(Foot)Notes on Iowa - Day 6: Ottumwa to Eddyville
Updated: Feb 10, 2022
Starting from the Hotel Ottumwa just north of the Des Moines River on Part 1, Day 6, I crossed over one of the many bridges connecting the northern and southern portions of the city. Ottumwa, often called ‘Bridge City,’ features a walking trail along the south bank of the Des Moines along the top of a levee constructed to limit the impact of flooding on the city. I continued down the levee, stopping briefly to observe a historical marker recognizing residents of the Central Addition, Blackhawk Area, and Marina-Gateway Area who often suffered the tribulations brought on by flooding.
Passing out of Ottumwa, I continued up the river following Rock Bluff Road. I passed by Rock Bluff Park, an area maintained by the Wapello County Conservation Board, before eventually arriving in the small town of Chillicothe. A community of only 97 people at the 2010 census, Chillicothe residents maintain the name of the town derives from a Shawnee word meaning “Principal Place.” The town also boasts of being the resting place of Curtis King, the oldest man to serve in the American Civil War.
Exiting Chillicothe, the massive Alliant Energy/Interstate Power and Light Ottumwa Generating Station. The enormous 725.9-megawatt coal-fired power station burns sub bituminous coal mainly mined and trucked from Wyoming. The future of the station stands as relatively uncertain, as parent company Alliant Energy set an ‘aspiration’ to reach net-zero carbon by 2050, a goal requiring the elimination of all coal power plants within the company’s holdings by 2040.
Continuing beyond the generating station, the rest of the journey to Eddyville proved relatively uneventful. Two local farmers stopped to ask if I needed assistance, and the second pointed me toward an abandoned house I would come across down the road. He told me a family of turkey vultures occupied the attic, and if I looked closely I might catch them peering out to survey the surrounding area. When I made it to the house, the vultures certainly watched over their abode, but a more unexpected site met me. Two local farmers stood perplexed in the yard, discussing how to best coax an unlikely trio from the house. A pig, a cow, and a chicken all had somehow ended up entering the house. I avoided inserting myself into the situation and continued on by.
Once I moved beyond the power generating station, the massive Cargill Eddyville location loomed in the distance on the south bank of the Des Moines River. I continuously utilized the array of towers at the plant to check the remaining distance I needed to traverse before I would reach the end of my road for the day. The plant sits opposite the small town of Eddyville, population of roughly 1,000, mills over 275,000 bushels of corn each day. The location features a 40 megawatt coal-fired power generating station. Cargill Eddyville started the corn milling operation in 1985, employing about 100 people on the 320 acre site previously occupied by the Iowa Southern Utilities Power Plant. Today, the plant boasts a footprint of 1,500 acres and employs over 500 people.
Across the river, Eddyville rests near the site of Chief Hard Fish’s village in the 1830s. Chief Hard Fish followed the Sauk leader Black Hawk during the Black Hawk War of the early 1830s before settling near the confluence of the Des Moines River and Muchakinock Creek. Today, a small historical marker rests near Eddyville City Hall along the river bank to commemorate the village site. Additionally, a canoe access on the opposite (south) bank of the river recognizes Chief Hard Fish.
Eddyville marked the end of my walking for Part 1, Day 6, however, I determined early in the planning process that coal-fired power plants of Ottumwa and Eddyville would only constitute the start of my look into Iowa’s coal producing past. After rendezvousing with my wife in the support vehicle, we headed down into Monroe County in search of the Buxton townsite.
The history of Buxton can (and does) fill several books, and I would encourage anyone interested to see the works of Dorothy Schweider (Buxton: A Black Utopia in the Heartland), Rachelle Chase (Creating the Black Utopia of Buxton, Iowa), or David Gradwohl and Nancy Osborn (Exploring Buried Buxton: Archaeology of an Abandoned Mining Town With a Large Black Population) to further explore the topic fully.
Like several other modern-day ‘ghost towns’ of south-central Iowa, Buxton sprang up in conjunction with the need of early railroads for an abundant supply of coal. However, Buxton gains historical significance, according to the Iowa Department of Cultural Affairs, due to: The Consolidation Coal Company worked for the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad. Having a hard time recruiting white miners, Consolidation Coal sent agents to southern states to hire African-American workers. In 1873, it founded the town of Buxton and opened nearby mines. It grew quickly and, according to one source, became the largest coal town west of the Mississippi. In the 1905 census, the town boasted 2,700 African American and 1,991 whites. The town supported African-American doctors, lawyers and other professionals, and an African-American YMCA with a gymnasium, an indoor swimming pool and many programs for Buxton residents. The town was proud of its baseball team, the Buxton Wonders. White residents included immigrants from Sweden and elsewhere, and they existed peacefully with the African-Americans throughout the community’s history.”
Today, the Buxton townsite and cemetery are open to the public thanks to the Monroe County Historical Society. The sites prove relatively difficult to find, and travel down long stretches of gravel roads (including ‘Level B’ road) make access difficult in adverse weather conditions. At the townsite, the remains of the nearly collapsed Consolidated Coal Company store warehouse linger as the largest remaining structure. Other foundations await eager visitors hunting through the site, and the cemetery stands not too far away.
The site stands as a reminder of the complexity of Iowa’s past, and when considered with the coal fired power plants along the route of Part 1, Day 5, represent linkages between the present and past of Iowa’s environmental realities.