Railroading history pulls into Blanden Memorial Art Museum

Railroads have shaped the land, but they have also influenced the nature and character of the communities through which they ran.

Just how Fort Dodge and Webster County have developed in response to the cross-crossing connections of tracks, stations, and depots will be explored during an illustrated presentation at the Blanden Memorial Art Museum, 920 Third Ave. S.

Local historian Al Nelson will present an illustrated talk titled “Fort Dodge Area Railways in the 19th Century” in the East gallery of the museum at 3 p.m. on Saturday.

“I’ve never been that interested as a historian in railroading,” Nelson said, “but I got started in this project and found it’s very fascinating stuff. It’s like genealogy where once you get into it you get hooked and could get easily spend all your time on it.”

The presentation will last about an hour and includes more than 100 slides and images. During that time, Nelson said he will discuss the early days of railroading when a community avidly sought being located on a rail line to ensure its growth and prosperity. Beginning in the 1860s, this era of local heritage included drama and political intrigue due to the value of rail lines in transporting mined Webster County coal, gypsum, clay, and gravel to mills, refineries and big city distribution facilities.

“It’s pretty exciting,” Nelson said. “We had more than 20 railroad companies in this area. Railroads were always important to any town for survival, but especially for Fort Dodge and Webster County. We had a lot of minerals to move around.”

While people who have a fascination with trains will recognize the presentation’s immediate appeal, museum director Margaret Skove said she thought those who enjoy delving into the town’s frontier past will also find the presentation worthwhile.

Particularly interesting are the efforts and actions citizens took to counter threats to bypass or otherwise avoid Fort Dodge because it gives people a glimpse of the determination needed by those who founded the community.

“I think the talk will appeal to people who have lived in the Fort Dodge area all their lives,” Skove said, the museum director, “particularly if they are multi-generational natives.”

Among the rail lines to be discussed will be the Iowa Falls & Sioux City Railroad which became part of the Illinois Central Railroad; the Crooked Creek Railroad & Coal Company line, which was only eight miles long yet still gained national attention for a “war” with other lines; and the Fort Dodge Street Railway System which developed into the Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern Railway before it grew into the Interurban system of northcentral Iowa.

Also included in the presentation will be “interesting off-shoot stories,” Nelson said, such as an account about a woman who drove in the golden spike at a rail line completion ceremony in the community of Tara just west of Fort Dodge. This was a first in the nation as far as Nelson has found. Women weren’t typically allowed to do such things.

Much of the information to be presented will likely be new to the audience, Skove said. This is because Nelson is fervent about research and often uncovers those facts and tidbits that many of us otherwise would not know.

“Al is a determined historian,” Skove said. “He will follow a line of inquiry all over the country, wherever it may lead.”

A Fort Dodge native, Nelson returned to his hometown after living several years in Michigan and Arizona.

He now travels to local and national research centers to investigate cultures, families, individuals, and companies that were significant in the region’s frontier history.