Although Rock Island passenger trains first came through Oelwein in 1877, the company that earned Oelwein its nickname as the Hub City was the Chicago Great Western, which was founded in 1892.
The CGW found that Oelwein’s central location between Kansas City-Minneapolis and Omaha-Chicago made it ideal as a hub for its passenger and freight divisions. All mainlines of the Great Western passed through the Fayette County city.
The company began negotiating with Oelwein landowners to acquire 1,500 acres to build its shops in spring 1894, according to the Dubuque Herald.
With the expected addition of thousands of new rail employees to Oelwein, and conductors and brakemen scrambling to find housing for their families, a Chicago contractor was hired to build 110 cottages to either rent or sell to shop employees.
Construction of the 10-stall, 180,000-square-foot roundhouse began in 1898. It was completed in 1899 at a cost of $250,000.
The shop structures were built of stone, pressed brick and steel with tile roofs. The principal buildings were:
• The powerhouse, 43-by-120 feet with a 130-foot smoke stack, had a boiler room with three 200-horsepower boilers to produce steam for the electric dynamos that provided power and light for the complex, the steam pump and the heating for all the buildings. The building included the 43-by-53 foot wheelhouse, where a revolving electric crane picked up sets of wheels and placed them on a moving table for distribution. Tunnels, measuring 5-by-6 feet, contained electric wires, steam and exhaust pipes connected to the pump house.
• The freight car repair shop, 30-by-460 feet, included a storehouse for lumber and a woodworking shop building for repairing cars and coaches. Adjoining the repair shop were the blacksmith shop with a mammoth steam hammer and the paint shops, lighted by glass tiles in the roof.
• The transfer table moved the cars, coaches and locomotives between shops and placed them on tracks when the work was done.
• The two-story main shop, the monster building of them all, 94-by-702 feet, had the machine, boiler and coach shops. In the main room, 15 to 20 locomotives were always under repair. Two traveling electric cranes could lift 30,000 to 160,000 pounds. The east end had the company offices. The west end contained the coach repair shop.
• The two-story clubhouse for employees had lockers, showers and bathrooms on the lower level and a library/reading room on the upper level. It also was used for social gatherings.
In 1903, construction began on a major addition to the roundhouse.
The Great Western shops and roundhouses were already the largest in the state, where all of the general repair work and overhauling of engines was done. Shops at Fort Dodge, Clarion and Omaha were used only for light overhauls.
When steam locomotives were converted to diesel engines in spring 1948, the railroad needed fewer employees and many workers were laid off from the shops.
Some of the now empty space at the facility was marked for rental to local industry. By fall, the CGW decided that some of that space would go to railcar repair and other heavy work, and some employees were called back to work.
The shops had once employed 1,000 workers — boilermakers, pipe fitters, foundry workers — and the number dropped to 500, mostly office workers, trainmen, engine men and machinists. Even so, the Great Western was still the Oelwein’s main employer with a payroll of more than $3 million.
Talk about merging the Great Western with Chicago & North Western began in 1961, with an agreement reached in April 1967. The Soo Line contested the merger, delaying it until February 1968 when Soo Line was allowed more access points.
When the deal was finalized, the Chicago Great Western ceased to exist at 12:01 a.m. July 1, 1968, throwing the future of the Oelwein diesel repair shops in doubt.
By 1979, the shops were employee-owned and were again the city’s biggest employer with 225 workers doing complete locomotive rebuilds and reclamations.
When the Oelwein shops finally closed in March 1994, the Chicago & North Western left a souvenir for the Oelwein railway museum — a 238,000-pound, faded yellow, 1950s FP7 locomotive.
The Transco Specialty railroad repair branch plant in Oelwein repainted the engine in CNW colors — maroon, red, gold and black — before putting it on display near the museum.
The Transco company continues to repair train cars in shop space it bought from the C&NW in northwest Oelwein.
Most of the shops were demolished in 2010 by the then-owner, the Union Pacific Railroad.
As for the Chicago Great Western, most of its rails were abandoned after the 1968 merger. Today, what remains has been turned into biking and hiking trails.
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