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Conversations with myself

Leaning against the baseboard in our bathroom is a copy of Transit Maps of the World by Mark Ovenden, a compendium of every transit system currently in operation. It’s one- or two-page treatments provide a summary of each system’s history and a graphic feast for the eye of their graphics. Just ask Masimo Vignelli about the political pitfalls in simplifying a complex network for pubic consumption. For me, a page or two is just right when nature calls.

Agincourt’s system would never have made the cut, having disappeared long ago—probably as scrap metal recycled for World War Two. For that history you’ll need to consult Hilton & Due’s The electric Interurban Railways in America, happily back in print. Mine is a heavily-used hardback first edition.

transit maps

Messrs Hilton and Due set a fairly imitable style; their “entry” for the Northwest Iowa Traction Co. is somewhere in the Agincourt Project’s files. I’m writing from memory, however, so some of the dates me be transposed.

My feelings about the 2015 exhibition are mixed, but its deficiencies are mine alone. One component I’d hoped to flesh out was this story of a typical interurban-trolley system in northwestern Iowa. If I’d had my wits about me (and a lot more cash) you’d have understood a great deal more about an important era in the history of America’s infrastructure — prejudiced by my experience with Marge on Chicago’s last streetcars and a ride on the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee system during its last week of operation. The years have only heightened my nostalgia for one of America’s greatest losses.

The NITC system was conceived about 1908 and more formally organized with the issuance of stock in the Spring of 1909. Like many overly optimistic enterprises, the NITC attempted too much. Central Iowa’s interurbans radiated from Des Moines, one of them reaching Fort Dodge, to serve the military base there. So it was logical that Fennimore county’s investors would have linked there, extended its right-of-way northwesterly through Pocahontas to Agincourt on its way toward the Missouri — perhaps to Sioux City or Council Bluffs.

The symbiosis between interurbans and trolleys (i.e., systems that connect cities and those that serve only within them) meant that the creation of one would often generate the other; the investment in a power source was that substantial. In Agincourt’s case the larger begat the smaller and each evolved to expand and enhance its services. It was natural, for example, that the resort community forming along the shores of Sturm & Drang deserved a seasonal branch. Other seasonal services brought visitors to the Fennimore County Fairgrounds and other more somber events at cemeteries on the east side of town. Satellite villages like Burbank and Fahnstock may have profited from their connection with Agincourt, though I suppose that might have been a double-edged sword as access to Agincourt shops took business from smaller “Main Street” merchants.

Material culture (a snooty was of saying collectibles) would have left a trail of detritus: transit maps; tickets and tokens; posters and other advertising to increase ridership; a bunch of photoshopped images showing the system in operation.

fairgrounds

None of this happened, I’m sorry to report. Perhaps I’ll live long enough to fix that.

One component did materialize: the NITC transit terminal and interface with the city’s lopsided figure-8 route from the city trolley. Imagining architecture seems to be my skill (though execution of a model was a sad exercise in communication and a financial failure). I learned a lot and hoped visitors to the exhibit didn’t notice.

Further development of the larger NITC story and creation of at least a few of those “collectible” pieces of history lie ahead. Need I say that advice is always appreciated, though your assistance will have to be rewarded in the afterlife.


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