GROWTH OF OUR FRONTIER TOWN
Growth of our Frontier Town - 1860-1890
1860-1890 …. Growth of our Frontier Town
After the post was abandoned with the troops leaving Fort Dodge in April of 1853, Major William Williams remained at the post and with financial assistance from Jesse Williams, a banker and land speculator from Fairfield, Iowa, Williams purchased the abandoned military reservation, organized the Fort Dodge Town Company, and platted the town. In 1855, a federal land office was established in Fort Dodge and investors from the East flocked in to purchase land. The early growth of the new community was due to land speculation in the great land boom of 1855-57. Temporary population rose to around one thousand as speculators sought a quick fortune. Money made in land speculation was used to finance more lasting enterprises in later years. Prosperity and growth, however, were interrupted by the Panic of 1857 and the subsequent Civil War.
The Civil War – 1861-1865
During the Civil War years, Fort Dodge, like other fledgling towns, saw its growth stagnate as the nation was coping with the devastations of war. The one major milestone during this time period was Fort Dodge was established as the county seat.
The Civil War era brought considerable change to Iowa's politics and Fort Dodge was no exception. During the 1850s, the state's dominant Democratic Party developed serious internal problems, as well as being unsuccessful in getting the national Democratic Party to respond to their local needs. Iowans soon turned to the newly emerging Republican Party. The new party opposed slavery and promoted land ownership, banking, and railroads, and Iowa voted heavily for Abraham Lincoln and other Republican politicians in 1860 and throughout the war.
Leading up to the start of the Civil War, Fort Dodge, not unlike other communities and cities in the north was divided on the central issue of slavery and the cessation of the southern states. The two competing newspapers in Fort Dodge at the time were on opposite sides of the issue. Republicans adamantly supported Abraham Lincoln and the Union’s position to end slavery and reunite the country. Democrats leaned in the direction of being anti-abolitionist. Many young men from Fort Dodge that went to war ended up in Company A which distinguished itself in action and was recognized by a Union General as one of the best Companies fighting for the Union.
In spite of its small size and lack of activity, several of the company’s officers stationed at Fort Dodge played significant roles in subsequent military history. With the outbreak of the Civil War all but one of the officers resigned their commissions and joined the Confederate army. Only the commanding officer, Samuel Wood(s), remained with the Union. He gained recognition for serving as paymaster general for the entire Army of the West which covered all the territory west of Iowa. He retired after serving more than 50 years. Lewis Armistead, the second in command surrendered his commission to become a general for the Confederacy and led Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg where he lost his life. James Corley went on to become chief quartermaster for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
The end of the Civil War in 1865 brought many veterans west, ambitious young men who brought a revival of the town’s fortunes and provided leadership for the rest of the nineteenth century.
Fort Dodge Becomes an Incorporated City
During the period beginning in 1854 when Major William Williams platted the village of Fort Dodge and for the next 15 years, Fort Dodge was just a growing frontier village. Then on August 22, 1869, by order of the circuit court of Webster county, Major Williams and four others were appointed commissioners to call an election and to do all things necessary for the incorporation of the city of Fort Dodge. The result of this first city election, held on October 1, 1869, was to give the mayoralty honors to Major Williams. He held the office of mayor for just two years until 1871. Unfortunately, his age and feeble health compelled Major Williams to refuse to continue in the office, which the people would have gladly given him. With great respect by all and numerous honors for distinguished service to his country and community, this pioneer tradesman, militia officer and founder of the city died at his home in Fort Dodge on February 26, 1874. At the time of his death, Major William Williams left an unparalleled legacy and a community that would grow into a thriving Midwest city that would become one of the most vibrant and industrious cities in Iowa for decades to come.
A major form of transportation during this period was stagecoaches even though American West roads were rocky, muddy, rutted, and sometimes impassible. Bandits were also a constant threat to stagecoach riders; nevertheless, the stagecoach was a vital method of transportation in the American West and Iowa in particular. They were far more comfortable than riding on horseback. Even though a trip on a stagecoach was often a very rugged and uncomfortable ride, it was a form of transportation that was used by settlers coming from the East to Fort Dodge. Stagecoaches were also used to transport the mail.
In 1863, Aden Haskell established the Northwestern Stage Company in Fort Dodge and built it into one of the largest stagecoach companies in the state. By 1865, the Northwestern Stage Company had established daily and tri-weekly routes across Iowa, making travel across Iowa much more efficient. In 1867, Haskell brought in a new partner, John Cheney, and the two of them continued to grow the business, so much so, that the Northwestern Stage Company had become the most predominate stagecoach business in Iowa. Travel by stagecoach continued to be a main form of transportation during this period. The growth of the railroad system in Iowa in the later 1800’s and early 1900’s, along with the development of the automobile eventually led to the demise of the stagecoach business.
In the days preceding the arrival of railroads, river transportation offered the preferred method of moving people and goods. In Iowa the Mississippi and Missouri served as the major transportation highways and within the state the Des Moines River offered great promise. The first attempts to navigate the upper reaches of the Des Moines came in 1857 when a small man powered boat, the Rolling Wave reached Fort Dodge. In 1858 leaders invested in the construction of a steam boat, the Charles Rogers. Largely because of a wet spring the boat was able to reach Fort Dodge three times before the water level dropped and travel became difficult.
River navigation as a solution was a fleeting vision which died with the coming of railroads.
Impact of Railroads: The period between the years 1860 to 1890 saw huge expansion of railroads in Iowa and across the nation. With the advancement of the steam engine, Railroads were able to cut travel time by 90% and greatly improved the comfort and safety of cross country travelers. These factors brought thousands of settlers to Iowa using the Railroads to move west. New cities and towns emerged along the route of the railways and many industrialists acquired great wealth. Both for the nation and for the state of Iowa, railroads created a more interconnected society. Counties were able to more easily work together due to the decreased travel time. With the use of the steam engine, people were able to travel to distant locations much more quickly than if they were using only horse-powered transportation. In fact, on May 10, 1869, when the Union and Central Pacific Railroads joined their rails at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, the entire nation was joined with 1,776 miles of track. The Transcontinental Railroad meant that the frontier could be extended with a greater movement of population. Thus, the Railroad also allowed people to change their place of living with greater ease than ever before. This certainly had a major impact on the growth of Fort Dodge.
The growth of a rail network expanded available markets for goods. This had a two-fold effect on the economy: the sellers of goods found new markets in which to sell their goods , and individuals who lived on the frontier were able to obtain goods that had previously been unavailable or extremely difficult to get.
In the 1850s, the first railroads reached Iowa from the east. Rail transportation was safer, quicker and more reliable than riverboats, and they quickly had a major influence. The federal government gave four railroad companies substantial grants of land to build lines connecting the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. In consequence, Iowa farm goods flowed into Chicago and merchants purchased goods from Chicago warehouses on the return trips. Railroads aggressively encouraged settlement as Railroad companies became town builders. Towns sprang up where the railroads created depots and refueling stations, often every seven or eight miles along the track. In the 1870s and 1880s, railroad construction was at its peak and soon almost no Iowans lived more than 10 miles from a rail line. The railroads also opened new economic opportunities and Fort Dodge was a major beneficiary. Farmers could move their grain to markets much more cheaply. Trains also made it easier for people to travel from town to town and out of state. Towns along the route thrived as places where travelers could find layover points and residents find new markets for goods.
Not only did the railways provide greater opportunity through extending markets, they also stimulated more people to start businesses and thereby enter the markets. An extended marketplace provided a greater number of individuals the opportunity to produce and sell goods locally and regionally, and even allowed for the shipment of goods to a broader, interstate area.
Fort Dodge business and government leaders were very aggressive in their efforts to bring Railroads to Fort Dodge and were successful in doing so. Construction of early railroads in Iowa were assisted by Federal land grants. In 1869, two land grant railroads reached Fort Dodge, the Illinois Central from Dubuque and the east, and the Des Moines Valley that connected to Des Moines and all the way to Keokuk, offering rail connections to the south. In 1876 the M and St. L. line (Minnesota – St. Louis) was extended north with the construction of the Fort Dodge and Fort Ridgely line, largely with the use of local funds. The 1880s brought still another line, the Mason City and Fort Dodge, which later became the Chicago Great Western, giving Fort Dodge another connection with Minneapolis and Chicago. With the turn of the century both the Great Western and the Illinois Central extended their lines southwest to Omaha, fulfilling the early dream of transcontinental connection.
Fort Dodge and Webster County had a special appeal to railroad interests because of the coal deposits here. Before the 1980s, the coal fields were the farthest north and west in the nation. Webster County coal was needed not only to fuel the trains but also the new towns and the developing industries of the upper Midwest. Fort Dodge soon became an important rail hub for the Midwest and the future of as a vibrant and growing city was secured.
BUSINESS & INDUSTRY
During the last four decades of the 1800’s, Fort Dodge area industry grew substantially. The Fort Dodge area was blessed by extensive mineral deposits, so many that at the turn of the century it acquired the nickname of Iowa's "Mineral City." In the 1870s, coal mining developed, largely because of the need of the railroads for fuel. Three railroads had ties to the mine fields in the county. In the 1870s and early 1880s in the United States, there were still no coal fields developed to the north or to the west. Coal was important for later economic development. Local coal was of lower quality because of its high sulfur content , but since the coal fields of Wyoming and Montana had not yet been opened, Webster County coal was seen as accessible and in high demand as fuel for transportation, industrial needs and home heating in Iowa and Minnesota. By 1875, Webster County ranked fourth in the state in coal production. In 1883, the peak year for production there were thirty-seven mines in operation, employing over 700 miners and producing one quarter of a million tons of coal.
The earliest and largest of the coal companies was the Fort Dodge Coal Company/ Holiday Creek Railroad and Coal Company. Local figures associated with the mines of the late 19th century were John F. Duncombe, Samuel Rees and C. B. Richards. The most prominent was Duncombe who also had ties with the railroads and served for many years as the attorney for five railroads. He also had financial interests in new coal fields in Wyoming. The major years of coal mining ended in 1903 when miners across the nation unionized, resulting in smaller coal fields closing down because they were no longer competitive.
Not only was coal available, but the “Mineral City” area had abundant supplies of clay, gypsum, and limestone. Coal fueled the establishment of the gypsum industry, which at the time, was considered the most important mineral. Gypsum was first mined for plaster shortly after 1870. The first gypsum mill was established in 1871 when the railroads gave Fort Dodge access to markets beyond the immediate area. Over the years, 13 mills were built in the county, making Fort Dodge reportedly the largest producer in the world. The three figures most prominent in the local industry who are considered to be the industry's founders were George Ringland, Stillman T. Meservey and Webb Vincent. They opened the first plaster mill in 1871 and several years later Ringland patented a process tor creating a superior form of plaster, which for the first time made plaster a cheap and very practical material for the use in construction.
The second largest industry in Fort Dodge during this period was the clay products industry. It, too, was dependent upon local coal. At one time, five plants produced brick, sewer pipe, and drainage tile. Fort Dodge clay products were used to build many of the towns in Iowa, the Dakotas, and Minnesota. Locally produced drainage tile helped drain the extensive wet lands of north central Iowa, making available the world’s best soil for agriculture. Clay stoneware, produced between 1870 and 1910, was also a major product, and Fort Dodge was by far the largest producer of stoneware in Iowa.
A third important mineral based industry in Webster County was clay products. Webster County could boast of thirty foot thick deposits of top quality clay, some of the best in the state. The first brick yards were opened in the 1850s. They were one person operations for strictly local construction; a market that didn’t change until the arrival of the railroads. By the end of the century there were five plants producing brick and tile in the city. The first yards were located in Fort Dodge but as markets expanded, production expanded to plants in Kalo and Lehigh. Although brick yards were located in these two communities ownership and investors were primarily from Fort Dodge. Key Fort Dodge investors in the industry were E.C. Breen, C.S. Corey, Leon Vincent, and the Schnuurs.
At first, production was limited to bricks but about 1885 farmers began draining the wet lands out on the prairies, not just in Webster County but also in the surrounding counties in north central Iowa. Clay tile was in great demand and local plants began to produce it.
Closely related to brick and tile production was stoneware. The first stoneware plant opened in 1870 by Martin White who had previously operated a plant in Cedar Falls. He moved to Fort Dodge because of the superior quality and quantity of local clay. Over the next forty years, six different companies produced jugs and crops here making Fort Dodge the largest producer in the state.
From the beginning Fort Dodge was a grain milling center and over the years a dozen small mills were established. The first commercial mill was the Arnold mill which was located on the Des Moines River just south of what is now Loomis Park. A dam was built to provide power but the width of the river at this point made the dam unstable and it washed out and was rebuilt twice. Finally the mill was lost in a fire and future mills turned to steam for their operations. Most of the mill owners had other investments in the community and are familiar names in early Fort Dodge; Arnold, Leander Blanden, Charles Wolfe, and the Kirchner family.
In general, the earliest business leaders in Fort Dodge were primarily men who migrated from the northeast and they achieved local success in land sales and in banking. Before the railroads, local business was limited largely to small retail general stores and craftsmen serving the immediate farming communities. Much of the early industries were started by German immigrants who had left Germany after the failure of the democratic revolts there had failed. Largely successful middle class businessmen and craftsman they came to achieve relief from an oppressive government and for greater opportunity. They brought not only their skills but also wealth enough to establish themselves in a new land. Fort Dodge offered them opportunity. Germans established and operated new brick yards, flour mills, metal work and blacksmiths, a brewery, wagon shops, harness shops, and furniture manufacturing, contracting and construction, specifically:
- Thiede Brickyard
- Arnold's flour mills Kirchner flour mill
- Koll's brewery
- Prusia iron and metal work, later into hardware; retail and wholesale
- Laufersweiller furniture
- Fackler Foundary
- Rank Bookbinding
- Preschau cigar manufacturing
- Proeshold Construction
As a major rail hub in the Midwest, combined with the rich mineral deposits in Fort Dodge and Webster County, the “Mineral City” was set for continued growth and expansion for years to come.
The farmland around Fort Dodge and in Webster County is some of riches farmland in the world. Because of this, agriculture with its grain and livestock production was a foundational piece of Fort Dodge’s economy during most of the city’s history. With the farms in Webster County, very few single men attempted to operate a farm; farmers clearly understood the need for a hard-working wife, and numerous children, to handle the many chores, including child-rearing, feeding and clothing the family, managing the housework, feeding the hired hands. The woes faced by farmers transcended economics. Nature was often unkind with blistering summers and cruel winters being commonplace. Frequent drought spells followed by intense rains causing major flooding challenges, making farming even more difficult. Insect blights raged through some regions, eating further into the farmers' profits.
During this period, the farm site was in transition between subsistence agriculture (producing enough for the family to survive) and becoming a profit-making farm. Most farms in 1850-1860 averaged 160 acres in size, with farmers cultivating anywhere from 25 to 40 acres. Horse drawn plows were used to cultivate the tillable land. Corn, wheat, and potatoes were the three major crops. Most farmers used their corn crop to feed the pigs that were then sold for profit. Wheat and hogs were cash crops for farmers, and potatoes were a staple with nearly every meal . Pioneer families relied on poultry for three major purposes: meat, eggs, and money. Pioneers used small barns to store tools and some crops, rather than to house animals. The big barns, associated with modern farms, were not built in Iowa until the 1870s.
When the railroads came to Fort Dodge in the 1870’s to 1890’s, they helped expanded agriculture by opening up new markets for agricultural products. By rail, Fort Dodge area farm goods flowed back east to Chicago for storage until being shipped out to the east coast. The Chicago Board of Trade offered an efficient system for trading corn, wheat, oats and soybeans.
A major factor is the growth of agriculture in the Fort Dodge and Webster County area during this period was the implementation of the state’s drainage laws passed in the 1870s. The first documented case of a drain tile being installed in Iowa occurred in 1868 on the grounds of Iowa State University in Ames. The region’s extensive swamps and sloughs were remnants of the last glacier, which loosened its icy grip on Iowa approximately 12,000 years ago. There was a lot of water and nowhere for it to go. Drainage ditches had to be dug and tile lines had to be laid before the sloughs and swamps of Iowa could be farmed. This started around 1880 and picked up speed in the early 1900s as drainage technology became more advanced.
Drainage affected Iowa’s settlement patterns during this period. By 1880, many landowners realized underground drainage tile was needed to remove the excess water in order to effectively farm the land. As more settlers moved into Iowa and demand for tile drainage grew, tile kilns and factories popped up across the state to manufacture clay tile. Fort Dodge clay products were used to make the much needed drainage tile in Iowa, the Dakotas, and Minnesota. This locally produced drainage tile helped drain the extensive wet lands of north central Iowa, making available the world’s best soil for agriculture. Most of the drainage of the Midwestern wetlands occurred in the early 1900's in response to federal and local government support for drainage districts and improvements in drainage technology.
Cow Town, USA
A unique part of Fort Dodge’s history during this period was an unusual city ordinance that allowed cows to roam freely throughout the community. It was very common for cows to wonder through the downtown area of Fort Dodge and would even create havoc with the local business, so much so, that many businesses put fences around their establishments to keep the cows out. This tradition was allowed in the early 1850’s and continued for four decades. In 1883, a Messenger editorial reported that Fort Dodge had as many as 500 free roaming cows. In the decade of 1880, this local ordinance became a very divisive issue in the city. Those who favored allowing cows to roam freely took the position that most of the cows were owned by ordinary people who relied on their cows for milk on a daily basis and needed the cows to be close by, and, they needed the milk to stay healthy. The wealthier citizens favored a new ordinance to require the cows to be pastured while the working class favored letting the cows continue to roam. Around the state and even the nation, Fort Dodge became sarcastically known as “Cow Town.” It wasn’t until 1892 that the ordinance was deposed and the cows could no longer roam the streets of Fort Dodge.
In 1889, the mayor of Fort Dodge was Charles G. Blanden. He favored the ordinance to end the roaming cows. The only Fort Dodge physician at the time, Dr. Nicholson, wrote a poem in support of continuing to let the cows roam.
“The cow, the cow, oh the beautiful cow
Is queen of the city in spite of the row;
And her dutiful subjects in the council declare
She must have free pasture in spite of the mayor.”
In the 1850s, he earliest settlers were almost all native born with an English heritage who had come from eastern states. By 1860 through 1890, Fort Dodge reflected a mix of ethnic groups. Migrants of Swedish, Norwegian, German and Irish descent came to the region attracted by the rich agricultural lands and opportunities to own land and farm. The Germans were attracted by business opportunities and places for skilled craftsmen. By the 1890s an increasing number began arriving primarily from eastern and southern Europe; Greeks, Italians, Jews, Czechs, and Slovaks. As cheap lands disappeared and with limited education and skills many of these found their place as unskilled labor in the mines, with the railroads, and in the new industrial plants.
The first school in Fort Dodge was taught by C. C. Carpenter, (later to become the Governor of Iowa) in the winter of 1854-55. The school was in an old building just in back of the old Wahkonsa hotel. The next winter D. A. Weller taught school in one of the government buildings. In 1856 the first school building was erected on the corner of Second Avenue South and Seventh Street. In the early days this building was known as "the old brick" school. At the time, it was the only public building in town, and was used for holding the courts, political meetings, churches, festivals, and other affairs considered of a public nature. It was there that the two companies for the Spirit Lake expedition were organized. The first school was taught in this building by Henry Gunn during the winter of 1856- 1857.
In 1869 Fort Dodge had one school building and nine teachers including the principal. The number of pupils in attendance was about 350. In 1878 there were thirteen teachers, with the principal. In 1884 there were seventeen teachers, not including the superintendent. The buildings at that time were the Lincoln, Arey, West Fort Dodge (one room), and First ward (one room). During the year 1890, twenty-one teachers were employed.
Fort Dodge has had a long history of education beyond the high school. The first high school graduating class was in 1876. It graduated three students, one boy and two girls. This was at a time in which most cities and towns only carried their public school education through the eighth grade. As late as 1890, only 88 school districts in the state offered four years of high school. In Fort Dodge, the public high school just sixteen years later graduated ninety-two (92) students, thirty-seven (37) boys and fifty-five (55) girls.
In 1863, the German Lutheran school was organized by Rev. Godfrey Endres . The school building was erected thirty-two years later in 1895 at a cost of $7,500.
There were two Catholic parochial schools in Fort Dodge, Corpus Christi and Sacred Heart, that were organized in 1862 with Rev. John Marsh as pastor. The Sisters of Charity of the B. V. M. came from Dubuque to conduct the classes. In 1866, it was decided to discontinue the school and the sisters returned to Dubuque. In 1874 the old school building was enlarged and under the direction of the Very Rev. T. M. Lenihan, a flourishing school was established. Sisters of Mercy came from New York City and made this convent their mother house. Fire destroyed the buildings and for some years the parish was without a parochial school.
In 1885, the Presbyterians organized the Fort Dodge Presbyterian Collegiate Institute in a house directly across First Avenue North from the old Carnegie Library. The school offered college preparatory courses, a traditional liberal arts program, and a commercial program. It was highly innovative for its time offering individualized instruction, night courses, and simulated model banking and retailing experiences as well as music, art and debate, and speech competition. The total enrollment at its peak reached 95 students.
The college floundered largely because of financial difficulties. Neither the Presbyterian churches in northern Iowa nor the Fort Dodge community were able to provide the financial support that they had promised. The Presbyterians became concerned about the college’s future in Fort Dodge, thinking it may not be the right city to host a college. At the time, Fort Dodge was known as a rough and tumble mining community and the Presbyterians harbored concerns about excessive drinking and philandering in the community. In 1891 the college closed and was moved to Storm Lake to become Buena Vista College.
During this period (1854-1869), Fort Dodge grew from a settlement started by William Williams to an incorporated town (in 1869), but population growth of Fort Dodge was sluggish due to the difficulty of travel from the east to Fort Dodge and from the Panic of 1857. Growth was also slowed by the American Civil War. When the Civil War ended in 1865 and then four years later when the railroads finally arrived in Fort Dodge, the transportation of people and goods became much easier and faster. In the following three decades, Fort Dodge saw its local economy expand and become more diversified. The population of Fort Dodge quadrupled and the population of Webster County grew from 2,500 in 1860 to over 21,000 by 1890. During this time period, Fort Dodge was blessed with strong leaders and entrepreneurs who were committed to Fort Dodge and invested in the community with an optimistic belief in the town’s future. Many of these leaders are highlighted in the “Iconic People” section on this website.
*A Capsule History of Fort Dodge …. by Roger Natte
*State Historical Society: IowaCulture.gov
*Wikipedia – Iowa in the American Civil War
*The Untold Story of Iowa's Ag Drainage Systems… by Darcy Maulsby
*The History of Fort Dodge and Webster County… by H.M. Pratt
*Pioneer History of Fort Dodge, Lucy Taff, 1944
For more in depth information on the history of Fort Dodge, we encourage people to review this book that highlights Fort Dodge history.
*Images of America – Fort Dodge, 1850-1970… by Roger B. Natte
RAILROADS SPURRED THE GROWTH OF FORT DODGE
Railroad transportation did not come to Iowa until 1850. Ten years later, Iowa had approximately 655 miles of track in operation by 1860 and 2,683 miles by 1870. This mileage grew to almost 9,200 miles at the turn of the century.
Most of the people in Iowa were anxious to have railroads built. They asked Congress to donate land for this purpose. In response to these requests Congress in 1856 made four grants of land to Iowa to aid in railway construction. The State of Iowa then gave this land to companies, and they in turn could sell the lands and use the money in building the roads. One of these grants was for a road to be built from Dubuque to Fort Dodge and then to Sioux City. The roads were to have every other section of land for six miles on each side of the right-of-way.
During this period between the years 1860 to 1890, the growth of railroads in Iowa grew significantly with the advancement of the steam engine which allowed railroads to cut travel time by 90% and greatly improve the comfort and safety of cross country travelers. These factors brought thousands of settlers to Iowa using the Railroads to move west. New cities and towns emerged along the routes of the railways and many industrialists acquired great wealth. Both for the nation and for the state of Iowa, railroads created a more interconnected society. Counties were able to more easily work together due to the decreased travel time. With the use of the steam engine, people were able to travel to distant locations much more quickly than if they were using only horse-powered transportation. In fact, on May 10, 1869, when the Union and Central Pacific Railroads joined their rails at Promontory Summit, Utah Territory, the entire nation was joined with 1,776 miles of track. The Transcontinental Railroad meant that the frontier could be extended with a greater movement of population. Thus, the Railroad also allowed people to change their place of living with greater ease than ever before. This certainly had a major impact on the growth of Fort Dodge.
For Iowa and particularly the Fort Dodge area, the growth of a rail network expanded available markets for goods. This had a two-fold effect on the economy: the sellers of goods found new markets in which to sell their goods , and individuals who lived on the frontier were able to obtain goods that had previously been unavailable or extremely difficult to get.
In the 1850s, the first railroads reached Iowa from the east. The federal government gave four railroad companies substantial grants of land to build lines connecting the Mississippi and the Missouri rivers. In consequence, Iowa farm goods flowed into Chicago and merchants purchased goods from Chicago warehouses on the return trips. Railroads aggressively encouraged settlement as Railroad companies became town builders. Towns sprang up where the railroads created depots and refueling stations, often every seven or eight miles along the track. In the 1870s and 1880s, railroad construction was at its peak and soon almost no Iowans lived more than 10 miles from a rail line. The railroads also opened new economic opportunities and Fort Dodge was a major beneficiary. Farmers could move their grain to markets much more cheaply. Trains also made it easier for people to travel from town to town and out of state. Towns along the route thrived as places where travelers could find layover points and residents find new markets for goods.
Not only did the railways provide greater opportunity through extending markets, they also stimulated more people to start businesses and thereby enter the markets. An extended marketplace provided a greater number of individuals the opportunity to produce and sell goods locally and regionally, and even allowed for the shipment of goods to a broader, interstate area.
Fort Dodge business and government leaders were very aggressive in their efforts to bring Railroads to Fort Dodge and were successful in doing so. Construction of early railroads in Iowa were assisted by Federal land grants. In 1869, two land grant railroads reached Fort Dodge, the Illinois Central from Dubuque and the east, and the Des Moines Valley that connected to Des Moines and all the way to Keokuk, offering rail connections to the south. In 1876 the M and St. L. line (Minnesota – St. Louis) was extended north with the construction of the Fort Dodge and Fort Ridgely line, largely with the use of local funds.
During the year 1877, the business men of Fort Dodge were aroused to action by the report that a railroad was to be built northwest of the city into the town of Humboldt. The chief promoter of this road was S. H. Taft, of Humboldt, and he had interested J. J. Smart, of Des Moines, in the enterprise. In addition the board of supervisors of Humboldt county had entered into an agreement to convey a considerable amount of swamp land as a bonus for building the road.
The road was to be extended from Ames by way of Webster City to Humboldt, and thence to Rutland. The success of such a road would mean the loss of considerable business to the Fort Dodge business men. A public meeting was called and action was taken to immediately begin building a railroad into Humboldt county. A company was organized composed of the leading business men of the city and known as the Fort Dodge & Fort Ridgley Railroad & Telegraph Company. George R. Pearsons was chosen treasurer and general superintendent. The city and township voted a tax in aid of the enterprise, and the line of the proposed road was run to the south line of Humboldt county.
S.H. Taft of Humboldt originally opposed the Fort Dodge & Fort Dodge Ridgely Railroad & Telegraph project and he proved to be a very formable opponent. George Pearsons made two remarks in connection with the building of this road there were characteristic of the man. In referring to Mr. S. H. Taft, from Humboldt, who had opposed the granting of aid by Humboldt county to the road, Mr. Pearsons said: "I don't want to go to heaven if Mr. Taft is going to be there, for I have fought him all I want to in this world, and I don't want to carry into the next." The fight over, Mr. Pearsons then replied to the warm words of welcome of Mr. Taft, "I shake hands across the bloody chasm."
With Mr. Taft and Humboldt County on board, the original plan was to be build narrow gauge width rail line from Fort Dodge in a northwesterly direction to the north line of the state in Kossuth or Emmet county, and then connect with a railroad and telegraph company running in the direction of Fort Ridgley, Minnesota. The capital stock proposed was $2,000,000 in shares of $1,000 each, to be called in at the rate of ten per cent monthly, as the board of directors might direct, and the total indebtedness of the company was at no time to exceed $1,000,000 in the aggregate. The officers 'of the company were : Walter H. Brown, president ; George W. Bassett, vice president ; George R. Pearsons, treasurer and general superintendent ; Gus T. Peterson, secretary, and Elliott E. Colburn, chief engineer.
At this time the number of inhabitants in Webster county was a little over 3,000 while the counties of Humboldt, Kossuth and Palo Alto had less. All of these counties as well as Pocahontas, Emmet, Clay and Dickinson were to tribute to the building of the rail line. The plan adopted by the board of directors was to build the road on as cheap a scale as possible, using light iron and light engines, so as not to subject it to the necessity of a foreclosure of its bonds, as had been the case with so many western roads, and it was confidently believed that with the aid of the people in the way that had been proposed and had already been started, by subscriptions of stock in the various townships along the line, and from private subscriptions that this object would be accomplished. The stated goal was to have the line in running order and be able to maintain speed of 15 miles per hour. The estimated cost for building the rail line was $6,500 per mile. A public subsidy to build the rail line was needed.
Webster County voted a subsidy of $38,000 and Humboldt County $35,000, in addition to 7,000 acres of swamp lands. This was financial foundation sufficient to warrant the promoters starting project in the spring of 1878. Work was started in the east part of Fort Dodge on a vacant lot for the Fort Dodge & Fort Ridgley road. The summer was a wet season and the work of grading and hauling rails by team was greatly behind schedule. Several bad sloughs caused trouble in getting a grade over. George R. Pearsons, who had personal charge of the work, was a giant in strength and he threw his whole reserve force of energy and power into the work with a determination born of desperation. It was told of him that he used to start with a rail in each hand on the run up the grade, so anxious was he to reach the county line of Humboldt and have the road completed before the expiration of the time limit for doing the work. The wet weather and other drawbacks experienced, which necessitated great exposure, soon told on this man of herculean strength, and in time brought him home to a sick bed. The members of the directory felt that their project had been dealt a hard blow by this bit of bad news, but there were others who rallied to the rescue. A red-headed Irishman, who had charge of the men during Mr. Pearson's absence, proved an unknown hero. "Billy" O'Brien showed them he knew a few things about railroad building, and as fall came on and the weather continued bad, with the sloughs open and roads heavy, he threw his great strength into the work of reaching the goal, which was the Humboldt county line. Small freight cars were run by horse or mule power from the supply yard at Fort Dodge to the point where the graders were at work.
It was the custom of the directors to lend a hand in loading these cars when they arrived, and otherwise making themselves useful in the work. The near approach of the first of the year and the continued bad weather served to bring out all of the combined energy of the force engaged in constructing the road, and it was seen that something must be done to reach the Humboldt line in time. The recovery of Mr. Pearson from his sickness brought out a plan of operation which
was adopted at once. Three shifts of men were put at work. There was no let-up in the race. Every man contributed his every pound of muscle and energy to the work. With only a margin of a day or two, the rails were laid over the county line and six picked men passed over the county line on a handcar at a rate of speed exceeding fifteen miles an hour.
The work had progressed to a point across the Des Moines river known as the Jones farm when negotiations were opened with the Minneapolis & St. Louis road, which at that time came as far south as Livermore. Their survey ran through the town of Belmond and they were seeking a southern outlet. In the Fort Dodge & Fort Ridgley road they saw a connecting link which would serve their purpose to a good advantage, and the officials at once proposed before the local company a plan to buy the railroad. A condition of the sale was that the local company should continue the work of construction and deliver it to them complete to Livermore.
The business men of Fort Dodge, who had become interested in the road at its inception and had were most enthusiastic and willing to entertain the proposition because they had growing concerns about the ultimate success of the rail line. They were joyous over the prospects of getting out of their investment without loss to themselves. With the Minneapolis & St. Louis offer to buy in sight, it did not take the members of the board long to reach an agreement.
Upon the completion of the road to Livermore an excursion was run to celebrate the completion. This was in 1879, and the Fort Dodge depot at the time was in the extreme eastern part of the city. Shortly after the first excursion was run from Fort Dodge to Minneapolis. Both were great events at the time and were liberally patronized by the settlers. Shortly after the Minneapolis & St. Louis had acquired the Fort Dodge & Fort Ridgley, the officers of the road decided to change the entrance into Fort Dodge and come in around the north, west and south sides in order to allow them to continue the railroad south.
The 1880s brought still another line, the Mason City and Fort Dodge, which later became the Chicago Great Western, giving Fort Dodge another connection with Minneapolis and Chicago. With the turn of the century both the Great Western and the Illinois Central extended their lines southwest to Omaha, fulfilling the early dream of transcontinental connection.
Fort Dodge and Webster County had a special appeal to railroad interests because of the coal deposits here. Before the 1890s, the coal fields were the farthest north and west in the nation. Webster County coal was needed not only to fuel the trains but also the new towns and the developing industries of the upper Midwest. Fort Dodge soon became an important rail hub for the Midwest and the future of as a vibrant and growing city was secured.
*The History of Fort Dodge and Webster County…. by H.M. Pratt
*A Capsule History of Fort Dodge …. by Roger Natte
*Iowa Rail History…. by the Iowa Dept. of Transportation
The Civil War
The Civil War Years – 1861-1865
The state of Iowa played a role during the American Civil War in providing food, supplies, and troops for the Union army. As the Civil War erupted, Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood led efforts to raise and equip volunteer troops for the Federal service. There were no significant battles in Iowa, but the state sent large supplies of food to the armies and the eastern cities. 76,242 Iowa men (out of a total population of 674,913 in 1860) served in the military, many in combat units attached to the western armies. 13,001 died of wounds or disease (two-thirds of whom were of the latter). 8,500 Iowa men were wounded.
During the war, there were many Iowans who were supportive of the South and wanted the South to win the war. These people were called Copperheads. Sometimes they wore suits of butternut jeans, and a badge of half a butternut, or a copper cent. On Saturday, August 1, 1863, a Copperhead meeting was held in Keokuk County, and a clash between the people loyal to the North and the Copperheads took place. In this affair George C. Tally, a minister with southern sympathies, was shot. The Copperheads threatened revenge and began to collect their forces. The loyal citizens asked Governor Kirkwood to send troops to their aid. He not only did this but came himself to the scene of the trouble and his prompt action helped to stamp out the disloyalty to the Union.
During the four years of the war Iowa furnished a total of forty-eight regiments of infantry, nine regiments of cavalry, and four batteries - nearly seventy seven thousand men. Iowa soldiers fought bravely in many of the important battles of the war.
While the men of Iowa were doing their part to win the war, the women and boys and girls at home did their share, too. Women not only made bandages and comfort kits for the soldiers, but many of them ran the farms and shops while their husbands were at the front. Boys helped to plant the fields and harvest the crops; while girls helped their mothers scrape lint for bandages.
Though the total number of Iowans who served in the military during the Civil War seems small compared to the more heavily populated eastern and southern states, no other state, north or south, had a higher percentage of its male population between the ages of 15 and 40 serve in the military during the course of the war.
The Civil War era brought considerable change to Iowa's politics. During the 1850s, the state's dominant Democratic Party developed serious internal problems, as well as being unsuccessful in getting the national Democratic Party to respond to their local needs. Iowans soon turned to the newly emerging Republican Party. The new party opposed slavery and promoted land ownership, banking, and railroads, and Iowa voted heavily for Abraham Lincoln and other Republican politicians in 1860 and throughout the war.
Fort Dodge’s Role in the Civil War: Leading up to the start of the Civil War, Fort Dodge, not unlike other communities and cities in the north was divided on the central issue of slavery and the cessation of the southern states. The two competing newspapers in Fort Dodge at the time were on opposite sides of the issue. Republicans adamantly supported Abraham Lincoln and the Union’s position to end slavery and reunite the country. Democrats leaned in the direction of being anti-abolitionist.
Several of the company’s officers that were stationed at Fort Dodge played significant roles in the Civil War and subsequent military history. With the outbreak of the Civil War all but one of the officers resigned their commissions and joined the Confederate army. Only the commanding officer, Samuel Wood(s), remained with the Union. He gained recognition for serving as paymaster general for the entire Army of the West which covered all the territory west of Iowa. He retired after serving more than 50 years. Lewis Armistead, the second in command at Fort Dodge surrendered his commission to become a general for the Confederacy and led Pickett’s charge at Gettysburg where he lost his life. James Corley went on to become chief quartermaster for Robert E. Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia.
When the news of the battle of Bull Run was received in Fort Dodge and Webster County, a number of young men, who had been drilling during the spring and summer, resolved to organize a company for the service, and messengers were sent up the Des Moines river as far as Spirit lake. The men of Fort Dodge and Webster County furnished a company of cavalry for service in the Union armies. On September 2, 1861, the company met at the courthouse in Fort Dodge, and, before electing its officers, was sworn into the service of the United States, by James R. Strow, justice of the peace. Franklin A. Stratton was elected captain ; G. S. Ringland, first lieutenant, and George W. Bassett, second lieutenant. The company went by stage to Cedar Falls, and thence by railroad to Dubuque, where, on September 21, 1861, it was mustered into the service of the United States by Captain Washington. It left Dubuque on October 6th, and reached Washington, D. C, October 10, 1861.
This company was originally raised for Colonel Josiah Harlan's "Independent Cavalry," but afterward was sent east and became Company "A" of the Eleventh Pennsylvania Cavalry. While the company was considered an Iowa company, and was credited as such by the War Department. Many young men from Fort Dodge/Webster County (83 men) went to war and fought for the Union. Company A was recognized as a loyal and strong fighting force for the Union.
Company A fought in several battles in Maryland and Virginia. Company A’s duties were wide-ranging from being on the front lines in several skirmishes, participating in raids against the Confederacy, going on scouting expeditions and providing guard duty. Historical records show that Company A distinguished itself in action and was recognized by a Union General as one of the best Companies fighting for the Union. It will thus be seen that this splendid Iowa company, while assigned to and serving with a regiment from another state, nobly maintained the honorable record which was made by Iowa soldiers everywhere, throughout the great War of the Rebellion. Its first captain, Franklin A. Stratton, became major, lieutenant colonel, and colonel of the regiment, and brevet brigadier general of volunteers, at the close of the war. He was twice wounded. Many of the members of the company have since achieved success in various avocations, both as private citizens and in official positions. Two Fort Dodgers that served in Company A, George Ringland, a Captain, and Webb Vincent, a Company Quartermaster Sergeant returned to Fort Dodge after the war and became successful business leaders in the gypsum industry.
The Civil War created a sudden emergency for Iowa and Minnesota because the general government found itself confronted with the need to withdraw of the Federal troops from military posts in this region to fight the war. The Indian tribes were quick to take advantage of the situation, and a series of depredations and massacres of whole families of the settlers ensued. The Indian outbreak in Minnesota in the latter part of August and in September, 1862, (the Minnesota Massacre of 1862) which killed over 800 settlers sent a resounding alarm to the settlers in Webster County all the way up to the Minnesota border. The Indians continued to attack settlements in Minnesota and along the Iowa border almost every week, keeping up a constant alarm among the people. It is estimated that over five thousand persons had left their homes and all of their property, causing immense loss and suffering.
It became evident that the Indians could not be subdued by the forces then operating against them, and that adequate protection could not be furnished to the settlers, without the establishment of a regularly organized body of state troops and the erection of a chain of defenses along the Iowa frontier. Thus, the great war between the states, inaugurated by the Southern states, imposed an unusually heavy burden upon the Northern states which, in addition to furnishing their full quota of troops for the regiments which were being sent to the South, were compelled to protect their own frontiers from the incursions of hostile Indians.
For a time it seemed that there was no safety for any of those hardy pioneers, and that they must all be either driven from their homes or share the fate of those who had already met death at the hands of the Indians. The greatly alarmed the citizens sent numerous appeals for aid and protection to the Governor Kirkwood of Iowa and Governor Ramsey of Minnesota. Both governors earnestly responded and cooperated in their efforts to give adequate protection to the helpless settlers on the borders of their respective states. Due to travel difficulties to the region, relief was necessarily slow in reaching the imperiled settlers.
After the legislature, in extra session, passed a bill providing for the raising of troops for the protection of settlers in Northern Iowa against hostile Indians, full power and authority was put into effect authorizing the organization of the Northern Border Brigade. In 1862, companies of militia were mustered into service in Fort Dodge, Webster City, Denison and Sioux City. Major William Williams, at the age of 64, was again called upon to organize frontier defense after the Sioux uprising around New Ulm, Minnesota. The Northern Border Brigade was a force of 250 mounted men, well-armed and equipped. It was commissioned and cooperated with the cavalry forces already operating against the hostile tribes of Indians to provide protection for the settlers. The construction of military posts, blockhouses and stockades were also commissioned. These places formed the nucleus of the principal settlements on the northwestern border of the state. Company B, led by Major William Williams and comprised of men mostly from Fort Dodge and Webster County, played an important role in helping control the northern border from more Indian attacks and was responsible for building Fort Schuyler in Emmet County.
While the danger from attack was not so great as it had been before these precautions were taken, the fact remained that the number of Indian warriors then engaged in hostilities far exceeded the number of troops. In spite of the disparity in numbers, the splendid troops displayed bravery and a keen understanding of how to fight hostile Indians and defeated the Indians in several pitched battles, and had driven them far beyond the frontier.
While the records do not show that the troops composing the Northern Border Brigade were ever engaged in major conflicts with the Indians, they do show that they performed most important service and endured great hardships. During the time they were engaged in constructing the fortifications along the line of the frontier, they were in constant danger. Upon more than one occasion before the works were completed, such a contingency seemed likely to occur. It is therefore evident that those hardy sons of Iowa, who braved the rigors of the northern winters and the risk of the fierce conflict with the hostile tribes of Indians who had murdered so many of the hapless settlers on the frontier, are entitled to an honored place in the history of their country's defenders. The descendants of those hardy pioneers, whose families and homes were saved from destruction, will ever hold in grateful remembrance the men who came to the rescue of their ancestors.
Enlistees from Fort Dodge and Webster County
ROSTER COMPANY A, ELEVENTH PENNSYLVANIA VOLUNTEER CAVALRY
Franklin A. Stratton, captain;
George S. Ringland, first lieutenant; promoted captain, 1862;
George W. Bassett, second lieutenant.
Aleagher, Thomas, private
Barclay, John J., private, wounded and taken prisoner, June 29, 1864,
Bassett, George W., Second lieute
ant; promoted first lieutenant,
Beyers, John F., private
Bowers, Peter; private, killed, 1861,
Burright, William H., private, taken prisoner, was in Andersonville;
Carpenter, William, first corporal,
Carter, Allen B., private
Chase, Leander, private
Crosby, Charles T., private
Crosby, George H., sergeant,
Cruikshank, George L., fourth sergeant; promoted company quartermaster sergeant,
Fitzgerald, John, eighth corporal; promoted company quartermaster sergeant, 1864;
Fuller, Jared, seventh corporal;
Gardner, William V., private, promoted to corporal,
Holloway, Joseph H., company quartermaster sergeant;
Horton, James, promoted to lieutenant; was killed
Jenkins, Andrew R., private, age twenty-five;
Jenkins, James S., private
Jenkins, John S., private
Jones, George W., private
Kendall, Edward, private, wounded, June. 1863,
Kennedy, Edward, private
Lindsay, James, private
Morgan, Edward D., fifth sergeant; promoted second lieutenant,
Olcutt, George, private
Peterson, John; private
Piatt, Henry A., private
Rood, Isaac P., private
Shaftner, Francis, private
Sherman, Charles A., third sergeant; promoted to regimental quartermaster,
Simmons, Jason B., promoted corporal, 1864;
Smith, George, third corporal;
Smith, William H., private
Stratton, Franklin A., appointed captain, promoted brevetted brigadier general, twice wounded.
Trusty, Joseph S., private
Underwood, Alonzo, private
Vincent, Webb, second bugler; promoted company quartermaster sergeant, 1863;
Welch, William, private
Wentworth, Harrison H., private
Wilson, Richard W.; private, deserted;
ROSTER OF COMPANY B, NORTHERN BORDER BRIGADE
William Williams, captain;
John M. Hefley, first lieutenant;
Jasper N. Bell, second lieutenant.
Allen, Samuel F., private
Bass, James, promoted fourth corporal
Bell, Jasper N., appointed second lieutenant, 1862;
Blaine, William H., private
Buck, William, private
Coleman, Timothy, private
Conlee, Smith T., private
Crouse, Edward, private
Crouse, Irwin, private
Crouse, Jacob, promoted farrier
Fitch, Edward, private
Flaherty, James, private
Harper, John, private
Hefley, John M., appointed first lieutenant, 1862;
Hoisington, Jesse, private
Holt, J. M., private
Hubbard, John N., private
Humphreys, James A., promoted quartermaster sergeant
Jenkins, Andrew K., bugler
Jenkins, James S., first sergeant
Kaylor, Thomas J., private
Landreth, Matthew, fourth corporal
Landreth, Thomas, private
Landreth, William R., private
Landreth, Zachariah, private
Long, Eli, private
Lowe, Emanuel E., private
McCosker, Charles, private
McDonough, Martin, private
McGuire, Blythe, private
Morrissey, Daniel, third corporal;
Nicholson, Alfred J., private
Payne, Jonathan W., private
Phipps, Luther, private
Pierce, Francis M., private
Powers, Walter, private
Richey, Gasper A., private
Weeks, Arthur, private
White, James P., third sergeant
Williams, William, appointed captain, 1862
Wright, Nathan, private
Wright, William, private
*Iowa History Project…. Iowa in the Civil War
*The Full History of Fort Dodge and Webster County Iowa
*Webster County Historical Society… Roger Natte