Choo Choo!

Cliff McFerren · Wednesday, September 27, 2017
In 1855 our town founders realized that the mighty Mississippi and Missouri Railroad was not going to come through West Liberty, which back then was located about a mile or so north of our present day location. So they decided to move the town south to meet the railroad!

In 1865-66 the M&M went bankrupt and was purchased by Chicago Rock Island & Pacific. As the city grew around this east – west Rock Island line, a second railroad arrived in West Liberty in 1869. This line coming up from Burlington on a course for Cedar Rapids, called itself the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Minnesota Railroad. Technically it started out as the Cedar Rapids and Burlington Railroad, but quickly folded and was reborn the BCR&M.

According to a Rock Island Technical Society Digest, Volume 17, a separate de-pot was constructed by the BCR&M and was located north of the crossing of the two lines. The original M & M / Rock Island depot sat just east of the present structure giving West Liberty two depots.

In 1875 the BCR&M went bankrupt, as many start-ups did back then, and was taken over by the newly formed Burlington Cedar Rapids and Northern on June 27, 1876. The Rock Island purchased a majority control of the BCR&N in 1885, but ran the railroad as an independent line much as it operated prior to the controlling interest. It was not until the early 1890’s that a Union Depot was erected, made of wood, to handle traffic for both lines. This would have been West Liberty’s third depot structure.

In 1902 the Rock Island took total control of the BRC&N and retired the name Burlington Cedar Rapids and Northern. An excerpt taken from Scott Brooke’s article written for the “Bulletin – Railroad Station Historical Society” in March of 2002, showed that on Oct 2, 1880, it was logged that on the Rock Island there were 543 freight cars, 30 passing through town.

The BCR&N had 214 freight cars, 16 passenger cars and 40 engines! Headlines taken from the Index and Enterprise gave a glimpse into the hustle and bustle of the late 1800’s:

-1882 showed West Liberty to have 14 daily passenger trains

-1883, Nov. 11, was one of the busiest days with 65 trains, both freight and passenger, arriving and departing that day.

-1890, Oct 30, the Rock Island purchased the Cottage Hotel (formerly Union House) to meet demand. Correct me if I am wrong, but I believe the Cottage Hotel building now sits at the end of Fifth Street on the west side of Elm Street

-1894, Aug 23, the longest train ever from West Liberty pulled out with 100 Cars.

-1895, Oct 24, Whitacre Feeding Yards, a quarter mile east of the cemetery, received 1000 sheep by rail. That cemetery is just north of town past Wiele Chevrolet.

Then in 1897 disaster struck the Union Depot when it burned to the ground. It was on a hot Aug. 5 night when an oil lantern was knocked over causing a fire that consumed the wooden structure in only minutes. By the time the fire department arrived there was nothing left to save.

This was no great disappointment as an article written in the Weekly Enterprise in 1881 referred to the depot as the “most uncomfortable, ill-lighted, filthy place on earth. It is fouled with tobacco spit, fumes of old pipes, stumps of cigar and quits of tobacco which roll underfoot and loafers around to the extent of occupying all seats, while ladies waiting are poisoned with the foul air of the place while compelled to stand awaiting coming trains. Such a place is a foul blot on the fair face of the two great lines of road whose depot it is”.

From these ashes emerged the depot that we see today, the fourth and final structure. Nicely preserved, the 1897 structure was a “statement depot,” meaning “a building of unlike character to any of that around it;” was built by a contractor out of Rock Island, Ill., by the name of John Volk. Work started in August of 1897 and by Nov. 4, four short months later, it was finished. This remained the hub of activity, the coming and going of our citizens, for the next 60 years. Fun fact - the depot did not have a restroom until 1902, six years after the original construction was completed.

A few years after the “statement depot” was completed, Rock Island’s railroad yard and shop area grew. On July 19, 1900, a new round house was constructed north west of the depot. In order to make room for the new roundhouse, the Hise House Hotel had to be relocated. Its new location was due east and it had to go over the tracks to get there.

During the move, the hotel became stuck on the tracks and caused quite a delay in train traffic going north and south. So much so, that there was talk of burning the structure down right on the tracks in order to remove it. Nevertheless, after a spirited discussion with railroad officials, they managed to find a way to get it off the tracks and into its final resting place just east of the current depot.

The year 1900 definitely saw a peak in passenger traffic with 23 trains recorded on Sept 27, only to be topped by 35 passenger trains on July 28, 1910, with five of those trains arriving and departing between 11 a.m. and noon. Can you imagine the amount of activity that must have generated!

In August of 1920, Railroad Park received its “West Liberty” concrete letters. They weathered 80 years until they were removed shortly after a train derailed in 2000. One day we hope to have them back, prominently displayed in their place of honor just east of the depot. In April of 1926, a beautifully constructed, yet massive wooden coal chute was erected on the south side of the mainline east of town between Miller and Clark Streets. If you take a walk through the timber at that location today, you can definitely tell where the wide spot was that housed the structure.

I have found only one picture of that structure taken in the early 1950s, but unfortunately the picture is a copy of a copy and terribly distorted. In May of 1927 the roundhouse was hit by lightning and it also burned to the point that it had to be destroyed. A small one-stall engine was constructed to house the local switcher.

The railroad industry initiated the beginning of West Liberty’s immigrant labor force. The early 1900s saw the first Hispanic population arrive and settle to make West Liberty their home. A good example was that of Selso Ponce who worked as a section laborer keeping the tracks in good working order until he retired in August of 1939. He and his wife Guadalupe Villafana purchased a house on N. Short Street and that house still stands today, right next to the house that his son John Ponce built.

Most folks remember the Ponce family as being in West Liberty for a long, long time with the matriarch of the family, Margaret Ponce, just recently passing away at age 92. She recalled several bunk houses that the Mexican workers would stay in, some of which were just up the street from where she lived. Many of those folks came and went, but the Ponce family remained raising four generations all calling West Liberty their home.

During both WWI and WWII, rail-road traffic exploded. West Liberty saw a large number of troop trains, several stopping for food being served either by lunch carts or out of our many diners such as the Globe Café. How many of our local boys jumped on here going east or west, getting that last kiss, heading for boot camp?

As the Second World War ended, the Rock Island was able to convert from steam to diesel engines. This did not affect West Liberty all that much, seeing how we had lost our round house and most of the other out-shops that supported steam had been torn down. Remaining steam engines would have been serviced in Cedar Rapids or Silvis. What was left were two coal chutes, a water tower, and a turntable from the old round house. One by one they too began to fall.

The depot fell into disrepair, although it remained open to house an operator. Pictures from 1940 on showed a large semaphore signal on the west side of the depot. After the depot was boarded up and closed in March 1980 as a result of the railroad’s final bankruptcy, that semaphore found its way over to the depot at Wilton for their museum. The dispatcher / operators control panel ended up in Des Moines at the home of a private collector. The only remaining tenant was an ill-tempered raccoon, and no one wanted to take him.

Trains began rolling again in 1981 with freight service from Rock Island, Ill., to Iowa City provided by the Davenport, Rock Island and Northwestern. The “DRI”

Line had to lease locomotives from the Milwaukee Road causing some to think that the line was purchased by Milwaukee. A summary of the rail line’s evolution to current is as follows:

-1981 The north – south line was sold for scrap iron leaving Walnut Grove with-out rail service.

-Iowa Railroad leased the line in June of 1982 from Council Bluffs to Bureau, Ill.

-In 1983 a group of investors along the line, mostly key customers, formed Heartland Rail Corp and purchased the tracks from the Rock Island trustee.

-May of 1984 the Iowa Interstate was formed and contracted to operate the line. November of 1984 saw the first IAIS trains run across the line.

- March of 1991 Rail Development Corp entered a three way agreement to purchase a majority of the line from Heartland and also to purchase the IAIS. In 2001 RDC bought out the remaining shares of Heartland and everything was under one roof. RDC had a different model of shipping and transportation. By developing new markets, combined with the boom in ethanol, it allowed IAIS to invest in both track and equipment.

-Spring of 2008 saw the old section or stick rail replaced with long sections of continuously welded rail. That combined with a tie replacement program raised the track speed and tonnage hauled.

-In 2013 West Liberty now sees up to 8 trains per day and that number seems to keep climbing.

According to the Business Directory of the Burlington Cedar Rapids and Northern, 1883, West Liberty had over 38 businesses and industry relying on railroads for the receiving of supplies and the shipment of their products. By the time the Rock Island shut down in 1980, there were only a handful, if not less.

With the Iowa Interstate, West Liberty did see some business development return with a freight and container facility built in conjunction with private industry on the far west side where Highway 6 crosses the railroad. Today, that facility is used primarily as a transfer facility for bulk agricultural chemicals and also for delivery of lumber. The trailer and container company went out of business but you can still see the overhead crane. The old rail yards to the south of the main line are gone, all that remains is a long passing siding. In fact, the double track from Chicago to Iowa City was shortened in the 1950s to end in West Liberty, just west of the highway 6 overpass. After they took out the highway six overpass they shortened the double track once again to just east of the highway.

No railroad jobs remain in West Liberty, but the depot was saved from ruin. First attempt was by the Hoover Nature Trail led by Milly Gregg and later brought to completion by the West Liberty Heritage Foundation in 2000-2001.

Restoration was done so well in detail that original walls once removed by the Rock Island in the 1940s were put back into place as shown in the architect’s original plans. The depot currently houses the Chamber of Commerce and two museums, one for city and one for railroad. Saving this piece of history through photographs and stories is paramount to preserving this city’s heritage.
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