When the Minneapolis-St. Louis Rock Island Rocket No. 190 pulled out of the Rock Island Depot shortly after 10 p.m. on April 8, 1967, passenger rail service ended in Cedar Rapids.
The Rock Island had been operating passenger service for Cedar Rapids since 1903 when it purchased the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern line.
Iowa Rail history
The first completed railway into Iowa was the Mississippi and Missouri River Road from Davenport to Iowa´s then-capital, Iowa City, on Jan. 1, 1856.
Construction also was underway on several other lines: the Burlington and Missouri River Road, the Iowa Central Air Line (to Marion) and the Dubuque and Pacific.
In 1856, a group of New England investors joined with local businessmen, including Judge George Greene and Dr. John F. Ely, to make Cedar Rapids a railroad hub. The Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska, a rival line to the Iowa Central, was begun at Clinton. Connected with the Dixon Air Line at Fulton, it made rapid progress.
The first Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska locomotive steamed into Cedar Rapids on June 15, 1859. The station was on a site that later would be the Sinclair Packing House, but by November, foundations were being laid for a new Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska round house and turntable.
By 1862, the Burlington and Missouri River went as far west as Mount Pleasant; the Dubuque and Pacific as far as Dyersville; and the Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska got no farther than Cedar Rapids. That´s when John Blair and associates organized a company to build from Cedar Rapids to Council Bluffs.
The Chicago, Iowa & Nebraska was reorganized in 1862 into the Chicago & Northwestern, the same year President Abraham Lincoln signed the Pacific Railway Act. Two years later, a Dubuque and Southwestern passenger train was the first to pull into Marion. That railroad later became the Milwaukee Road, which laid track to Omaha in 1882.
Greene and Ely were instrumental in organizing a north-south route, the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Minnesota Railroad, in 1868. It reorganized into the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern in 1876 with Greene as president. Its signature building on First Avenue, now the Skogman building, still has the initials of the railroad on its side. The Rock Island purchased a majority of stock in 1885 and took over the railroad in 1903.
Rise, fall of Union Station
At the turn of the 20th century, more than 40 passenger trains moved through Cedar Rapids and Marion. Names such as the Midwest Hiawatha, the Rocket, Arrow and Challenger were familiar.
Cedar Rapids dedicated its Union Station on Jan. 27, 1897. It ran for two city blocks along Fourth Street, closing off Fourth Avenue. The dedication festivities included a dance, orators and refreshments, all as a fundraiser to help those who were hungry and cold.
The station was constructed of St. Louis hydraulic brick, trimmed in blue Bedford, Ind., stone. The roof was covered in German clay tiling with copper metal work. At the corners of the cut stone trimming and at the tops of arches were cleverly designed gargoyles. The tower supported a 102-foot finial and had an illuminated clock with a 6-foot dial. The inside was paneled in oak with marble flooring. At each end of the huge waiting room were immense fireplaces of red Portage Entry stone set in carved oak mantels. At the height of the railroad era in the 1920s, the station constantly was busy with passenger and interurban trains, including presidential trains and trains carrying soldiers from three wars. Union Station was demolished in 1961 when the convenience of automobiles for short trips and airlines for long ones severely curtailed use of passenger trains.
The Hiawatha was discontinued in 1955 and the Union Pacific, which was operating on Northwestern tracks, moved to the Milwaukee Road. Union Pacific operated the Cities of San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver and Portland streamliners. They were moved from Union Station to Marion´s depot. Within 15 years, only one remained: the City of Los Angeles.
The two-story brick Marion Railroad depot was built in 1888 for $15,000 at 11th Street and Sixth Avenue, replacing the 1873 depot. The lower level had passenger waiting rooms, ticket sales and baggage and mail areas. On the second floor were offices. The trainmaster´s desk sat in a bay window to allow a clear view of rail traffic.
Around the same time, the freight yards and round house were built east of town. The Milwaukee Road offered passenger service out of Marion until the last train to actually board passengers pulled into Marion´s depot April 30, 1971.
The riders who boarded the City of Los Angeles streamliner included a pair of Marion mothers who wanted their youngsters to have the experience of riding a train and a Marion lawyer who was taking his family to Chicago. The train returned to Marion that night, bringing home a group of Harding students.
The Union Pacific-Milwaukee Road Cities train, nicknamed “The City of Everywhere” by locals, made runs May 1 and 2 to disembark passengers, finally pulling into Marion at 8:15 p.m. May 2 before continuing to its last stop, Chicago.
The depot partially was used as offices until 1988, when a new downtown mall was proposed. A Depot Pride committee was formed to salvage the historic building. They succeeded in using bricks and the roof from the depot to build a pavilion in Marion Square Park.