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Brief History of the Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern
The FtDDM&S began as a small coal carrier in central Iowa running from mine to a connecting railroad. Later, it expanded and became a common carrier hauling freight, passengers, mail and express. A subsequent metamorphosis changed it from steam to electric with greatly increased track mileage running streetcars and busses and eventually running diesels as a class one carrier.
In the 1880’s one of the largest coal operators in Boone County was the Clyde Coal Company. That firm sank its first shaft mine at Incline, west of Moingona (of Kate Shelly fame) in 1885. The manager was Hamilton Browne, an energetic and experienced operator who later became as active in railroading as he was in mining. He and his associates formed the Boone Valley Coal and Railway Company, chartered Feb 23, 1893, to run from Fraiser to a point on the Minneapolis & St Louis Railway called Fraser Junction. Fraser was named after Morman D. Fraser, vice president of the company. The road was built to haul coal from the mines in Fraser to the M&StL connection. The Directors were Hamilton Browne and O.M. Carpenter of Boone; Norman D Fraser and David R. Fraser of Chicago; and S. T. Meservey of Fort Dodge, Iowa.
The Boone Valley Coal & Railway Company opened late in 1893 with about three miles of track. It commenced operation with a 40 ton 2-6-0 locomotive. By 1897, with the help of a second locomotive, the road was hauling over 122,000 tons of coal annually. In 1899, a new railroad, the Marshalltown and Dakota Railway was formed and purchased the BVC&Ry. This new road, headed by Hamilton Browne, was chartered “to build from Story City (east of Fraser) via Fraser, Gowerie, Manson, Pocahontas, Laurens and Hartley to Sibley, Iowa a distance of 145 miles and thence northwest into southeastern South Dakota”. It completed its line westward from Fraser to Gowrie in 1899.
In 1901 the name changed again, this time to the Boone, Rockwell City and Northwestern Railway, with Browne again serving as president. The next year a new company was formed, the Newton & Northwestern, with Browne, again, as chief executive. The N&NW, to quote Poor’s Manual of Railroads for 1903 owned “two large bituminous coal properties, which have been profitable producers for years . . . The output from the mines at present is about 400 tons per day, but this will be increased upwards of 1,500 tons per day during the current year. . . “
Extensions of the road were pushed from Fraser to Newton on the east and from Gowrie to Rockwell City on the west. The biggest engineering feat, however, was bridging a tributary of the Des Moines River east of Fraser. To span this valley a lofty wooden trestle 156 ft high and 784 ft long was erected. Over a million board feet of lumber went into this bridge. This bridge is know as the High Bridge and is still in service today on the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad. The entire line from Newton to Rockwell City was completed in 1904.
One of the new towns along the line, Napier, took the maiden name of Hamilton Browne’s wife, Mary L. Napier. In 1905, Browne was replaced as chief executive by Homer Loring from Boston, representing a group from that city that had purchased control of the railroad. Among the new directors was Henery W. Poor, a well know private banker who, with his father Henery V. Poor, inaugurated Poor’s Manual of Railroads. A branch was built from Goddard to Colfax in 1905 to serve the coal mines located there. The Newton & Northwestern was now a line over 100 miles long. But it went from the small community of Newton with a small farm implement manufacturer called Maytag on the east to Rockwell City, a smaller town on the west. Its principal source of income was coal, yet several mines were beginning to become unprofitable. The road needed new industries, bigger and better terminals and most of all, fresh capital.
Enter now the Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Southern Railroad, incorporated in Iowa on Feb 16, 1906. New Englanders furnished the needed capital and Homer Loring of Boston was made the road’s president. Further east-west expansion stopped and instead, the new managers looked to the gypsum mining and producing industries of Fort Dodge to the north and to the industries of Des Moines on the south. The FtDDM&S acquired control of the Newton & Northwestern along with the Fort Dodge Street Railway (a local trolley line) and the Ames and College Railway, a two- mile steam dummy line organized on Sept 9, 1890 operating from Ames to the Iowa State College. To connect with this line, a seven-mile extension was built north from Kelly.
The main feature of the $250,000 improvement program was the electrification of the new lines.: Fort Dodge to Hope and Des Moines to Midvale. Overhead wires were also strung on the Newton & Northwestern between Hope and Midvale. The Kelley branch to Ames was also electrified. This meant high-speed, frequent interurban service between Des Moines and Fort Dodge. The remainder of the system continued to be operated by steam power as did freight service on the entire railroad. Company coal furnished fuel for the new turbine-driven power plant at Fraser. The company also began to sell electricity to the communities along the railroad. The improvement project also featured large, 53 foot interurban cars built by Niles Car Company. With interiors furnished in mahogany, leather upholstery and clerestory windows, they were the pride of central Iowa. Fast service on the 85 mile run between Des Moines and Fort Dodge commenced late in 1907. Entry into Des Moines was over the tracks of the local street railway.
The expense of electrification proved too much for the company and it declared bankruptcy in 1910 with Homer Loring and Parley Sheldon of Ames as receivers. To expedite the handling of heavy freight by electric locomotives, the line was converted from 600 volts to 1,200 volts operation. About that time the branch to Rockwell City was electrified and the road extended a branch from Wolf to mines near Ogden. This branch included running rights over the M&StL for about two miles. Later, the FtDDM&S bought an interest in these mines, but labor trouble and flooding made the operation impracticable and the Ogden branch was eventually abandoned.
In 1912, the mines at Colfax were worked out and, despite the increase in freight service from Maytag who started shipping washing machines in 1907, the whole line from Midvale to Newton was abandoned. The spring of that year a disastrous flood washed out the center span of the “High Bridge” east of Fraser. It took a dozen men seventy days to replace the old structure with a modern steel span costing $110,000. To this day, it is in use by the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad and provides one of the best scenic views in the state.
The road was sold under foreclosure in 1913 to the bondholders, Old Colony Trust Company of Boston, for $3,900,500. The name remained the same and Homer Loring continued as president. It is significant that “The Fort Dodge Line” as it was called, differed from many contemporary interurbans in that it aggressively solicited carload freight business. It followed steam-railroad practices in operating rules and it interchanged with trunk lines. When the government took over the railroads during World War I, the FtDDM&S was included. It was one of the few interurbans operated by the United States Railroad Administration.
Some idea of the fast growing freight business is attested by the fact that the road had over 2,500 freight cars in 1918. It was said to have more cars per mile of track than any other railroad in America. The FtDDM&S also had great passenger equipment including two parlor cars with wicker seats, smoking compartments, high-quality Brussels carpets and porter service. An excess fare of 25 cents was charged between Ft Dodge and Des Moines to ride in these cars.
In line with the road’s policy to serve more industries, it purchased the Crooked Creek Railroad in 1916. This pioneer carrier was chartered on Nov 8, 1875 and began operation as a 3-foot narrow gauge, eight mile line extending from Judd on the Illinois Central Railroad east of Fort Dodge to coal mines to the south in Lehigh. In the mid 1880’s, the line was widened to standard gauge and operated in conjunction with the Webster City and Southwestern Railroad, which had a 14 mile line from Border Plain Junction (on the Crooked Creek) east to Webster City. In 1892, the Crooked Creek bought the WC&SW and around 1900 the road from Judd to Border Plain was scrapped. When the FtDDM&S bought the historic Crooked Creek, it constructed its own line to Border Plain from Ft Dodge and the entire line was electrified. The Crooked Creek roundhouse was still standing in 1954.
Changing conditions led to the forming of the Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Southern Transportation Company in 1924. Bus service was inaugurated between Boone and Ames and Des Moines. This bus service was later sold. In 1925, with the exception of Des Moines - Fort Dodge service, all passenger rail operation was discontinued. Local streetcar operations in Ames and Fort Dodge also ceased.
The road suffered from financial reverses in the late 1920’s and in 1930 Clyde H. Crooks, who succeeded Homer Loring as president in 1920, was made receiver. In 1942, the company was reorganized as the Fort Dodge Des Moines and Southern Railway. The boom in construction following WWII saw in increased use of gypsum and greater business for the road. To handle longer trains, three 16 wheel “steeple cab” locomotives were purchased from the Oregon electric Railway in 1947. These husky 4 truck locomotives greatly expedited freight up the 2.44% grade west of Fraser.
In the early 1950’s the power plant was upgraded. This meant cheaper power for the railroad and the communities along the line to which they sold electric power. In the mid 1950’s they began a dieselization program. Eventually they had 12 40 ton GE switch engines numbered 401 - 412 and two center cab engines, one in Ft Dodge and one in Des Moines.
The railroad was sold to the Chicago & Northwestern in 1968.
David A. Petersen (September 2007)