The Raccoon River Valley Trail has a rich history with railroads since it used two different former corridors running northwest of Des Moines, Iowa. The first section, opened to the public in the late 1980s, uses what was once owned by the classic Milwaukee Road between Clive (west of Des Moines) and Jefferson. The second segment is much newer, opened in 2011-2012, and using the former rail bed of the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway between Waukee and Perry. Both corridors were built in the late 19th century and saw rapidly declining use by the early 1980s, resulting in sections being abandoned in the succeeding years, a process that continued through the mid-2000s.
Many moons ago, during the height of the railroad industry, Iowa’s capital city of Des Moines was served by virtually every major Midwestern railroad, which included the Chicago Great Western; Chicago, Burlington & Quincy; Minneapolis & St. Louis; Milwaukee Road; Rock Island; Wabash; and Chicago & North Western. There were also two smaller systems that reached the city: the Fort Dodge, Des Moines & Southern Railway and the Des Moines & Central Iowa, both once interurbans. For its part, the Milwaukee Road once had two entries into Des Moines; one of these lines now makes up part of the trail.
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The route was originally known as the Des Moines, Adel & Western Railroad, a three-foot, narrow-gauge system that opened its first 7 miles between Waukee and Adele on October 15, 1878. By 1879, service had been extended an additional 22 miles to Panora. A year later, the company was reorganized as the Des Moines North-Western Railroad. In 1881, it was acquired by the Wabash, St. Louis & Pacific Railway, which was a Jay Gould (famed tycoon) property that eventually became the Wabash Railroad. The Des Moines-North Western was able to push rails to Fonda by 1882, a distance of 99 miles, with plans to reach Spirit Lake farther north. However, lack of funds precluded this endeavor, and the only other notable growth during Wabash’s involvement with the property was its access to Des Moines over the St. Louis, Des Moines & Northern east of Clive. This trackage was later jointly operated by both railroads. Following a series of name changes in 1891, the system became known as the Des Moines Northern & Western Railway, at which time it was converted to standard gauge. In 1899, the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (Milwaukee Road) gained control of the railroad and eventually completed its original charter to Spirit Lake.
As one of the classic Midwestern granger railroads (that is, a system that derived significant revenue from agricultural freight), and with a blanket of branch lines throughout Iowa, Minnesota, South Dakota, Wisconsin, and northern Illinois, this part of the Milwaukee Road saw the type of traffic one might expect from agriculture and general merchandise to interchange traffic at Des Moines. Passenger service on the line survived until the early 1950s. Following the Milwaukee Road’s bankruptcy in 1977, it greatly reduced its entire system shortly thereafter. In 1982, the Chicago & North Western (C&NW) acquired sections of the Milwaukee’s former Spirit Lake–Des Moines line. The C&NW owned it just briefly before selling the line to a private company, which planned to use the tracks to serve a new coal-fired power plant. Their plans fell through, and the corridor was abandoned later that decade.
The newer section of the Raccoon River Valley Trail was actually constructed first. Its history begins on September 1, 1853, chartered as the Keokuk, Fort Des Moines & Minnesota Rail Road to connect its namesake cities with the Gopher State via Fort Dodge. Construction began a few years later, heading northwest of Keokuk. In 1857, they reached Bentonsport, and by 1861, service was opened to Eddyville via Ottumwa. In 1864, the company’s name was changed to the Des Moines Valley Rail Road; two years later, trains rolled into Des Moines because construction was halted during the Civil War. The line north of Des Moines took a few years to construct, much to the chagrin of local Fort Dodge business leaders and citizens. Work began on this segment in the late 1860s and was opened to Fort Dodge by December 1870.
In 1873, the road fell into bankruptcy and was split up; the section south of Des Moines was renamed the Keokuk & Des Moines Railway, while the northern section was known as the Des Moines & Fort Dodge Railroad. For nearly 15 years the DM&FtD remained independent and was able to construct an extension during this time between Fort Dodge and Ruthven before the Rock Island leased the property in 1887 as a link with its planned extensions into northwestern Iowa. Enter the Minneapolis & St. Louis Railway (M&StL), chartered in 1870 to connect the Twin Cities and Minnesota with the rich agricultural industry to the south. It grew quickly over the next 20 years, and its entry into Des Moines was thanks to a slick business maneuver. M&StL, through the Hawley syndicate, was quick on its feet and leased the DM&FtD on January 1, 1905, the day after the Rock Island’s control ended. Apparently, the railroad’s executives had not been paying attention, and the move gave the M&StL an excellent addition to its system.
The M&StL, also remembered as “The Peoria Gateway” and “Tootin’ Louie,” was a modest railroad, reaching Peoria, much of central Iowa, parts of Minnesota, and as far west as Leola, South Dakota. At its peak size during the early 20th century, it stretched just over 1,600 miles. It was never able to grow quite as large as originally envisioned and remained an underdog within the region it served. During November 1960, it was taken over by the Chicago & North Western, which slowly abandoned most of the railroad over the next 30 years. In the 1980s, much of the M&StL’s Des Moines to Fort Dodge line was let go north of Perry, while the rest survived through the C&NW’s acquisition by Union Pacific in 1995. Finally, this too was abandoned around 2005 and incorporated into the trail system.
Railroad attractions include the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone, Delmar Depot Museum in Delmar (inside the restored Milwaukee Road depot), Midwest Central Railroad (restored steam locomotives) in Mt. Pleasant, and the official Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs.