Rock Island Rail

The photo above is of an arch from an old railroad bridge that has long been a fixture on my family’s farm (from long before it was my family’s farm.) It has always fascinated me. As kids we used to climb to the top and toss stones into the muddy waters of Rock Creek coursing below. Though I was aware it had historical significance (the date 1890 is chiseled on its side) back then it seemed just another part of the landscape. It blended naturally with the trees, the pasture and the creek itself. It was just another landmark; a symbol of home.

As I grew older, I became more cognizant that the old bridge was something special, providing a unique connection to a bygone era. I vividly recall one night while in high school having a dream where I was standing beside the stone arch. From my position in the pasture to the north, everything was normal, appearing as it does in modern day. Looking through the archway, however, everything was in black and white and I could see into the past. Ever since that dream, I have had an intense curiosity for local history. I wonder and try to imagine how things appeared in this place I have known for life, long before I came around. I question how the farmsteads looked, the different businesses in town, and of course the seemingly bizarre sight of steam engines chugging through our quiet little patch of countryside. I wonder how things looked even before that; when the area was first settled, or earlier yet when various native tribes roamed the land.

Unfortunately (since the archway hasn’t proven itself an interdimensional time portal since the night of that dream) I must rely on scarce vintage photographs from the turn of the last century and historical records to recreate such scenes in my mind. I actually hadn’t given this much thought for awhile, but last week after this photograph was taken, I climbed to the top of the bridge to remove the small cedar tree growing off its side. My uncle and I had spoken, and we were both concerned that the trees roots might cause eventual damage to the structure, so I volunteered to cut it down. While up there, I got to thinking about the age of the bridge (now 122 years old) and realized what a feat it must have been to move the massive limestone blocks in its construction. I know we’re not exactly talking about the pyramids here, but still, the thought of a steam crane out there in the post-Civil War era was enough to peak my imagination once more.

Today I had the chance to go down and visit with my grandparents, and asked what they knew about the bridge. The railroad had pulled out before they moved onto the farm in 1956, and both had lived in different parts of the county growing up, so they didn’t remember a whole lot about it. Grandpa explained to me how the road had changed (there are also remnants of an old car bridge just upstream) while grandma dug out a book on the history of Cedar County (Cedar Land 1836-1980, by Don and Dorothy Stout.) We visited for some time and I ended up borrowing the volume to study the chapter on Cedar County’s railway history a little bit more.

(Admittedly, the information that follows will probably only be of interest to those living in this area, or history buffs in general; so I won’t be offended if anyone bails now.)

In looking through this information tonight, I discovered much I hadn’t previously known.

-I realized and was surprised by the extent of rail traffic in the area from about 1880-1940. There was a spur running from Stanwood to Tipton (I believe that one actually continued longer) and there used to be a line running from Wilton to the Cedar Valley quarries to haul limestone. On top of that, there were constant proposals for construction of new routes. It’s interesting to read of how towns that are now barely or not even any longer in existence once competed for potential rail access. It makes you realize the importance of railways as a primary means of transportation during the time. These were the main links of commerce, and while laying new track was no easy task, neither was hauling grain by horse and wagon fifteen miles along muddy country roads to the nearest depot.

-As for our bridge, ground was first broken for a line connecting Tipton with points west at this very spot along Rock Creek in 1871. The project was started by the Iowa Southwest Railroad, but went unfinished. In 1881, the right of way was sold to Chicago-Rock Island- and Pacific Railroad and they developed a route for a spur out of Rock Island all the way across Cedar County. This ran through Bennett, Tipton, Buchanan, and all the way to Elmira (a tiny town outside of Iowa City. I’m not sure if anything is there now, or if the tracks extended beyond there.)

-Timber arrived for a trestle at Rock Creek in 1884, and I’m assuming that this meant a temporary bridge was put in place here, much like they did for the Cedar River crossing at the time.  However, I also found a passage that said the route was constructed in two sections, and the later work (done under Davenport, Iowa and Dakota Railroad) was completed in 1888 and 1890, so I’m guessing that’s the outfit that built the permanent bridge. (The book I obtained this from has a wealth of information, but is a bit confusing as it keeps jumping back and forth between different railway lines by year.)

-The Rock Island spur ran across this stretch of the county for several decades. The line provided both freight and passenger service, though passenger cars were temporarily taken out of commission during World War I.

-The railroad ultimately chose to cut the route, first from Tipton to Elmira, and then from Bennett west, in 1939. The tracks were removed from the Cedar River near Buchanan to Tipton in October of 1940; sixteen years before my grandparents arrived on the farm.

That’s about all I was able to gather in my few hours of research tonight, but I’m definitely encouraged to follow up and try to learn more on this; and the fascinating yet often overlooked history of Tipton and Cedar County. It’s kind of cool, because rediscovering an appreciation for the local history is reinvigorating the sentimental connection I feel has been lacking since I moved back. It’s all about roots, and knowing where we came from; something that to me has always meant a lot.

Finally, I did find a few old photos of some train depots on the Rock Island spur this evening through the University of Iowa digital archives. These are posted below, and as noted on their website, for educational purpose only.

I’ll end for now, but if any of my neighbors have further comment or information on this topic, I would love to hear from you. Like I say, this is what I was able to learn tonight, primarily from Don Stout’s book, but I feel it’s only the tip of the iceberg. I’m eager to discover more; not just about the railroad, but of our Cedar County history.

Buchanan Depot, late 1930's after the route had been abandoned.,367

Steam engine in Elmira, Iowa. Rock Island Line.,2745



All historic images accessed through and property of Iowa Digital Library, The University of Iowa Libraries. For educational use only.


26 thoughts on “Rock Island Rail

  1. Wow, that’s a treasure your family has on its land. Was very interested in reading the post since I am working on building a railroad bridge to replace one that has been build in 1905 (in Germany of course). The bridge has about the same span length as yours altough it is much wider because there are 5 railway lines to cross the (small) road. In it is still in use…

    The one on your picture looks much older due to the way it has been build. “My” bridge is in very poor condition but besides of that one might think it is not very old. That made me think about the history of bridge technology and although I am not directly one of your neighboors I want to share my thought’s with you… 😉

    The bridge on your family was build at the hot time of industrialization of reinforced concrete. And with this invention there was no technical need to build arches anymore. That is due to the fact that before people had strong steel they had no material that was capable of carrying strong tensile forces.

    People had good steel in 1890 (the Eiffel Tower in Paris was build in 1889 just a year before the bridge on your property) but that was expensive and had to be protected against corrosion. In an arch however there are no tensile forces – only compressive forces.

    Would the bridge have been build a couple of years later it would probably have been a concrete bridge and altough the reinforcement steel is protected against corrosion by the concrete after such a long time the bridge wouldn’t be a nice one to look at. The steel would have corroded anyways and the concrete would be chipping of all over the bridge.

    So when you think about that the bridge on your pictures is a late model of an era before industrialization and by that even more of a beauty!

    What is interesting too is that as far as your pictures tell no trace left of the embankment. That was probably removed to provide a better use of the land but I guess that must have changed the appearance of the area quite a bit…

    • Wow Bastian, that is fascinating! Thank you so much for sharing. Like you say, knowing now that this is a relic from an even older era makes it all the more special. As for the embankment, a gravel road runs just to the south (actually the top photo was taken from the road) and there is a car bridge at this point. While the original auto road would have run at a time when the railroad was still in use and been to the north, the road was reconstructed (I believe in the 1960’s) and moved a few hundred meters to the south. So long story short, I bet they pushed the dirt and rock from the railroad embankment over to use when making the current road. There was also a similar arch at one time on the opposite bank of the creek (obviously) that is completely gone now. All that remains are a few stone slabs embedded in the earth. I’m not sure if that was washed out or removed for some reason, I’ll have to ask my grandparents if they know. Anyway, there would have been a span of maybe thirty meters carrying the track across the creek between the two arches. Would this have been made of iron beams? Just curious. As a kid I always imagined that there had been a stone archway extending over the creek to carry the tracks, but this wasn’t the case. Thanks so much for your insight. That’s really cool to know.

  2. That’s awesome man. It’s interesting to learn more about that bridge. It was always cool-looking but as kids I felt like we probably took it for granted. Great read Josh!

    • For sure, Matt. Like I say, as kids it just seemed like another natural part of the landscape- something that was always there. I appreciated it because it was cool, but at the time didn’t fully understand why.

  3. Love reading your words Josh! I’ll always remember being scared to climb the arch because of all the stories my brothers (Your Uncles and Dad!) filled my head with.They told me there were snakes, lots of them and very large ones, sunning themselves up there. Which there probably were a few, but my imagination had me visualizing something out of an Indiana Jones Movie! One day I got up enough nerve to climb up there and guess what? there were no snakes but there were some holes so I did walk very carefully so not to disturb them!

    • Ha! Those stories still get me too (well, that and personal experience. One time Gabe and I were standing at the corner of the bridge and looked up to see a 4′ long bull snake scaling down the side- less than a yard from where we were…) I was up there again this afternoon taking pictures, and stepping carefully as ever!

    • Ha ha that’s why I never wanted to get up there. I was scared to death of the snakes. I also remember a time all of us kids were back there camping with Joel and he told us the black marks up under the bridge were from the fire the troll warmed himself around. I don’t think Jackie or I slept that night

      • That and the tales of the “Foggy Creek Monster.” Joel told me, Brian, Gabe (maybe Shawn) that one while staying up at Grandma’s house and we still couldn’t sleep.

  4. Nice Article. I remember as a kid playing around Fields Lumber, or Spahn and Rose now. the back alley still has rails buried there. We would try and dig them up. The homeowner would come out and chase us away.

    • That’s funny- you guys were just trying to be junior archeologists, right? Being from Tipton we kind of assume that the place never changes. It’s kind of cool to imagine how it was a hundred years ago and realize how different things really are.

      • I enjoyed your stonebridge story but gave undue credit to the Chicago based Rock Island RR. A Cedar Rapids railroad that later sold out Between Stone and a Hard Place
        Mike Goater,copyright 2013

        Egypt’s pyramids, Europe’s great cathedrals, America’s national capitol, and, oh yes, the Mud Creek arch bridge are all built of stone. If you haven’t noticed, modern building construction is mostly of concrete. When and why did this major change happen?
        Short Answer: Until about 1900 nearly all major buildings plus culverts, bridge abutments, and supports came from stone blocks quarried out of the earth and installed by skilled masons. Then cheaper concrete took over.

        Late in this transition(1884) Swiss-born Elmer J. C. Bealer started Cedar Valley Quarry, Iowa’s largest and the most modern limestone block quarry. It sat in Cedar County 6 miles southwest of Tipton. Bealer who had worked with stone since age 11, opened this new quarry after spotting limestone bluffs along the Cedar River while on a rabbit hunt. By the 1890s he employed one hundred people most of whom lived in Cedar Valley, the nearby company town, with his business office located in Cedar Rapids. He supplied many tons of stone for buildings and railroad abutments, piers, and bridges throughout the Midwest.

        Eventually the quarry floor worked down to 68 feet below the nearby Cedar River’s bed, but as the quarrymen dug deeper the stone’s quality actually improved. Steam powered pumps ran continuously to remove seeping water.Lacking any roads the business connected only to a railroad spur from the nearby Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Northern(B,CR,&N) Railway, a Cedar Rapids based railroad whose main line ran from SE Iowa through Cedar Rapids to Albert Lea, Minnesota, plus a branch line stretching from Vinton to Sioux Falls and Watertown, South Dakota.

        The B,CR,& N emerged as a good customer for the new quarry. Aside from typical stone bridge piers and abutments the railroad also used a technology dating back to the Roman Empire. It built several graceful, classic stone arch bridges using Cedar Valley limestone. Rounded blocks all wedged together by one top center keystone spanned the following Iowa roads and creeks:
        • 1886- country road/Honey Creek double arch bridge(NE of Morning Sun)
        • 1887-Ely Road bridge(between Cedar Rapids and Ely)
        • 1890-Rock Creek bridge (west of Tipton)
        • ????- Spring Creek bridge(between Nora Springs and Plymouth)
        Despite his success, Elmer J.C. Bealer saw concrete as a growing threat to stone masonry in this increasingly hard business. He knew his crew of 100+ Bohemian, German, Swedish, Norwegian, and American-born workers could do marvelous things in stone with modern steam powered stone channelers (cutters).
        Note: Just to prove a point, they once extracted a piece of sold stone 6 feet wide by 6 feet high and 165 feet long, but the standard structural building block remained the coffin-sized 3 ¼ feet wide by 3 ¼ feet high and 6 ½ feet long.

        Bealer knew his crew could cut custom stone parts for an entire structure, number each one, and deliver them with detailed instructions for assembly, thus eliminating traditional job site stone cutting. Call it the original “Insert tab A in Slot B” routine, like today’s IKEA furniture kits. Bealer knew his quarry shipped as many as ten trains of stone daily and that no cement factory offered the B, CR, & N that much freight business. Finally, he probably knew the 1874 iron railroad bridge over Mud Creek east of Vinton needed replacement.

        Eventually the railroad decided to replace the old Mud Creek bridge. This construction project provides a case study on the alternative materials available and also on the personalities involved. H. F. White, a railroad engineer, not the kind that runs a train but a civil engineer, designed roadbeds, rails, and the priciest of such structures– bridges. He served as the chief engineer for the B,CR,& N at its Cedar Rapids headquarters A big fish in a small pond., White had ambition and tried to keep abreast of the latest trends. In 1895 he started building some bridges with that new material concrete and published his results claiming it to be just as good as stone masonry and cheaper too. He ran headlong into that man of stone, Elmer J. C. Bealer, a businessman unwilling to accept this new infatuation with concrete without a scrap. Like most people with two middle initials, he proved to be no pushover. Bealer knew railroad President Charles J. Ives through Republican Party politics and their Cedar Rapids offices sat only three blocks apart.

        Perhaps Chief Engineer White chafed at the thought of using ancient stone on a modern bridge project. He later presented a paper to the Convention of the Association of Railway Superintendents of Bridges and Buildings October 16-18, 1900 in St Louis. A man from a small railroad had two choices at such a national event: 1) stand on the sidelines like a wall flower or 2) dive in with the big boys from the New York Central, Rock Island, or Southern Pacific railroads. He chose the latter and spoke to the group about his success with concrete in railroad construction. His paper even offered techniques for making concrete in South Dakota where water was scarce; a fact the railroad conveniently avoided mentioning to prospective homesteaders.
        Concrete saved $2.50-3.50 per cubic yard vs. stone claimed H. F. White as he droned on ad nauseum about the 1899 Jay Street viaduct project in Vinton —— 140 barrels of Portland cement,$18.00 for gravel,,$22.50 piping city water, etc.

        Despite Mr. White’s new bias towards concrete, a graceful new $25,000 limestone block, double arch(one 45 foot arch each for Mud Creek and the adjacent country road) bridge began passing B,CR,&N trains overhead in 1898. It contained 2385 cubic yards of Cedar Valley Quarry limestone(about 250 rail car loads). At St. Louis speaker White never mentioned the graceful double arch limestone bridge constructed only two years before. By contrast, the Mud Creek bridge is the only construction project specifically mentioned in President Charles Ives’s February, 1899 letter to the stockholders. Maybe Vermont-born Ives just liked stone bridges.

        The B,CR,& N built at least one more stone arch bridge, a single arch over Buttermilk Creek near Goldfield, IA in 1900. On October 16, the very day Chief Engineer White spoke in St Louis, the Goldfield Chronicle reported 15 craftsmen with their tools and a steam hoisting engine had arrived to replace an old timber bridge with a 20 foot single stone arch. Since that time the quarryman’s craft of extracting blocks of stone from the earth and the stone mason’s art of forming graceful structures from them have all but disappeared. Concrete is king.

        Here’s what happened next: In 1903, when the Rock Island absorbed the B, CR, & N Ry., H. F. White joined the much larger railroad in Chicago. He served the Chicago, Rock Island, & Pacific Ry. as Engineer of Maintenance where he directed construction of many more concrete structures.

        The Cedar Valley Quarry limped along but by World War I it sold mostly crushed rock for road construction. After 34 years and 100,000+ railcars shipped, the last train pulled out of Cedar Valley Quarry in 1918.

        Despite the quarry’s demise, its double arch bridge( now patched with a concrete layer)still spans high above Mud Creek. It and the smaller Spring Creek and Buttermilk Creek stone arches still nobly bear heavy trains every day. On the other hand, their sister arch bridges at Morning Sun and over Ely Road now carry only lighter 21st century loads of joggers and bikers.

        A mausoleum the size of a small house in Oak Hill Cemetery, Cedar Rapids holds the remains of railroader Charles J. Ives and his family The final resting place of quarryman Elmer J.C. Bealer, who lived to be 83, is also Oak Hill but his grave has only a simple marker—made of stone.
        to the Rock built your bridge.

        See my story below.

        Mike G

      • That is fascinating Mike. Thanks so much for this information. I just had time to scan through it at the moment, but will take a closer look soon. Very, very much appreciated!!!

  5. great story and pictures…I heard that they used to turn the engine around in Tipton by a very interesting turn table that used to balance the engine perfectly..thought you might like that fact to check into!!

    • Actually I was kind of wondering about that, Janet. I’m definitely going to have to research this some more. I’ve never had any interest in railroads, but trying to imagine daily life and sights here a century ago just has me really intrigued!

    • Me too. I stopped back and visited with Grandma and Grandpa yesterday asking about what happened to the arch on the other side. Neither ever saw it because they didn’t move onto the farm until ’56, but Grandpa was told that it was washed out in a big flood (which they both remember vividly) in 1944. Also, we figured out that the old road actually cut back under that second arch after crossing on the old car bridge. I found a map from 1901 that confirmed it. (Got on kind of a history kick this weekend…)

  6. Would you mind posting your bridge on I know that it would be of interest, whether it was a new listing or more information on an existing entry.

  7. Hey! I added this bridge to bridgehunter and it’d be awesome if you signed up and added your photographs to the page! Looking through you also know of a few smaller culverts along the same route, so those oculd be added as weil!

    • Sure thing. Someone had mentioned this a couple months ago, but I was on an extended roadtrip and just didn’t have a chance to give it any attention. I’ll take a look, thanks!

  8. A great story about your family’s farm! This story was listed on the email I received your are now following blog. Why did I choose to read this story? Rock Island caught my attention, I’m originally from SE Iowa.

    • Thanks so much! I happened across your blog this afternoon after doing a search on nature photography. You do beautiful work and, of course, the Snake Alley shot caught my attention. Where in SE Iowa are you from?
      I look forward to following your work and thank you for following mine- I hope to focus a lot more on Iowa scenes this year so you may see some familiar sights!

      • I’m originally from Mt. Pleasant and now based in Arizona. would like to be back in the Midwest. I spent 5 weeks in Iowa this fall and wrote a few stories, including shooting Snake Alley. Look forward to seeing the Iowa scenes. Thank you for the very kind compliment of my work. Happy New Year!

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