Even though the railroad boom has come and gone, a historic railroad center in northern Linn County still is chugging along as a testament to the industry’s storied past and, now, as one of Iowa’s most treasured historic districts.
About 20 miles north of Cedar Rapids, the Coggon Commercial Historic District has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, with 18 buildings that stay true to the town’s historical roots of the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“We’re pleased the Coggon Commercial Historic District has been added to the National Register of Historic Places, and we commend all the stakeholders who worked so hard on this successful nomination,” State Historian Laura Sadowsky said. “This recognition marks an important milestone for Coggon as it continues to preserve the legacy of its past for future generations of Iowans to enjoy.”
During two years in the late 1880s, Coggon became a bustling commercial center, with a tavern and cafe, a bank, a hardware store and a hotel. Much of the development was spurred by the growth of the railroad at the end of the Civil War, as towns across the country competed for new railroads.
Coggon’s rapid economic development spurred the community to transform the layout of the commercial district. Like many Iowa towns, Coggon built its Main Street perpendicular to the train tracks so business could have easy access to rail systems. City leaders designed their Main Street to be wider than normal to accommodate pedestrian and buggy traffic.
The street was unusually wide for another reason, too: to showcase the town’s schoolhouse. “In Coggon, the school was a building of prominence visually anchoring the commercial district and symbolizing the town’s identity as a center of growth,” according to the National Register nomination form.
As Coggon grew, so did the need to house the town’s visitors, and many families began renting rooms to boarders. In response, the Clemons house was built in 1887 and is believed to be the first building constructed on Main Street. Serving as a hotel, the owners also took on boarders and provided good food and hospitality. Just two blocks from the depot, visitors to Coggon could stay in the hotel for $1 per day.
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After the development of Clemons House, the rest of the commercial district and surrounding town grew quickly. The district alone saw the construction of a railroad depot, bank, and grocery store in 1888; a doctor’s office and monitor building in 1890; and a pharmacy and Masonic Lodge in 1898. A furniture store and undertaking business, which had been built about 1880, continued operating as the district developed around it.
Early in the 20th century, a period of agricultural revitalization began and brought a construction boom to many rural Iowa towns, including Coggon. Farmers were encouraged to increase production during World War I, which led to higher profits and more credit that were used to buy land, goods and services.
About this time, cars began to gain prominence, and Coggon’s first gas station was built in 1910. As more people started driving, fewer people traveled by rail. So Coggon’s commercial district, like those many rural towns, slowed down. Eventually, Coggon stopped receiving passenger service from the railroad, although a freight line continues to run west of the town.
While Coggon is quieter these days, the commercial district largely retains the authenticity of its heyday. Built in the Late Victorian Period, the buildings are largely a mix of the Italianate Style and the Brick Commercial Style.
They are primarily one- and two-story brick buildings with storefronts on the first floor that were built between 1887 and 1912; only three contributing buildings to the historic district were built after this time frame. Over the years, restorations have upheld the integrity with historically appropriate materials and original storefronts.