A spider web of railroad tracks crisscrossed Iowa’s prairies at the beginning of the 20th century. Everything from passengers and mail to newspapers, and a host of general cargo items, arrived on train station platforms large and small.
Iowa was then known as The Gumbo State, with most roads simply poorly-graded dirt. Bumpy and dusty when dry, they were rutted by wagon wheels in wet weather – and often closed altogether by winter storms that left farmsteads isolated. So train service between cities was as vital then as interstate highways are now. Generations of Iowans met at depots while awaiting the arrival of relatives. Soldiers and sailors in half a dozen conflicts bid farewell to loved ones as steam whistles sounded in the background. For some, the last sight of the homes they left behind was the lights of the depot fading into the night.
Railroad bankruptcies during the Great Depression, along with mergers and line abandonments, saw some depots falter. The decline of passenger train service from 1950 to 1980 saw more depots sitting empty, or being demolished – or, for the fortunate ones, repurposed as museums.
The Iowa Historical Society keeps a list of depots known to still be standing. Most which still have active tracks nearby no longer see crack passenger trains hurtling by, but rather long strings of grain, coal, and oil cars pulled by growling diesels. But one can still stand on their platforms and visualize the era of chuffing steam locomotives, baggage cars, dining cars, Pullman cars, and coach cars rolling past.
My book, Meet Me at the Depot, is a salute to the Iowa railroad depots which served so well and so long, both those which still stand and some which have gone just since this recording effort began.
— Bob Nandell, author of Meet Me at the Depot