. Ibid.

9. "Illinois Central Railroad."

10. "Iowa and the Illinois Central," p. 6

11. Ibid., p. 8

12. Ibid.

13. Ibid., p. 9

14.Ibid., p. 10


16. Hudson, David; Bergman, Marvin and Horton, Loren. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008, p. 44

17."Iowa and the Illinois Central," p. 11


19.Ibid, p. 12



22. Stover, John F. History of the Illinois Central. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc. 1975, p. 136

23. "A New Train," Dubuque Daily Herald, December 21, 1895, p. 2

24. "Illinois Central," Wikipedia. Online: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Illinois_Central_Railroad

25. Corliss, p. 42

26. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, January 19, 1882, p. 4

27. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, January 13, 1882, p. 4

28. Meyer, Jeffrey J. "Inter-century Railroad Stations," Julien's Journal, February 2012, p. 50

29. "Illinois Central Railroad (IC)," Encyclopaedia Britannica, Online: http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/282973/Illinois-Central-Railroad-IC

30. Kruse, Len. Unforgettable Radio, Dubuque: Union-Hoermann Press, 1993, p. 172

31. "Local News in Brief," Dubuque Daily Herald, July 6, 1890, p. 8. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18900706&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

32. Meyer, Jeffrey J. "Clear the Track," Julien's Journal, March 2010, p. 36

33. "John Marvig Railroad Bridge Photography," Online: http://www.johnmarvigbridges.org/East%20Dubuque%20Rail%20Tunnel.html

Photo courtesy: Illinois Central Railroad Heritage Association. City of Miami "Bamboo Grove"
Photo courtesy: Illinois Central Railroad Heritage Association. Rear observation lounge on the City of Miami
Photo courtesy: Illinois Central Railroad Heritage Association.(Postcard) Dining car on the City of Miami
Photo courtesy: Illinois Central Railroad Heritage Association. Panama Limited circa 1947