Fall along the Iowa River
the Hardin County Community Development Council
were vitally important to the agriculturally oriented settlements first established
in Hardin County during the mid-19th century. Wheat was the chief agricultural
product grown; flour was ground for domestic food use and for sale to new immigrants
and other markets. Almost all roads in Hardin County before 1860 led to mill sites.
Oxen and horse drawn wagons were the primary means of reliable transportation
in the settlement era. The first stagecoach lines came to Hardin with the development
of roads, which provided a more regular transportation and mail service.
piroques, flatboats, keelboats, and even a few paddle wheel steamboats in the
lower Iowa River Valley provided substantial river traffic in the 19th century.
While it was recognized that mill dams and bridges needed to be built, the major
navigable rivers were avoided for these purposes, and settlements were often sited
close to the mill locations.
During the Civil War, growth and immigration to Iowa slowed, but the post-war
period was witness to significant expansion of the stage coach and wagon roads,
railroad lines and bridges. Angling territorial roads followed Indian trails or
connected towns and farms to mills. However, in increasing numbers, section line
county roads were laid out according to the legal township and range pattern superimposed
upon Iowa by the government land surveys. This grid pattern on the landscape has
strongly influenced farmstead location and field placement over time. With road
access, new farms could be located well out on the prairie with square fields
oriented along quarter section lines. Likewise, churches and public schools could
also be located at convenient sites on the grid.
Historic postcard view of a boating party on
Courtesy of the Hardin County Community Development Council
The towns that ultimately
prospered in the county were connected to national and international markets via
the railroad. Hardin County was not among the fortunate sections of Iowa that
had a railway line connected to its early settlements. For many years, produce
was hauled to market by wagon teams to Marshalltown or Cedar Falls, or some even
more remote point. Ackley was constructed as the terminus of the Dubuque and Sioux
City Railroad in 1865, and as such briefly became an essential shipping and receiving
center for farm commodities and manufactured goods. Ackley was platted in 1857
in anticipation of a rail line but remained a paper town until 1865. The line
to Iowa Falls was completed in the spring of 1866, which remained its western
terminus for two more years. Historical accounts of the arrival of the railroad
to small rail towns depict an atmosphere that is nothing short of riotous with
railroad workers, weekend farmers, and disreputable sorts mingling in late night
debauchery. In 1868 the Iowa Falls and Sioux City Railroad Company completed the
line to Sioux City, thus connecting all Iowa from the east to the west. In 1870
this line was leased to the Illinois Central Railroad.
As in the Des Moines Valley,
coal mining played a significant economic role in Hardin County. Local economic
growth spurts were the result of prosperous mines in the upper Iowa Valley outside
Eldora in 1868 and near Hubbard in the 1880s. Markets for the coal were made accessible
by the construction of the Eldora Railroad and Coal Company, which later became
the Central Railroad of Iowa (1869-1879), and finally the Central Iowa Railway
Company. In addition to coal, building stone and clay deposits provided natural
local products important to the economy. These were obtained at various places,
primarily along the Iowa River. The high-grade limestone is still mined today
Historic postcard view of a Iowa farm scene, with
the railroad in the background
Courtesy of the Hardin County Community
Other rail lines were connected throughout Hardin County by the 1880s.
In 1881 the Chicago and Northwestern Railroad crossed the lower half of Hardin
County, and the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Northern Railway (BCR&N) was brought
through Iowa Falls. The BCR&N heralded progress for Iowa Falls as the town became
both a freight and bridge division on the road, and a 10-stall round house was
built (no longer standing). E. S. Ellsworth, a prominent Hardin County businessman,
built the Short Line Railway, or the Des Moines, Iowa Falls and Northern, which
connected Iowa Falls to Des Moines and later Mason City. There had been a dire
need for a connection to the state capital for many years, and in 1903 the Short
Line became part of the Rock Island system. This was the last railroad constructed
in Hardin County. Railroad passenger service continued until the 1960s.
Most of Iowa's roads in the last half of the 19th century were created
by township trustees who graded ditches and did some dragging of the roadway bed
to form primitive grade. During this time period, few roads were graded, plans
were seldom prepared in advance of work and estimates of costs were unheard of.
Distances were measured by "stepping off" or "wagon loads." By 1900 Iowa had 104,000
miles of road open to travel--all rural mileage was dirt. Twenty miles of travel
was a long journey for a farm team and wagon. The development of the road and
highway system followed with the development of the motor vehicle.
Automobiles in downtown Iowa Falls
of the Iowa Falls Historic Preservation Commission
the Iowa Highway Commission was established by the legislature, which became the
Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT) in 1975. In 1919 the state legislature
envisioned a state road system of approximately 6,400 miles of hard-surfaced roads
distributed among the 99 counties--officially known as the "Primary Road System."
These paved roadways were especially necessary in Iowa because when it rained
Iowa's rich soil became a quagmire and the state became an island of mud. Iowa's
road conditions developed a national reputation that caused interstate travelers
to avoid the state. The 1924 edition of the Official Road Guide to the Lincoln
Highway warned "It's a folly to drive on Iowa dirt roads, during or immediately
after a heavy rain. Time will not be saved by attempting it."
Hardin County's road development paralleled that of the rest of the state,
with the development of a Primary and Secondary system. State Highways 65 and
20 (the "Jefferson Highway") were built in the 1930s and helped many towns along
the route to keep growing. As railroad passenger traffic dwindled, highways became
the preferred travel routes. Many automobile-oriented businesses were established
to cater to both the car and driver. The main north/south route through Iowa,
Interstate 35, is located just to the west of the Hardin County line. The new
Highway 520 (re-aligned 20) bisects the middle of the county from east to west,
and is a model for transportation projects that carefully consider environmental
impacts. Of particular interest is the unique bridge that carries this highway
over the environmentally sensitive Iowa River Greenbelt.
A parade of cars down Washington Avenue, Iowa Falls
Courtesy of the Iowa Falls Historic Preservation Commission
A scenic Hardin County
drive follows the Iowa River from Alden south to Eldora with camping, picnicking
and canoe launch opportunities along the way. This route, from the south western
to the north central part of the county, will soon be designated as Iowa's first
Scenic and Heritage By-way. It follows the old "Glacier" or "Billy Goat
Highway," which originally stretched from St. Louis to Glacier Park in Montana.
Many loop tours to the different towns in the county can be accessed from this