116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Time Machine: International railroad union was based in Cedar Rapids
Order of Railway Conductors operated downtown for almost a century, from 1878 to 1968
Cedar Rapids was the international headquarters for a large union — the Order of Railway Conductors — for almost a century, from 1878 to 1968.
The order’s predecessor, the Conductors Brotherhood, was organized in July 1868 in Mendota, Ill. Ten years later, the name was changed to the Order of Railway Conductors of America.
Cedar Rapids became the order’s headquarters in 1878 when Cedar Rapids Mayor W.P. Daniels was the order’s “grand secretary” and a conductor on the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railroad. The order’s offices were at Third Avenue and Third Street SE.
The order temporarily moved to Chicago in 1886, but upon discovering it was easier to incorporate in Iowa than Illinois, moved back to Cedar Rapids the next year.
The order prohibited its members from participating in strikes until 1890. At that time, voluntary membership ceased, and all conductors were required to join the union, which provided life and disability insurance for them.
In 1899, the union was looking for a place to build its headquarters in Cedar Rapids.
The City Council offered Greene Square, saying the park was “a first-class failure for the reason that is not one-fifth large enough for a park and is not properly located.”
Around the same time, in 1897, a Masonic Temple was being built at the corner of First Avenue East and First Street NE.
When the Masons ran out of money, a committee — led by Clarence Miller of The Gazette; Edgar E. Clark, the head of the conductors union; and M.W. Hazeltine — raised money to finish the building.
Architect J.W. Ross revised the building plans, and builder A.H. Conner & Co. finished the work. The result was a striking, five-story, 86-foot-tall building with carved stone arch columns at the main entrance on First Avenue.
A few years later, the Masons decided to build a new temple on A Avenue NE. The temple, which still stands today, opened in 1910.
The Order of Railway Conductors bought the Masonic building at First and First. In 1913, the union moved its offices from the Cedar Rapids Savings Bank to the former Masonic building, taking over the fifth floor and later the fourth.
Clark, a Cedar Rapids native, was the union’s “grand chief conductor” until 1906, when he left to become a member of the Interstate Commerce Commission.
He was succeeded by Austin Garretson, who gained a national recognition in the fight for eight-hour work days on the railroads. He also apparently didn’t like his “grand chief conductor” title and changed it to president.
L.E. Sheppard of Cedar Rapids led the union through the difficult years after World War I. He was followed by E.P. Curtis, Samuel N. Berry and J.A. Phillips.
The union’s insurance division added an accident department in 1919, guaranteeing coverage for members’ accident or death claims.
In 1933, Cedar Rapids became the meeting place for the union’s conventions, which were held every three years and lasted 14 to 16 days.
At the 1946 national convention in Chicago, members voted down a proposal to move the union’s headquarters to Chicago.
The union had a membership of more than 40,000 in the United States, Canada and the Canal Zone. Railroad brakemen became part of the union in 1934, but the union’s name wasn’t changed until 1954, when it became the Order of Railway Conductors and Brakemen.
That year, Fred C. Henson of Cedar Rapids, a former reporter for The Gazette and WMT radio, was named editor of the union’s international magazine, The Railway Conductor, which had 35,000 subscribers. It was printed by the Stamats Publishing Co. in Cedar Rapids.
Urban renewal spelled the end of the union in Cedar Rapids.
In December 1967, the city rejected the union’s attempts to spare the building, paying the union $260,000 for the building. The ORC&B union had until Oct. 1, 1968, to move out.
The landmark building, at 104 First Ave. East, was demolished on Aug. 24, 1969.
The conductors union merged with the Brotherhood of Locomotive Firemen and Enginemen, Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen and the Switchmen’s Union of North America. The new organization, the United Transportation Union, moved to Cleveland.
In February 1969, the now vacant land was earmarked to become part of a massive shopping-hotel complex proposed by Bjorensen Enterprises. Called Midtowne Mall, the project fell through in 1970.
In September 1973, Downtown Enterprise Builders, represented by Peter Bezanson and Robert Armstrong, broke ground for the 25-story Cedar River Tower apartment building. Brenton Banks also built on part of the site.