Railroad transportation came to Iowa in the late 1840s. Iowa had approximately 655 miles of track in operation by 1860 and 2,683 miles by 1870. This mileage grew to almost 9,200 at the turn of the century (1900) and peaked between 1911 and 1917 with more than 10,500 roadway miles of track.
Although there were several very small railroads operating in and around Iowa’ river towns, the first railroad to cross the Mississippi River was the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad in 1856. This railroad later became known as the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. The Rock Island filed for bankruptcy in 1975 and ordered to liquidate by the bankruptcy court in June 1980. Much of the former Rock Island system in Iowa was acquired by the former Chicago and North Western Railway Co. The former Rock Island main line across Iowa from Chicago to Davenport to Council Bluffs and Omaha is now operated by the Iowa Interstate Railroad.
In 1867 the Iowa Division of the Chicago and North Western Railway Co., which was previously the Chicago, Iowa and Nebraska Railroad, was the first railroad to build tracks across Iowa, connecting Chicago with the Union Pacific's transcontinental railroad in Omaha. The Chicago and North Western Railway Co. merged with the Union Pacific Railroad Co. in April 1995.
The Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad Co. (now known as the BNSF Railway Co.) and the Illinois Central Railroad Co., which later became the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad Co. both completed their rail lines across Iowa in 1878. (In December 1985 the Illinois Central Gulf Railroad sold all of its Iowa trackage to the Chicago, Central and Pacific Railroad Co. and in January 1996 got back all that trackage by acquiring the Chicago, Central and Pacific Railroad Co..) (Illinois Central Gulf Railroad Co.changed its name back to Illinois Central Railroad Co. in 1988).
In 1874, the Milwaukee and Mississippi Railroad Co. became the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad Co. and, also in 1878, became the fifth railroad to complete its tracks across Iowa. The Milwaukee filed bankruptcy late in 1976 and was split into two parts: the “operating core” and the “non-operating core”. Early in 1986 the Milwaukee “operating core” was acquired and merged into the SOO Line Railroad Co., a subsidiary of the CP Rail system formerly known as the Canadian Pacific Co.. The “non-operating core” was liquidated.
Iowa’s rail system has experienced extensive change and restructuring since 1975 as a result of railroad bankruptcies and rail line abandonments. As of Dec. 31, 2001, Iowa has permanently lost approximately 6,595 miles of track since the peak years of 1911 to 1917. Of these about 3,800 miles were lost after 1974. The bankruptcies of the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad and the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad in the mid-1970s caused the state to lose a significant amount of trackage and service. Today, Iowa has only 3,905 miles of roadway track in operation.
In 2012, Iowa is served by five Class I railroads: the BNSF Railway Co., CN, Canadian Pacific Railway, the Norfolk & Southern Railway, and the Union Pacific Railroad; one Class II railroad, the Iowa Interstate Railroad; and 11 Class III railroads: the Appanoose County Community Railroad, the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad, the Burlington Junction Railway, the CBEC Railway, the Cedar Rapids and Iowa City Railway,the D & I Railroad, the D & W Railroad, the Iowa Northern Railroad, the Iowa Traction Railroad, the Iowa River Railroad, and the Keokuk Junction Railway.
These railroads serve five principal gateways or interchange points in the Midwest: Chicago, Minneapolis-St. Paul, Omaha, Kansas City,and St. Louis.
The Iowa Department of Transportation's Historic Archives Digital Collections is a searchable compilation of transportation-related photos, maps and other documents gathered by DOT employees or donated to the department, including many rail related photos.