Foundation for rail led to growth, prosperity
Editor’s Note: This is part two of a two-part series on Marshalltown’s history as a passenger and freight train hub. Part one published Friday. A recent Times-Republican story reported that Amtrak — the national passenger train service — would be using Union Pacific Rail Road’s mainline tracks running through Iowa and Marshalltown due to flooding on the Missouri River. It sparked a renewed interest from readers in passenger trains specifically and railroads in general. Years ago, Marshalltown was a passenger train hub with three railroads transporting passengers from the former Union Station.
Woodbury’s rail line, coupled with the court decision earlier to make Marshalltown the county seat, provided the foundation for the town to grow and prosper while Marietta slowly turned into a small village.
Woodbury’s line was later expanded to Council Bluffs in 1867.
And the three lines that formed a connecting link between Chicago and Council Bluffs eventually became part of the Chicago and NorthWestern Railway.
Marshalltown and the CNW would become partners in prosperity. And, as CNW added more tracks and support services, Marshalltown prospered with business and industry, earning the nickname “Little Pittsburgh.”
Later, the Iowa Central and Chicago and Great Western would call Marshalltown home, and each made significant investments in trackage and hired hundreds of workers.
By 1899 railroad transportation was enjoying great business and profits, reported the T-R.
Every morning within one hour, five CNW and Iowa Central (later Minneapolis & St. Louis) trains pulled into the Union Station, and every evening an equal number halted here within a like period of time. In the same hours two trains arrived at the Great Western depot. A half dozen buses met these trains to take passengers to the hotels and to all parts of the city.
But the best years for the CNW (and the other railroads) would be in the 1940s, said local railroad historian Merrill Price.
His analysis is not of one from the outside looking in.
Rather, after serving eight years in the Air Force, Price was employed for many years by several railroads or railroad service companies in Iowa and Illinois, working his way up through the ranks to management positions.
“Freight from the war effort, troop and passenger trains all peaked in those years,” he said. “The CNW could do business as far away as California, while M&St.L.’s territory was north and south.”
In 1960, the CNW purchased the M&St.L, including its Marshalltown locomotive repair shop.
Driving the purchase of the M&St.L., was Ben Heineman, the M&St.L.’s former chairman of the board, who had moved to a similar position with the CNW in 1958.
His motive: increase the CNW track miles to 10,730.
In 1968 the CNW purchased the CGW, and Marshalltown had become a one railroad town.
It remained in control until 1995, when the CNW merged with the Union Pacific.
The 24/7 activity in the yards from the 1940s is a distant memory, as are the sounds of Marshalltown’s halcyon days as a railroad hub which are quieter now, broken only by the piercing horns of UP freight trains on their way to destinations east and west.
But in the last 20 years, UP traffic has been gradually reduced.
Competition from the barge and trucking industries, which was nominal years ago, have all had a significant impact.
Price said at one time a UP train ran through Marshalltown every 15 minutes.
Approximately five years ago an average of 46 eastbound and westbound UP freight trains move on the UP’s main east-west lines through Marshalltown daily. Autos, auto parts, coal and intermodal comprised the freight.
UP initiated a policy approximately two years ago for security reasons, of not releasing information about the number of trains going through town or what they carried.
Additionally, they also declined to release the number of employees working in Marshalltown.
The shift from coal to natural gas as an energy source has also reduced the number of coal trains on the UP main line.
In recent years, the plants once powered by coal, have turned to natural gas, which has been touted as clean energy, versus coal’s image as a pollutant.
A primary example can be found locally, when Alliant Energy of Madison, Wisc., announced nearly five years ago that the new Marshalltown power plant, which went online two years ago, would be fueled by natural gas instead of coal.