Ad-Express and Daily Iowegian, Centerville, IA

January 25, 2007

The end of the Interurban Railroad

By Bill Heusinkveld - correspondent

The Interurban electric railways to Mystic and to Moravia had been wildly popular with the citizens as a means for the miners and their families to visit their close relations more frequently than when they had to harness up the horse and hitch it to the buggy. The populace could jump on the train to buy their groceries or other items that might be hard to come by. The youngsters of Mystic even used the train to make a daily trip to Centerville to attend high school. With all this traffic, the interurban generated considerable revenue for the company.

It is true that the horseless carriage had been invented some years before the interurban railway between towns had attracted such unbounded enthusiasm. I have seen a picture of Dr. Heaton driving his Cadillac, manufactured in 1903. It had high, wooden wheels and looked like a buggy. Some other early cars were made by Durant, De Soto, Essex, Buick, Whippet, Graham Page, Overland Willis and Chevrolet. These contraptions could not be taken very seriously for a number of years. Hardly anyone could afford one and they were so terribly unreliable. Tires were blowing out constantly and the inner tubes would have to be patched while out on the road. An owner had to be a mechanic to keep the car in operation. The roads were very poor for a time, and it was much easier to just ride the train and have some confidence in arriving at the destination at a reasonable hour.

After a few years, Henry Ford came upon the scene and revolutionized the auto industry with his Model T Ford, made with assembly line production, keeping the prices low. A saying prevailed that you could buy any color you wanted as long as it was black. Although the Model T also had its idiosyncrasies, cars began popping up among the ordinary people, instead of just the doctors, lawyers, bankers and coal mine owners. As the depression eased in the 30’s the motto became “A chicken in every pot and a car in every garage”.

As time passed, the railways found themselves unable to compete with the advent of the high speed automobile, particularly as roads were gradually improved. The American public began to love the convenience and thrill of driving their own cars wherever they wanted to go, rather than be confined to one particular route

Ultimately automobiles and large trucks destroyed not only the interurban passenger service but disrupted the entire railroad industry as rail lines could not compete with truck deliveries to local markets. Most of the railroads in Appanoose County have disappeared entirely.

Passenger service on the electric interurbans, both to Albia and to Mystic was discontinued in 1933. The Southern Iowa Railway Company was created as a subsidiary of ISU in 1941 to continue operation of the electric railroads to deliver coal and other freight. Freight service on the Mystic line was phased out by steps in 1944, 1958 and 1954.

By 1944 the northern 10 miles of track to Albia were abandoned. In the late 50’s the Southern Iowa Railway became the focus of attention from railfans throughout the Midwest. Many flocked to Centerville to photograph the equipment and take excursions over the line.

An attempt was made to run an excursion train on the railroad for a short time, but it was really unsafe. Lyle Kesterson told me he took the trip with Charley Poffenberger driving the train. The route was from the old depot in North Centerville to the switching station at the Country Club and back to the junction with the CB&Q; at the old brick yard. One of the passengers from Ohio insisted on giving Charley a new whistle and blowing it at the crossings. It was probably a very nostalgic but dangerous trip.

Some of the ties were so rotted or missing that the rails would bend down almost to the railroad bed. It was hopeless to try to replace the rotted ties because there were so many. The trestle bridges over the Chariton River and Cooper Creek were very bad. In the picture, Car. No. 10 is shown on the Cooper Creek trestle, on the way to the CB&Q; transfer terminal.

In September, 1966 a fire severely damaged the long timber trestle on the Chariton River bridge, and it was never rebuilt. The wire was taken down in 1966 ending all excursions. In 1972 the Company dissolved the Southern Iowa Railway Company.

There was talk of trying to preserve the railroad roadbed for a bicycle and hiking trail but it never materialized. The railroad was sold to Forbes & Son for $1.00 in 1965 and disbanded in 1967. Oscar Gavronsky had a salvage business and disposed of the rails and trolley wire. Trolley No. 9 was preserved and later placed in operation at the Mt. Pleasant Thresher’s site as a museum piece.

Peter Weller and Charles Franzen co-authored a pictorial history in 1992 entitled “Remembering the Southern Iowa Railroad” with the purpose of preserving some of the colorful history of the bygone era of the electric railroads. It is a very fine booklet filled with maps and pictures relating to street cars and interurban passenger service, not only in the Centerville area but in other towns such as Burlington and Ottumwa. It also describes the “Fantrip Era” that followed after freight service was discontinued.