Sioux City, Woodbury County, Iowa Railroad Interests

The founders of Sioux City had not got fairly settled on their town site before they began to agitate the question of securing railroads. The location of the town seemed made by nature for a railroad center, supposing that nature contemplated railroads when this section of the world was made. The great Missouri, coming down through its wide valley, flows in a general easterly course and here makes and abrupt bend to the south, the first great change in course above Kansas City. The Big Sioux comes down from the north, and at its head the Red River starts on its course north, the valleys of the two streams forming a natural route for a railroad from Sioux City to the British Possessions. The Niobrara coming from the west flows straight toward Sioux City until it joins the Missouri at the first great bend above the city. The Floyd coming from the northeast invited a road from the Minnesota lumber country, and afforded a route into the young metropolis for a road across the State, while the rock bluff that crops out above the town suggests a bridge site and lines beyond the Missouri. All these ideas were urged by the more progressive of the founders of the city, and, though visionary then to a commonplace mind, have either made realities, or are in a fair way to become realities.

Sioux City was fortunate in having as a member of Congress, during the years in which land grants were being given to railroads, a citizen active, far-sighted and tireless, the late Judge Hubbard. It was this gentleman who secured the inserting of a clause in the original land grant bill of the Union Pacific providing for a branch of this road to Sioux City, who secured the change of the land grant from the bankrupt Dubuque & Missouri River road to the Iowa Falls & Sioux City, and finally, in 1864, by the help of the Minnesota Congressmen, procured the passage of a bill granting lands to the amount of 10 sections per mile to the Sioux City & St. Paul road. But in spite of the tempting offers of lands, and in the case of the Sioux City branch of the Union Pacific, of guaranteed government bonds as well, nothing was done toward building these roads until late in 1867.

Sioux City & Pacific. John I. Blair, even then a veteran railroad man, in that year agreed to build the Sioux City branch of the Union Pacific if a modification of the line could be secured. What he wanted, and got, was permission to build from Missouri Valley north to Sioux City, a distance of 77 miles, and to build from Missouri Valley west, across the Missouri River to Fremont, a distance of 37 miles. The original bill did not contemplate any such line, but one crossing the River at Sioux City, and running southwest to a junction with the Union Pacific at Columbus. Mr. Blair having secured the change in the route asked proceeded to build the road. Besides the land grant and government bonds, the wily railroader secured from Sioux City a tract of land amounting to about 14 acres near the business center of the town, and several thousand acres of swampland from the county of Woodbury.

The road, under the name of the Sioux City & Pacific, was finished so as to allow the first passenger train to run from Missouri Valley to Sioux City on March 9, 1868. The citizens were wild with enthusiasm, and the newspapers flamed with headlines over this connection with the railroad world. The year following the completion of the Sioux City road, the Blair cut-off, between Missouri Valley, on the Northwestern, and Fremont, on the Union Pacific, was built. This gave a connection with the Union Pacific, of which great things were expected; but the bridging of the Missouri at Omaha sent most of the business that way, instead of across the river at Blair, where a transfer boat was used. From Blair a branch was started up the Elkhorn Valley that has grown from year to year, until, at the close of 1881, it rested at Long Pine, 150 miles northwest of Blair. Surveys have been made for an extension from Long Pine west to the Wyoming line, and the line seems likely to become in reality, what it is name, a Sioux City and Pacific road.

Illinois Central. The general joy over securing the first railroad, took the very practical form of a move to secure other railroads. In the spring of 1869, Mr. Blair and his associates began building from Sioux City east, and from Iowa Falls west, to secure the land grant of the Iowa Falls & Sioux City road. That year the west section was built to Cherokee, and from the east as far as Fort Dodge. Early in the summer of 1870 the road was finished. It was leased to the Illinois Central, a company that has since operated it. The rental paid is 35 per cent. of the gross earnings.

Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis and Omaha. -Fast following on this road came the Sioux City & St. Paul. As has been mentioned, Judge Hubbard, in 1964, when in Congress, procured a land grant for this project, but no work was done until 1872, when the franchises having passed to the St. Paul & Sioux City company, the road was built from the Minnesota State line to Le Mars. There connection was made with the Illinois Central, and the right to run trains over that company’s track to Sioux City secured. The year following Sioux City voted the company $20,000 in consideration of establishing repair shops in the town. Extensive shops were built, and these have since been enlarged until, during the past summer, over 200 men were employed there. In the spring of 1881, the St. Paul & Sioux City road was consolidated with various Wisconsin roads and now forms a part of the Chicago, St. Paul, Minneapolis & Omaha railway.

The necessity of developing a system of roads in Nebraska diverging from this city, was early apparent to the public-spirited men who made the town the railroads center that it is. In this, as in most other railroad enterprises of the town, the late Judge Hubbard took a leading part.

After much preliminary surveying and agitation, work was begun on a line from Covington to Ponca in the fall of 1876. The road, a narrow gauge, was finished to Ponca early in 1877. Grading was done beyond that town into Cedar County, but the company became involved in litigation on account of the bonds issued by the Nebraska counties in aid of the road, and the line passed into the hands of receiver.

At the time the Ponca line was building some little grading was done on a line, which was projected between this city and Columbus on the Union Pacific road. This project rested with the resting of the Ponca line, and nothing more was done in the way of work on the Nebraska lines until the St. Paul & Sioux City acquired possession of the different interests in the Nebraska roads in the fall of 1970.

The winter following material was crossed for extensive work on the newly acquired road, and on the roads projected, and the next spring business began in earnest. The twenty-six miles of narrow gauge track between Covington, on the Nebraska shore opposite this city, and Ponca, was widened to standard gauge, and substantially rebuilt. Surveys have been made west of Ponca looking to build in 1882, if a tax asked by the company were voted in Cedar County, which now seems probable.

In 1880 a track was built from Coburn Junction, on the Ponca line, to the south 52 miles, where the end of a track extending from Oakland to Omaha was met. This track had previously been bought by the St. Paul & Sioux City Company. This line gives a new connection between the lumber country of Minnesota and Wisconsin, and the Union Pacific road. In the winter of 1881-2 the 47 miles of track from Emerson Junction, on the Omaha line, was completed to Norfolk, the railroad center of Northern Nebraska. A bill recently introduced in Congress during the session of 1881-2, to revive the charter of the Sioux City branch of the Union Pacific, indicates that this line is to be extended from Norfolk west to some point on the Union Pacific.

The building of these numerous lines by the company in Nebraska will, at an early day, make necessary a bridge at this city. Soundings were made as early as 1869, and bedrock suitable for the foundation of bridge piers was found at depths ranging from 30 to 50 feet below low water mark. The range of bluffs that comes to the river edge in the west part of the city forms a convenient approach on one side, which is all that any bridge site on the Missouri offers. The building of a bridge, which cannot be delayed for more than a year or two, will do much to fix the business of Northern Nebraska at this city. During 1881, the company has, in a measure, prepared for an increase in the Nebraska business by building nearly four miles of sidetrack in the city, and by the purchase of depot grounds, at an expense of $20,000 near the business center of the town. A survey has been partially made between LeMars, where the company’s track joins that of the Illinois Central, to this city, and there is a good assurance that the company will build this track in 1882.

Right here it may be in order to speak of the company’s land grant, some 20,000 acres of which, lying in this county and in Plymouth County, is in dispute, unfortunately, and so cannot be sold to settlers until the question between the State and the company is settled. The company has built 5712 miles of road in Iowa, which fact has been duly certified by the Governor to the General Government, and the land at the rate of ten sections per mile has been turned over to the State in trust for the railroad company. The State has, in turn, certified the land grant of 50 miles of road to the company. The lands for the other 712 miles the State holds, claiming that the road was entitled to it only as sections of ten miles of road were completed, and the showing of the Railroad company was that the last section lacked 2 12 miles of being ten miles long. The company holds that as the General Government has waived the ten-mile point, and certified the lands to the State for the use and benefit of the company the State should certify the lands for the 7 1/2 miles of road built by the company. Meantime the State holds the lands in abeyance, and settlement is kept out. It would require only a part of the land thus held by the State to give the company the ten sections per mile for the 7 1/2 miles built and unsubsidized. There is also a question between the St. Paul and the Milwaukee companies as to the ownership of about 185,000 acres of land in the vicinity of the crossing point of the two roads. This land is now being sold, and both companies join in giving title, and agree that the company that wins in the courts shall have the money for the disputed lands sold. If this dispute is settled in favor of the Milwaukee Company, it will take all the lands in dispute between the State and the St. Paul Company to make good the land grant of that Company.

Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul. The first spike on the track leading from Sioux City to Yankton was driven in this city Aug. 12, 1872, and the track was finished to Yankton on the 28th of January following. This road is noticeable as the first built in this part of the west without a land grant. The construction company, Wicker & Meckling, of Chicago, obtained a tax from Sioux City, voted the Sioux City & Pembina road, and it was under this name that the road was built as far as the Big Sioux bridge. They also obtained $200,000 in bonds from Yankton County, and a lesser amount from stations along the route. This was the first track in Dakota, south of the Northern Pacific, except a few miles built across the line near where Watertown now is, but abandoned after the land grant was secured. It had long been a favorite plan of the public spirited men of this city to build a road north, up the Big Sioux Valley, and the Sioux City & Pembina was organized in 1871 for this purpose.

The leading spirit, as in most other railroad projects in these parts, was Judge Hubbard. The year following the organization, taxes were voted in aid of the road by Sioux City Township and by the townships in the west part of Plymouth County, and some grading was done. But the financial crisis of 1873 coming on, work was suspended. In 1875 the owners of the track between Sioux City and Yankton began work at Davis Junction on a road up the Big Sioux Valley, and that year completed sixteen miles to Portland Ville. In 1878 the road was finished to Beloit, and in December 1879, the track was laid into Sioux Falls. It was in the spring of this year, 1879, that John I. Blair reappeared on the railroad stage, after several years absence, and bought what he supposed was a controlling interest in the Yankton and Sioux Falls lines. At his suggestion the two were consolidated into the Sioux City & Dakota Railway. In the summer of 1880 the Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul Railway Company bought Mr. Wicker’s interest in the Sioux City & Dakota road, and after a tedious litigation Mr. Blair sold his interest to the same company. Our businessmen hailed the addition of a third road to Chicago by this purchase with enthusiasm. The connection, opening up as it does to the trade of the city, the best part of Southeastern Dakota and Northern Iowa, has been a great advantage, while as an eastern connection the new line has done much to bring the freight rate down to a point that enabled our wholesale dealers to compete with those in Omaha and St. Paul. During the past year, 1881, the company has completed its line up the Big Sioux Valley, from Sioux Falls to Flandreau, where connection is made with the company’s Southern Minnesota division, and has partly graded a line from Yankton to Scotland, which when ironed, will give our dealers a direct line to the lower Jim River Valley. But the work that promised to be of most advantage to the city is the line surveyed southeast, ninety miles, to a connection with the company’s new main line, that during 1881 was nearly completed between Marion and Council Bluffs. This line when built, as it is likely to be in 1882, will not only open up a new section to the trade of our city, but will give a shorter track between Sioux City and Chicago. Some steps have been taken toward securing shops of this company at this city, but nothing definite has as yet been assured.

Railroad Probabilities. These are the railroad lines to which Sioux City owes her importance as a commercial center. There are besides several roads to get, which may be briefly mentioned: The Iowa Railroad Land Company, the owners of the Maple Valley branch of the Chicago & Northwestern, put a party of engineers in the field in December, 1881, to make a survey for a line between Sac City, the terminus of a spur of the branch mentioned, to Sioux City. There is good assurance that a part of this line, at least, will be built in 1882, and that the line will eventually be extended to a connection with the company’s system of roads in Dakota.

The Wabash, in the summer of 1881, leased the Des Moines & Northwestern, a narrow gauge road running northwest from Des Moines. Late in the year the company secured an old roadbed and right of way from Rockwell City to Sac City, and there is the authority of the President of the Narrow Gauge Road for saying that it is to be extended either to Sioux City or Sioux Falls. The branch of the St. Paul Road that now extends down the Rock River to Doon, it is hoped, will be extended south to Sioux City, and an effort is being made to have the 20,000 acres of disputed land grant mentioned diverted to the aid of this extension.

The St. Paul and the Sioux City & Pacific, together, have planned to extend from Fremont to Lincoln, and this Nebraska line, of the greatest usefulness to Sioux City, is likely to be built during 1882. Most important of all the expected lines, is the Central Pacific. During 1881, this company had a preliminary survey made between Corinne, near its eastern terminus, to the mouth of the Niobrara River. The short and natural route for a road coming down the Niobrara Valley, seeking a Chicago connection, is to cross the Missouri River at Sioux City. A letter written by Vice President Huntington of this road to one of our citizens says, that the Central Pacific will be extended from Corinne to some point on the Missouri River not yet determined. As Sioux City presents a good bridge site, and is on the most direct route, there is a reasonable certainty that she will secure this prize. With the roads already built into this city, neither the Central Pacific, nor any other road, can afford to come within reaching distance of Sioux City and not send in a line.

Source: Woodbury County Iowa, History of Western Iowa, 1882

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