On track

Fort Dodge historian Al Nelson’s presentation about the railroads of Fort Dodge and Webster County at the Blanden Memorial Art Museum Saturday jostled a few memories for some of those in the audience.

For them, it wasn’t just history, old photos and slides. They lived it.

Harry Hughes, of Fort Dodge, is 95. He retired from the Illinois Central – one of the railroads that served Fort Dodge – in 1978.

“I quit when I was 60,” he said. “It wasn’t railroading anymore.”

During that time, he was employed as a switchman, a job accurately described by its title; he set switches, uncoupled and connected cars, and signaled the engine crew.

“I spent 38 years switching boxcars,” he said.

Most of that time was in the yards located in Fort Dodge, although he did on occasion accept “turns” or a shift of work as a brakeman.

According to Nelson’s research, the railroad that Hughes retired from goes back a long way.

“We’ve had the Illinois Central here for almost 100 years,” Nelson said.

The railroad is now a fallen flag; it’s been a part of the Canadian National Railroad since 1998.

Before that, the Illinois Central absorbed several other railroads, early names such as the Iowa Falls and Sioux City Railroad, which was the first railroad into Fort Dodge.

That particular event was recorded in the Fort Dodge Sentinel in the lyrical prose of the era.

“Fort Dodge is now in communication with the rest of the world,” the newspaper reported. “Glory enough.”

That was in 1869.

Another important point in the area’s railroad history is Tara – once a small community six miles west of Fort Dodge. All that remains there now is a depot in ruins and the almost 90-degree crossing.

“It became a very important spot,” Nelson said, because it was a junction of railroad tracks to the north, south, east and west.

Fort Dodge also hosted a great deal of infrastructure that, for the most part, no longer exists.

For example, the Illinois Central had a roundhouse, depot and freighthouse in Fort Dodge. The turntable, while unusable, remains.

The loss of the depot wasn’t without irony, Nelson explained.

“It was torn down about a year after it was placed on the Historic Register,” he said.

In the days before paved roads and reliable vehicles, the best – and sometimes only way – to get someplace was by train.

The Minneapolis and St. Louis Railroad once advertised that it offered two daily trains from nearby Badger to Fort Dodge. Freight rates were also posted for moving goods. In 1915, it cost $100 to move a horse, but only $3 per head of sheep.

Another newspaper story Nelson uncovered contains an account of a band being transported to Minneapolis; the Fort Dodge to there leg of the trip – 220 miles – was achieved in four hours and 15 minutes.

“It was from Fort Dodge to Minneapolis that the wheels only hit the high spots,” the Minneapolis Tribune article reported. That’s an average speed of 51.76 miles per hour, which is 1.76 miles per hour over the current Iowa speed limit for gravel roads.

There were other railroads in Fort Dodge that moved people around. The Fort Dodge Light and Power Co. built the first street railroad in Fort Dodge in 1897. It lasted, in various forms and along different routes, until 1925.

Fort Dodge was also served by the Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Southern, an interurban railroad that began in Des Moines and branched north. It went through Fort Dodge, and several lines terminated at Rockwell City and Webster City.

Portions of that line now make up the Boone Valley Scenic Railroad.

One of the most colorful bits of railroad history provided by Nelson surrounds the Crooked Creek Railroad; the shortline, originally built as a three-foot narrow gauge line, was designed for one purpose.

“It was built to get coal from Lehigh to the Iowa Central,” Nelson said.

The narrow gauge operation only lasted a few years, partly because there was a requirement that loads of coal had to be shoveled, by hand, from the narrow gauge cars to the standard gauge cars.

“A good man could shovel about 20 tons a day,” Nelson said.

The narrow gauge parked parallel to the standard gauge on a raised section of track – and then the shoveling began.

“They got about 10 cents a ton,” Nelson said.

Coal eventually gave way to diesel. Steam engines were phased out by most railroads beginning in the 1950s.

Keith Linstrom, of Fort Dodge, not only remembers the last run, he was on it shoveling coal into Iowa Central locomotive 1741. The trip was called the Webster City turn; it went from Fort Dodge to Webster City and then back.

Back then, he could see the end coming.

“They already had two diesels,” Linstrom said.

He remembers his first run with the new diesel engines well too.

“I went aboard with a scoop shovel,” he said – something that was definitely not needed.

Linstrom worked as a fireman for the IC from 1948 to 1990.

“It kept you in shape,” he said of shoveling coal in the early years.

For twins Aubrey and Carson Holtorf, 11, of Fort Dodge, Nelson’s presentation was both news and not news.

Aubrey Holtorf said she didn’t know too much about the railroad history of Fort Dodge. Her brother, on the other hand, is already a buff and model railroader.

His favorite railroad can be seen moving freight in Fort Dodge; he’s a fan of the Union Pacific.

While he enjoyed seeing the photos of the old engines, it won’t change his modeling interest.

“I’m more into the diesels,” he said.

In addition to the large railroads, street lines and interurbans, there is one final train that served Fort Dodge. It never actually went anywhere or carried much freight, but it did provide hours of entertainment for visitors to Oleson Park where a live steam 12-inch-gauge railroad once offered rides.

“I rode on that when I was a little boy,” Nelson said.

It still lives on, converted to run on compressed air; it can be ridden every year at the Webster County Fair.