11 February 2010

The Bellevue and Cascade

A couple of weeks ago, I picked up the book 'Iowa's Last Narrow Gauge Railroad', which turned out to be a neat 'photo album' about the Bellevue and Cascade branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad.

I grew up about 20 miles southeast of Bellevue, Iowa, and I've driven through most of the places the railroad served in that part of the state-but I didn't know that rail line ever existed. The branch connected the town of Cascade, Iowa with the Milwaukee standard gauge line and the Mississippi River at Bellevue, with intermediate stops in the hamlets of Fillmore, Zwingle, Washington Mills, and La Motte.

Cascade at approximately the turn of the 19th-20th Century.

Bellevue at about the same time. At the center of the photo the B&C line and watertower can just be seen.

The line was built in 1880 as a narrow gauge (3 feet between rails) line. Narrow gauge lines were considered to be easier to engineer (smaller cuts, tunnels, and bridges) and more economical to run than a standard gauge (4 feet 8.1/2 inches) line. And the corridor between Cascade and Bellevue has some rugged terrain to deal with-a lot of hills, gullies, and bluffs typical of the region.

Unfortunately, narrow gauge was found to have some drawbacks (higher wheel loading and difficulty with interchanging with standard gauge, to name two). Freight had to be transferred manually from the Milwaukee standard boxcars to the narrow gauge B&C boxes. Still, Cascade and points east had a rail connection to the national transportation network, and the towns on the line thrived.

In 1880, the 36 mile trip from Cascade to Bellevue could be made in the comfort of a heated passenger coach in 3 hours and 15 minutes-or not quite 12 mph, less since the trains stopped in three towns along the way. I suppose in those days that was a blistering speed, and it does beat walking or getting the team hitched up to a wagon or cutter and riding along the rudimentary roads of the era.

Typical power for the Bellevue and Cascade branch-light narrow gauge steam engines (courtesy Stuart Kurth).

A view of the La Motte depot. Note the watertower and windmill for the pump, and the livestock cars (livestock was a staple freight on the line) on the spur.

The Bellevue and Cascade soldiered through the 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, and 1920s, running two (and sometimes four) mixed passenger/freight trains per day-rain, snow, or shine-hauling the livestock and goods produced by the local farmers, providing access to the wider world for the residents of the area, and bringing in mail and freight from points far and near.

By the 1920s, though, automobiles, trucks, and improved paved roads began to impact the region. US Highway 151 connected Cascade to the bigger city of Dubuque, cutting what was a four hour auto trip to less than an hour. The little railroad couldn't compete with the newer modes of transportation. The 3 hour and 15 minute trip in 1880 still took 3 hours and 15 minutes in 1930. A combination of improved transport, the chronic poor financial condition of the parent Milwaukee Road, and the Great Depression, did the line in, and in 1936 the track was pulled up.

Today it's hard to see exactly where the railroad ran. As I stated earlier, I didn't even know it existed, but the more I've read about the B&C, the more I find it interesting. It was a simpler time back then. Yes, they didn't have a lot of conveniences, instant communication, or advanced medicine in those days. One wonders if their quality of life wasn't better in some ways, though. People were more connected with friends and neighbors back then, it appears. There wasn't the great need to accumulate stuff in the name of a better life. And the arrival of the daily train, with goods for the town's general store, mail and parcels for the residents, and faces from other towns (even if that other town was 5 miles down the tracks), was an event to get excited about.

About 30 years ago, a carpenter from Bellevue built a copy of the B&C's single caboose, which is in use by a tourist railroad in southeast Iowa:

This is a combine/caboose. The conductor would have done his work back here, some baggage and mail could be carried and processed, and even a passenger or two might have caught a ride. Combine cars were prevalent on small railroads and lightly populated branch lines.

Hope y'all enjoyed this bit of local color. Perhaps for some of you, this isn't all that interesting, but I grew up in a railroad family and find short lines and local history fascinating. Small railroads do a lot of work with not a lot of people and they are an integral and vital part of the locales they serve-more so in the days before expressways and the 'Net.

yankeedog out.


  1. Interesting YDog, at least they chose narrow gauge for a reason, down here every one picked a different one.

  2. Interesting post. My husband and I will be moving to Bellevue in about a year and are trying to soak up local history and culture in advance.

  3. sounds to me like you really need to buid yourself a model railroad YD. Why don't you model this one?

  4. Bangar-Where ya been, troop? Yes, here in the States there was a plan to make most of the railroads easy to interchange with each other, though there were plenty of narrow gauge lines in remote areas. Since Australia didn't start out as a nation, but as separate states, no one thought about rail interoperability between states. I hear that's still a problem there.

    Julienne-Hey! Welcome to the area! I think you'll like Bellevue-it's a pretty town-quiet, but close to Dubuque for 'big-city' amenities and shopping.

    Mick-Hey, how ya doin'? Actually, Model Railroader had a magazine about 25 or so years ago of various layouts. Someone beat me to it!

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