THE IRISH IN IOWA

On the Highway
The Palimpsest "Iowa Pioneers"; July 1968;
 State Historical Society of Iowa; Iowa City, Iowa

Today streamlined trains whisk Iowans west for the winter, and automobiles speed comfortably along the straight Iowa roads. But a trip in pioneer days often meant dislocated bones, wind-broken horses, frozen ears and fingers, stolen money, and the terrible heartsick feeling of lost trails.

With all the hardships, however, which now seem unbearable, our "Ioway" grandparents and great grandparents traveled, and traveled often. Knowing nothing of macadamized roads, they did not stay at home and wait for them. There were friends to be visited, sermons to be preached, courts to be held, grist to be ground, fever cases to be bled, and land to be bought or sold.

The first Iowa travelers, the hunters and the home seekers, had for roads only the trails of the padding Indian or the hoof-marked tracks of the buffalo, which threaded in and out through dense woods and underbrush or wound snake-like through the interminable whispering seas of prairie grass. They went not as the crow flies but as the wind bloweth, and it was an intrepid, adventurous traveler who pushed on a little farther than his tired companions and found a field more fertile, a grove more kind, a land more Utopian.

But twelve-inch Indian paths were not wide enough for a yoke of oxen, so the backwoods pioneer widened the trails. Nor did he long delay before besieging the territorial legislature with petitions for roads. The legislature responded. By 1846, when Iowa had become a state, two hundred road acts were on the statute books. Even Congress took a hand and authorized, in 1839, the well-known "Military Road," stretching from Dubuque through Iowa City to the northern boundary of Missouri. So year by year, as the surveyors blazed trees and drove stakes into the prairie, as the ox teams slowly cut the matted sod, Iowa became crisscrossed with highways.

But the roads were built of Iowa soil, which, combined with water, invariably forms mud, deep and sticky. Transportation in the early spring or during the fall rains was next to impossible. Those who had to travel often exhausted their horses by long pulls through heavy gumbo, often had to plank themselves into higher ground with rails carried for the purpose or pad the deep ruts with willow twigs and grass, and usually arrived at their destination after supper was over and the best half of the bed had been pre-empted by another guest. The first hard-surface highways, of corduroy or plank, were the wonder of those who saw them and the torment of those who used them.

Another cause of delay was swollen streams. There were of course few bridges, and fording was hazardous. At times it was accomplished by calking the wagon boxes so that they would float better when pulled by the swimming horses. How like boats the prairie schooners must have looked with their puffed canvas tops! At the larger towns, ferries transported the traffic across the deeper rivers. In the dead of winter, when the streams were frozen, crossing was made easy by the ice. Then the rivers became highways in themselves, forming unobstructed paths from town to town.

The means of transportation in itself were peculiar to the times. Groups of white-topped prairie schooners, drawn by slow horses or slower oxen, plowed up the thick dust of the road. Springless wagons jolted along with corn to be ground or cordwood to be traded for a bolt of cloth. Horseback riders wound in and out among the slower traffic, often with the mail in saddle bags. And if at any time there was the loud sound of a horn around the bend, the whole company would spread out along the edge of the road, deferentially and for the safety of their lives. The women looked out from the front of the wagons, the men chewed a little harder and spat with a grandiose air. A stage was passing! Drawn by four spanking horses, the oval black body swinging on its thorough braces and glistening in the sun, a burly, whip-cracking driver sitting aloft on the high seat, and the luggage jolting inside the little railing behind him or securely fastened in the triangular, leather-covered "boot" at the rear, the stagecoach made a spectacular appearance. The passengers waved as they went rolling by. And after the stage had passed from sight and the dust had settled again in the road, the ox teams resumed their plodding gait while the women in the heavy wagons exclaimed over the bright scenes painted on the stagecoach doors and the richness of the upholstery, and the men discussed the network of the Western Stage Company lines that were spreading over Iowa and the mail routes which the stages were steadily taking away from the postriders.

When a traveler came to the larger towns he probably put up at a tavern such as fat Bob Kinney's house at Muscatine, built two stories high, of split logs, and with sawed lumber doors and window casings. The typical tavern, however, was smaller and more rude. there were several beds in a room, and they were not considered full unless occupied by two or three people. The nearby creek often served as the lavatory.

And so it seems that pioneer travel was a procession of hardships. But there were long, pleasant days on the road, good company in the motley crowd who traveled it, and sound slumber at the end of the day in somebody's close-walled, beef-smelling tavern. Any mayhap pioneer hearts were lightened by thoughts of homes, fortunes, and future satisfaction toward which they were traveling.

---Pauline Patton Grahame

From Steamboat to Iron Horse
The Palimpsest "Iowa in 1858"; Dec 1958;
 State Historical Society of Iowa; Iowa City, Iowa

Iowa was in the throes of a revolution in transportation and communication in 1858. Prior to the Civil War the Mississippi was still the main highway for freight and passenger service between Iowa and such towns as St. Louis, New Orleans, Louisville, Cincinnati, and Pittsburgh. The completion of the telegraph to the Mississippi in 1848 and the laying of the Atlantic Cable in 1858 were epochal feats in the annihilation of time and space. And nowhere in the world was the conquest of space taking place more rapidly than in the American Middle West.

Steamboating was in its heyday between 1855 and 1860. There were more steamboat arrivals at various Mississippi ports during these years than in any other period. Furthermore, most of these boats were larger and faster packets than had plied the Upper Mississippi in earlier times. Increasing steam traffic on both the Des Moines and the Missouri were recorded. Enterprising citizens of Des Moines were actually building a steamboat in 1858 that would run from Des Moines to Fort Dodge the following year.

The heaviest traffic, of course, was along the Upper Mississippi where navigation opened early in 1858. On March 16 the Dubuque Daily Express and Herald recorded the arrival of the Alahambra as the first boat of the season. The Grey Eagle, commanded by Daniel Smith Harris, was the first boat to reach St. Paul, setting a record when she churned into that port on March 25.

Some idea of the tremendous steamboat traffic along the eastern border of Iowa can be gained from the number of boats docking at various Iowa ports. In the two weeks following the arrival of the Alhambra at the Key City, the Dubuque editor recorded the Audobon, the Badger State, the Brazil, the Chippewa, the Envoy, the Eolian, the Excelsior, the Fanny Harris, the Fire Canoe, the Flora, the G.H. Wilson, the Granite State, the Grey Eagle, the Henry Clay, the Itasca, the Kate Cassel, the Key City, the Lake City, the Metropolitan, the Milwaukee, the Oakland, and the War Eagle. In addition to these twenty-two craft, the Belfast, Dew Drop, James Lyon, Laclede and Lucy May were advertised as on their way up from St. Louis.

These boats carried an immense amount of freight both upstream and downstream. Two thousand pigs of lead and eighty barrels of flour formed a part of the Alhambra's cargo downstream from Dubuque. under the caption "A Good Sign!" the Express and Herald of March 17 declared:
            Our levee begins already to assume a bustling appearance, and as the season advances so favorably, business will speedily infuse a new life into our veins. The migratory habits of our people are shown by the number of strangers who will commence pouring in by rails and boats, until our hotels are filled to overflowing.
             We notice, in connection with our levee, that the Alhambra, owing to the inclemency of the weather and the great amount of freight to be shipped, will not leave until this evening.

The Express and Herald was not slow to note the various cargoes arriving at or departing from Dubuque. The firm of West & Hopkins had already shipped 7,000 pigs of lead. Six hundred bags of wheat  were loaded on the Granite State. The Conewago left the following day with 740 barrels of flour. When the Chippewa Falls passed upstream with a large shipment of plows from Moline, the editor queried, "Why cannot our dealers have this trade?" Such activity as well as rivalry existed in all the river towns between Keokuk and Dubuque.

Meanwhile, the decade prior to 1858 had witnessed some historic railroad events culminating in the linking of the Atlantic with the Mississippi by rail. The first railroad constructed west of Chicago was the Galena & Chicago Union [North Western] in 1848. The Rock Island was the first to reach the Mississippi- arriving at Rock Island opposite Davenport on February 22, 1854. Three other Iowa river towns were linked with the Atlantic Ocean in 1855. The Burlington was opened for traffic to the Mississippi opposite Burlington on March 17; the Illinois Central and the Galena & Chicago Union opened their joint track to Dunleith opposite Dubuque on June 12; and the Galena & Chicago Union completed a second track from West Chicago to the Mississippi opposite Clinton on December 16. Two years later in 1857, the Milwaukee was completed between Milwaukee and Prairie du Chien.

By 1858 the race across Iowa was proceeding from a half-dozen points on the Mississippi. Orion Clemens seems to have caught the spirit of the changing times in his Keokuk Directory and Business Mirror for 1857. According to Clemens:

         In the grand westward march, the hunter follows the buffalo's track; is himself      followed by the emigrant's wagon; it by the stage coach; succeeding that is the railroad, and after that manufactures and trade in their most expanded form. Already seven projected railroads hold a menacing attitude towards the coach; and the latter, as if frightened by the prospect, but more probably encouraged by the large amount of travel, commences this summer to pursue its devious, toilsome, weary, winding way three hundred miles further westward to-wit: a daily line between Keokuk and Nebraska City. In the meantime the iron horse is already galloping up the Des Moines Valley; will be making regular trips around the Lower Mississippi Rapids the coming summer, and will be harnessed to the cars on the road from Keokuk to connect with the Chicago and Quincy Railroad some time this year.

Iowa Newspapers were filled with railroad schedules, not only of those under construction in Iowa, but also for those linking Iowa with Chicago and the Atlantic seaboard. By 1858 tracks had been laid westward from Keokuk to Bentonsport, from Burlington to Fairfield, from Davenport to Washington and Iowa City, from Lyons-Clinton to DeWitt, and from Dubuque to Nottingham [Earlville].

The need for stage coaches as depicted by Orion Clemens was still very great in 1858. The Western Stage company inserted advertisements in most papers and generally received warm plaudits for carrying passengers and mail through under the most adverse conditions. The Iowa Farmer of February 18, 1858, declared:

          We have a word for the traveler. If you wish to make good time, receive kind treatment, and o about as comfortable as the nature of things will permit this cold weather, we commend you to the Western Stage Company's Coaches; and if you wish those other comforts which enter so largely into the affections of travelers as well as those who do not travel, a sojourn at Downing's at Oskalooska, Amos' at Eddyville, Bacon's at Fairfield, Eichelberger's at Mt. Pleasant, and the Wightman House at Burlington, will secure all you desire. All are more known to fame than the National, Bacon's at Fairfield, but when John S. has been as long in the field as the others he will be as extensively and as favorably known. Try them and if it is not as we tell you, draw upon us for your bills and they will be honored.

The Webster City Hamilton Freeman expressed warm satisfaction with the performance of the Western Stage Company in its issue of July 8.

             This far during the season the roads have been very bad, and travel has been greatly interrupted. But our mail services have suffered no hindrance. On the contrary, they are constantly improving. When Col. Heath's Deputies do their duty, our Dubuque dailies reach us three days after they are issued. The traveler now reaches Dubuque in three days from this point.- For this good management and speed, the public are indebted to McCHESNEY, the popular and well-known western agent of the Company. During all the wet season he has been very active, and the present efficiency of the route is owing to his efforts. His star, as State Agent, will one of these days set in the smoke of the locomotive- but till then, the Company cannot find a more prudent and energetic manager.

Equally delighted was the editor of the Dubuque Times who wrote on December 10:

          On two occasions, during the last three or four months, we have had an opportunity to witness the metal of horses belonging to the Western Stage Company,and, although, we have ridden a great many thousand miles in a stage coach we have no recollection of having seen better animals than some of those that run between Nottingham and West Union. They are, with few exceptions, as fat as woodchucks that have been pastured in a field of clover, and almost as supple as antelopes.
          In September, we came down one morning, from Waterloo to Independence, and the last ten miles were made inside of one hour. At times the horses seemed to fly over the prairies. We had a taste of what De Quincy calls "the glory of the motion;" and were half inclined, with the "Opium Eater," to give the preference to the stage coach, over every other vehicle of conveyance. This is taking it for granted that we can choose a good road, and be driven by one of the Jehus in the service of the Western Stage Company.

The Hamilton Freeman wholeheartedly agreed with these words:

            The above compliment is well deserved. On this end of the route the Company have as fine a lot of nags as ever whirled a coach over the turnpike. The drivers are sober and civil,and as good fellows every way as we have ever met. And to keep all this machinery in motion, requires just such a tireless ubiquitous, wide-awake and enterprising General Agent as "Tom McChesney," who has held forth in that capacity for some time past. We wish Tom every success till his sun is eclipsed by the Iron Horse- hoping he will be rich enough to retire by that time.

The Mitchell County Republican of January 21, 1858, endorsed a Minnesotian's estimate of the "Lacy's Line of Stages."

          The above line connects this place with Mankato on the St. Peter's river. The following item from the Southern Minnesota Star shows its popularity.
          Lacy's mail coaches are up to time every week, and never fail in bringing us our regular Eastern mail. They leave Albert Lea for Mitchell on Every Saturday, and for Mankato and St. Peter every Wednesday.

...Hotels and Livery stables were in great demand in 1858. Dubuque, the metropolis, had twenty-eight hotels and other towns had hotels commensurate with their size. Salesmen and prospective land-buyers hired a horse and buggy to accomplish their work. The livery stable, the blacksmith, and the wagon and buggy maker continued to form an important part of the Iowa scene until the horseless carriage gradually shunted them aside after the turn of the century

--------- William J. Petersen

 

 


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2001 Cathy Joynt Labath