By Gary Herrity
The Clinton Herald
Most people would associate Clinton history with sawmills; however, without the railroad, no sawmills would ever have existed in this community. In 1854, The Lyons Iowa Central (the so-called Calico Railroad) failed, but this did not deter railroaders’ dreams.
The Chicago & North Western was still planning to come to the Mississippi River and so was the Galena & Chicago Union. In 1848, the famous engine of the G&CU, “The Pioneer,” did come to Fulton, which was its terminus for four years. The narrows was the natural crossing for a railroad bridge, but that was not to be. Finances were everything
Without a railroad bridge, the industry nonetheless plunged ahead and, at first, the Chicago & Iowa Nebraska Line forged on toward the West. During the winter, ice was usually thick enough -- before dams -- to hold train cars as they passed into Iowa. (Remember, too, the river wasn’t as deep as it is today!)
The CI & N chose Clinton as its eastern terminus, and that had a profound effect on history. It wasn’t long until the nationally-famous C&NW bought out that, and other, trunk lines. The two Illinois lines met near Little Rock Island, (directly across from where Clinton would be), -- The Galena had eventually been absorbed by the C&NW. Then, the Iowa Land Company platted and advertised the city of Clinton; but, it was ten years before a railroad bridge spanned the river here.
During that time, an actual little village on the island sprang up. They ferried train cars and assorted goods across. One who worked at that trade was a Mr. Bartlett, who also owned a trading post about where the Clinton Boat Club used to be. He and Randall, Jennings, and the Perrin family lived in the little hamlet, then called New York … until it was later re-named Clinton. Mrs. Perrin had the first baby born in the new settlement in the late 1830’s.
Clinton once seemed intended by fate to be the new “Chicago on the Mississippi.” The river and the railroad, -- coupled with the first transcontinental automobile highway (The Lincoln Highway), the north-south Milwaukee Line Railway, many sizable industries like E.I. DuPont’s and Clinton Corn Processing -- made it appear inevitable! However the dream hasn’t materialized.
Any remembrance of railroad history would not be complete without mentioning the roundhouses. Stage melodramas of an earlier era often included the chant, “Run to the roundhouse Nellie, they can’t corner you there!” Roundhouses were an important part of the railroad industry, and this area had three between the 1870’s and 1957. The first was near the river on 8th Avenue, circa 1870 to 1910 -- just below the high wagon bridge, another was in Fulton, and the third was out on Camanche Avenue through the 1960’s. Clinton’s new depot was constructed in 1915 and a viaduct by 1922. The Second Street Viaduct was a bit later. It contains a sidewalk large enough for vehicles to cross in flood season!
In 1893, Chicago had its famous World Fair called The Columbian Exposition. President Cleveland flipped the golden switch and lights came on! The Exposition showed every wonderful new thing invented to date. At that time, Thomas Edison was referred to as “Professor Edison,” and his light bulb was displayed magnificently in numerous ways throughout the gigantic midway. Clinton’s own Lillian Russell signed for a 16-day tour at the Fair, and her friend Diamond Jim Brady came along -- escaping that year’s terrible Stock Market Crash in New York. This economic disaster had a great effect on the railway industry; Clinton’s Courthouse was delayed for years and hundreds of millionaires became penniless, but the World Fair plunged on as if nothing happened. It was a huge success!
After that crisis, things returned to normal and railroading continued to grow. East Clinton was famous for having the largest roundhouse in the world in 1910! A small community existed there for several years, which often amazes younger generations. The engine “Old Scoot” plus one passenger car ferried railroad men over to East Clinton during this time. There was even a spacious three-story wooden hotel for the men’s use. In 1900, the Chicago & NorthWestern (its name was written many ways) Car Repair Shops moved to Camanche Avenue, near Riverside and Chancy. A third roundhouse was built for their larger “H” Class engines. It survived there for several decades, after which many other railroad buildings were built in that vicinity.
The building of railroad bridges is a bit confusing. Clinton’s first, 1865, bridge remained in place, essentially in the same way, until 1909. However, a new span was affixed to it in 1887. Crossing our Gateway Bridge to this day, looking south, one can still see all the old bridge abutments moldering there in the slough!
Railroaders were a tough hard-working, hard-living lot, and many had a favorite local “watering hole.” The Pleez-All on Fourth Street was always in competition with Johnny Croakes at 11th Avenue and the Herrity Saloon at 12th Avenue. Other men congregated at the Liberty Tap, south of the roundhouse. In later days, some went all the way to 5th Avenue to get their checks cashed and have lunch and conversation at Reynolds or Ford Hopkins.
Remember when whole families used to go down to the Depot and watch the trains come in? The heyday of railroads as passenger purveyors passed soon after the 1950’s, and Clinton’s largest family-tinged industry where, indeed, multi-generations had been employed also passed, in stages.