Lillian Russell

Lillian Russell

The year 2019 will go down in Clinton’s history as the year of the train.

In July, UP’s Big Boy visited. On Dec. 7, Clinton will host CP’s Holiday Train. The Corp held meetings throughout the year on replacing the swing bridge.

For a great history of Clinton’s railroad history, check out the free online book “Clinton, Iowa: Railroad Town.” In 2003, Howard Green received $150,000 to write a book on Clinton’s railroad history as part of the changing footprint of Camanche Avenue. Why rewrite a wonderful resource? So, this article is more about the special trains that visited Clinton.

Presidents and presidential candidates have always created huge crowds in Clinton. For the first hundred years of Clinton’s history, candidates would travel the rails to get in front of their voters. In 1898, President McKinley came through Clinton with Governor Shaw. McKinley’s message to Clinton was foreboding: “We want no difference at home till we have settled our differences abroad. When that is done, we can have our little differences among ourselves.”

In 1905, a thousand people showed up to cheer Miss Alice Roosevelt as she and other dignitaries rode through. Alice came out on the backside of the caboose which resulted in a combustion of applause. She remained on the edge of train as it went over the bridge. In 1908, Taft visited Clinton. Taft delayed the crowd 30 minutes because he had to finish breakfast. George Curtis was the host for most of the visiting Republicans.

In 1916, Woodrow Wilson stopped in Clinton. In 1936, Alf Landon, Republican nominee, came through town and picked up a list of dignitaries to take out east. The last president to really use trains for campaigning was Truman through his whistle stops. In fact, before Clinton visited Galesburg in 1995, the last president to visit Galesburg was Truman on his whistle tour. In 30 years, it would be a nice homage to Truman and see someone do a whistle tour to pay respects to the “poorest president.”

To help get people to a special event or to bring people to Clinton for a special event, the rails would run a “special train.” For example in 1922, the Interurban ran a special train that left Clinton for Davenport’s River Fair. Thousands took advantage of the $1.50 round trip fair for Clinton Day at the fair. Clinton stores closed at noon to attend. As they left the fair, there was a fireworks show featuring “Clinton Day” in fireworks.

Special trains would take people to the DeWitt fair and as far down as New Orleans for Mardi Gras. While most took the train, the Lambs and friends got to Mardi Gras on their personal boats.

Lillian Russell would take special trains from Clinton to towns she was performing in, or so she claimed. In an 1896 article, she talked about always visiting home as she toured the country. Lillian of course left Clinton at three months old, and her return to Clinton for “The American Beauty” occurred in 1896. The reason she returned was that the Davis Opera House offered 95 percent of the receipts.

It seems Lillian and Clinton both fed the myth of knowing each other. In 1904, she went on record nationally about being from Clinton. She claimed that until her return she met many people who claimed they held her as a baby. When she arrived for the first time in 1896, she arrived in Clinton by train. At the depot, a huge crowd greeted her.

The crowd congregated outside her hotel, and they kept four bartenders busy. Many claimed to be her schoolmates even though she left at 3 months and, given Clinton’s immigration history, many of the residents might not have been here for longer than three months. The men ransacked her room when she left and caused nine dollars’ worth of damage.

The car she traveled in made the local papers in 1896. The car cost $16,000. This did not include the full-time chef. The cost of travel was $125 per day. The chef was paid highly because Lillian had “the daintiest of dishes” prepared. So high in richness.

What special trains were more often than not were express trains. Like the Passenger No. 10 in 1905. It went from Cedar Rapids to Clinton in 63 minutes of running time, and when you add the three stops, just 72 minutes. Therefore, a passenger could save a few cents this way.

One thing is clear, Clinton always turned out for special trains. In 1949, a large group of singers formed a chorus to welcome the Merci Train, a French gift train. They sang God of Our Fathers, among other songs. James Winn played electric organ and CW Coons led the Lyons band. Oddly enough, the Merci Train was also here for 40 minutes. It has 49 cars for each state (well D.C. and Hawaii were combined).

Like the Big Boy, locomotive-viewing crowds stand out in history. One train visit was a glimpse into the future. In 1923 at the C.M & St. P depot (now the Jaycees Lyons Train Depot) a giant new electric locomotive was on display. It was 76 feet long and 265 tons. A 92-year-old George Peterson visited, as he remembered working the Northwestern when Milwaukee Company first came to Clinton. In 2002, the Union Pacific Challenger No 3985 visited Clinton. It was a one million pound locomotive whose boiler held 25,000 gallons. Both had large crowds. In 1996, a steam locomotive came through town with passenger cars. A crowd gathered for that as well.

Sometimes the trains brought crowds of hobos, vagabonds, lookers, and well, humor. Boys and men would hop on the train and ride it over the bridge enough for regular public notices asking them to stop. In 1959, two boys, Richard and Henry Sutton, left Chicago and got off the train in Clinton. They found a boat and rowed from Clinton to the Illinois side. At 2 a.m., police found them and brought them to the home of Albany’s deputy. Escaping that house, they got fishing equipment and attempted to live the river life again. They were camping on an island when found.

Equally, the trains allowed Clinton to mobilize and answer weather events in surrounding towns. In December 1915, Maquoketa had a fire that caused $45,000 worth of damage and was spreading. Clinton sent six firemen and 2,000 feet of hose on a train to help save Maquoketa’s downtown. The mayor phoned Clinton at 2:30 and by 3:15, Clinton had sent a special train.

One thing that never seemed to happen properly in Clinton was a “funeral” crowd for the steam locomotive. While many funeral trains crisscrossed the Midwest, many a reader will remember watching a steam locomotive heading to Sterling to be scrapped. Interestingly enough, the Northwestern Steel in Sterling also used those old rail cars and steam locomotives to help steel in the scrap yards. They last used a locomotive in 1980. But no official recognition was to be had.

Clinton almost had a permanent locomotive showcase. In March 1954, the park board, led by WC Shannon, proposed saving a steam locomotive and putting it at Riverside Park. While it was received favorably, in April, the park board still had not found one for free. CNW offered to sell one for scrap, and the park board was still trying to get one from Milwaukee. The Milwaukee line told them that perhaps in 1955 they could donate a locomotive for Clinton’s 100th anniversary.

Clinton was one of many towns in Iowa fighting for a steam locomotive to keep the history alive. In June 1955, Davenport’s park board started looking for a steam locomotive. It appears that Davenport struck out on a deal as well. As late as 1962, the Davenport park board was still trying to acquire a steam locomotive. Supposedly, from the Burlington line, a steam locomotive was procured for 1963. It seems not to have happened. In 1966, the last steam locomotive on the Burlington line ran and was donated to Baraboo, Wisconsin. In 1959, the town of Burlington was to receive a steam passenger locomotive for their Railroad Station Park. Mason City received one as well. The home of C&NW and Rock Island Line seemingly did not.

But through the 150 years, one thing is true, Clinton turns out for trains. Join the city and thousands of others on Dec. 7 for another historic train crowd.

Matt Parbs is the director of Clinton’s Sawmill Museum.