116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
In 1891, communities all over the Midwest were lobbying for passenger train depots.
Originally, each rail line would build a small building in the cities where it had passenger stops. Often, several such buildings would pop up in cities served by more than one rail line.
As the number of rail travelers increased, train companies decided to build consolidated, or “union,” stations.
A union station was proposed for the Mississippi River city of Keokuk in far southeast Iowa in 1884, with proponents drawing up plans for a $50,000 building.
Nothing came of it until 1890, when the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad began lobbying the other lines that came through Keokuk to build a union depot. Public sentiment was in their favor.
“Keokuk, like Cedar Rapids, (is) agitating the question of a Union depot, but with more success than we are having,” The Gazette reported. “The Rock Island and CB&Q have taken favorable action. The Keokuk & Western, TB&W and Wabash are equally cordial and friendly. The consummation of the enterprise will make Keokuk grateful and happy.”
The five railroads organized a stock company in Keokuk with $100,000. Architect John Wellborn Root, of the respected Burnham and Root firm in Chicago, designed the depot in a Romanesque revival style.
Root was known for developing a construction method that made modern skyscrapers possible, but he died before the Keokuk depot was completed.
While Cedar Rapids’ Union station wouldn’t be dedicated until 1897, Keokuk’s depot was finished June 30, 1891. Marion beat both cities, with two rail depots operating in 1864 and the new Milwaukee Road depot opening in 1888.
Keokuk’s new depot, built below a bluff on Water Street between Johnson and Bank streets, was described in detail in the Keokuk Weekly Constitution:
“The building is 173 feet long and is constructed of red pressed brick, the sills being of Colorado peach blow stone (a later analysis showed the sills were more like Wolf’s Carbondale brownstone) and the trimming of terra cotta.
“A high roof with a steep slope surmounts the structure, the shingles of which are of heavy tiling. All the spouting, ornaments and cornices are made of the heaviest copper.
“The greater part of the building is one story in height with tall gables, but a little north of midway of the structure the height is increased by a large tower, which rises in the air 64 feet.”
The account went on to describe the interior.
“The ceiling is arched, but not exactly Gothic, and is of antique oak, finished in oil, with great arched beams of the same wood. Tennessee marble interlaid with small red tile is the floor.
“Highly polished Tennessee marble forms the baseboard and above are panels of antique oak, oil finished, 5-1/2 feet high. Above the oak the wall is built of buff brick, thus making an exceedingly rich combination.
“In one corner is a nickel drinking fountain of the latest design. Steam is used in heating the entire building, and the radiators in the waiting room are gilded.”
The building was well lighted. Inside, travelers found “combination electrolier and gas chandelier of antique bronze” in the waiting room, with electric globes and gas burners. The outside lights were electric.
In July 1937, lightning struck the depot’s tower, setting it on fire. The tower was not replaced until 2016.
As the years passed, passenger trains became infrequent as people traveled more by automobile. On April 6, 1967, the last northbound train through Keokuk arrived at 9:40 p.m., and the last southbound train arrived at 3:04 a.m. April 7. Passenger service then came to an end.
Keokuk Daily Gate City newspaper writer Ray Garrison reported 34 passenger trains rolled through Keokuk in the early 1900. One of the passengers, he said, was former bank robber Cole Younger.
“He had served his prison sentence after the 1876 Northfield, Minn., bank robbery and had taken up religion. Of his own volition, he had become a decent citizen,” Garrison said. “We talked, and he showed me some of the scars from bullets he had stopped in his flight from one stickup or another. He was quiet, well-spoken.”
The depot served as an agent and operator headquarters until it became the hub for a tourist scenic railway in the 1980s.
After 1996, it sat vacant.
Restoring the depot
The city of Keokuk bought the depot in 2010 for $1 to prevent its demolition but was reluctant to take on the expense of managing and maintaining the building.
The nonprofit Keokuk Union Depot Commission took over in 2011 to direct depot restoration, and its foundation began raising funds the next year. Volunteers have been working steadily on the 130-year-old depot since.
It was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2013. Areas of the depot are now used as an events center.
In May, the Keokuk Union Depot won a $112,798 Rural Heritage Revitalization grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior National Park Service for historic preservation.