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Iowa History Daily: January 3 - The Great Railroad Race to Iowa City

Iowa History Daily: On January 3, 1856, the crowds cheered in -20 degree temperatures to celebrate the arrival of the railroad in Iowa’s (then) capital city of Iowa City. The culmination of years of hoping and planning, the arrival of the railroad in Johnson County represents an important moment of connection for the Hawkeye state.

Early attempts at improving transportation in Iowa ranged from the failed Des Moines Lock & Navigation Co. to the ‘Calico Railroad’ project’s demise, but by the mid-1850s the plans of the newly formed Mississippi & Missouri Railroad Company focused on extending a line from Davenport to Iowa City. With a groundbreaking on September 1, 1853, work on the branch line connecting Muscatine and Davenport finished as work on the tracks headed west progressed more slowly.

To speed things along, officials in Iowa City eager for rail access offered the Mississippi & Missouri an additional $50,000 if the line reached Iowa’s capital city before January 1, 1856. As the 55-mile track slowly spread toward Johnson County, it appeared efforts would fall short of the deadline. As of Christmas Day 1855, the track still stood 2.5 miles east of Iowa City with brutal winter weather incoming.

Workers blitzed for the final week of 1855 to move the track within 1000 feet of the Iowa City Depot by 9:00 p.m. on New Year’s Eve. Local citizens turned out in droves, lighting bonfires to warm the workers and lending a hand to temporarily lay a track reaching the depot by the time the city’s church bells rang at midnight. Two days later, on January 3rd, the real celebration began as the engine ‘Oskaloosa’ pulled the first passenger train into Iowa City. #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaHistoryCalendar


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