A large colony of Wall Street’s leading bankers, prominent lawyers and businessmen generally reside there,” railroad promoter S.G. Durant had just been released from a federal prison in Atlanta, Ga. and was speaking to a Register and Leader newspaper reporter.
According to S.G., the facility contained an athletic field, library with the latest magazines and large sleeping rooms with open windows. The prisoners relaxed with moving pictures and vaudeville shows. An orchestra preformed in the dining room at meal time. A prison employee delivered the morning’s newspaper to S.G. so he could peruse the news before rising for the day.
He said the conveniences at the prison “out do services at many good hotels” in the country. S.G. had been sentenced in January 1913 for using the U.S. Postal Service to commit fraud. He had been granted an early release in July 1914. People in northeast Iowa knew S.G. Durant as the builder and promoter of the Iowa Northern Railway.
S.G. began to raise money for his new rail line in 1911. He was looking for $4 million to build the line from Turkey River Junction south to Clinton where it would connect with four separate other rail lines. Towns along the proposed track had already begun to raise money. Luxemburg had raised $35,000. And Colesburg was well on its way to raise their share. S.G. advertised in a Dubuque newspaper that he was accepting bids to complete “40,000 cubic yards of earth work.”
People were excited about the prospect of a new line that would run between Dyersville and New Vienna twice a day. The towns of Petersburg, Colesburg and Holy Cross would contribute business. It was predicted that there would be a “very heavy” volume of freight and passengers from the New Vienna connection.
Work on the new railway was halted when in November 1912 S.G. was arrested; and when he couldn’t raise $5,000 bail, he remained in jail until his trial in federal court. He was charged, convicted and sent to Atlanta.
Upon S.G.’s release in 1914, he again began to promote his rail line in northeast Iowa. “I have returned here to carry through the Iowa Northern Railway project, to open for operation as soon as possible that section which is already built and to extend the line as soon as the necessary arrangements can be perfected,” S.G. promised. But it was not meant to be. By May 1917 rail lines near Dyersville were being dismantled.
The rails had been sold to buyers in Europe, who planned to build lines for armies fighting in the Great War. S.G. explained to the locals in the Manchester Democrat-Radio newspaper that he had worked tirelessly and invested thousands of dollars to make his railroad a success.
However, after years of trying, he had never been able to acquire title to the right of way. “With the right of way not clear, it left the road completely crippled financially; and operation had to be closed down,” he said. “There was no other thing left to do but dismantle.”
Cheryl Mullenbach writes about Iowa history. Her column is published Saturdays in the Clinton Herald.