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Waitin’ for the “A” train

In the spring of 1909, ten or twelve leaders in Agincourt’s business community gathered at the Farmers, Mechanics & Merchants board room to discuss a new venture: an inter-urban line connecting Fort Dodge with Sioux City or Council Bluffs. Either route would link central Iowa with the Missouri River Valley and become a valuable asset to communities along the way. Today we’d call it “light rail”.

Messrs Hilton and Due may have written the definitive study of inter-urban railways in the United States. I forget the title, but there’s a copy on my office shelf (and has been since the 70s; I’ve always been fascinated by inter-urbans). If construction of the crosstown line of the Twin City light rail sets your heart atwitter, the network of inter-urbans in the first years of the 20th century would make you weep. Its construction was a feat of American business enterprise; its consolidation by the evil Sam Insull, a feat of American greed and corruption; and its loss, a blanket condemnation of the Robber Barons who necessitated the nation’s anti-trust legislation of the early 20th century. Don’t get me started.

Interurban3

In the roll call of states, Indiana tops the list with the highest mileage of inter-urban railways (and the highest number of libraries funded by Andrew Carnegie). Ohio and Illinois are in the top five (if memory serves) and Iowa is certainly among the top ten. Chroniclers Hilton and Due highlight the inter-connectedness of the inter-urban systems, contesting that it was possible to ride from Chicago to New York by inter-urban—though it would have taken days and been more costly than the New York Central. But their point is significant: the US once possessed an infrastructure of public transit that was both cheap and efficient. We allowed it to be taken away by a conspiracy among the auto, rubber and petroleum industries. But that’s a story for another day.

It was self-evident that Agincourt would become a link in the web of Midwestern inter-urbans. And Hilton and Due helped me craft that scenario, allowing me to piggy-back on the line connecting Fort Dodge with Des Moines, Ames and other central Iowa points. Rather than ask Howard to tell the tale of the Northwest Iowa Traction Co., I wrote a series of news items in The Plantagenet that outlined its organization and progress until the maiden run in the fall of 1909. 

Traction companies often parleyed their investment into spin-off enterprises like amusement parks, cemeteries and municipal trolley systems, So it was natural that Agincourt would eventually gain a modest streetcar operation, a lop-sided figure eight with two loops—the smaller to the southwest of the CBD, connecting the courthouse with factories near the river and with the Milwaukee Road depot at the south end of Broad Street; the larger loop making a broad swing to the northern and eastern extremities of town, to the teacher college and the cluster of cemeteries on east Agincourt Avenue. A seasonal branch ran to the Fennimore county fairgrounds and even the cemeteries had a short spur.

Interurban2

The NITC system itself began construction at Fort Doge and reached Agincourt within two months. Then it built westward through Fahnstock and Storm Lake on its way toward Sioux City—though either money or enthusiasm ran out and it failed to reach the Missouri Valley. Another seasonal line looped through the resorts near lakes Sturm and Drang, which I’ve tried to document in other devious ways—like a postcard and its mysterious cryptic message from Smith’s Hotel and a travel poster promoting “The Last Resort” on the farther west shore of Lake Sturm. But the heart of the system and the element I’ve delayed until now has been the NITC headquarters at the southwest corner of Broad and Louisa—a 1909 steel-and-terracotta whimsy that I can’t put off any longer. 

Plans are easy. The elevations will part the wheat from the chaff.

 


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