Cedar Valley Nature Trail History


At a Glance

Name: Cedar Valley Nature Trail
Length: 69 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Benton, Black Hawk, Buchanan, Linn
Surfaces: Asphalt, Crushed Stone
State: Iowa

A Brief History

During the height of the interurban industry, the state of Iowa was home to the most mileage west of the Mississippi River, behind only Texas and California. This is interesting because most interurban roads were located in the eastern half of the country. Today’s Cedar Valley Nature Trail is located on the former right-of-way of the Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern Railway between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. The WCF&N grew into Iowa’s second largest interurban, operating a route of nearly 100 miles, unusual for a system of its kind since most were only a few miles long. It was established during the late 19th century and became successful due to the significant freight traffic it was able to develop. The road was eventually acquired by two major Class I railroads in the mid-1950s, and much of its network was abandoned after that time. Today, only short segments around Waterloo are still in use.

The history of the WCF&N begins in 1895, when the tiny Waterloo & Cedar Falls Rapid Transit Company was chartered. It was planned to connect Waterloo with nearby Cedar Falls, 8 miles away, and the electrically operated W&CFRT opened its route 2 years later in 1897. Within only a few years, the system was eying further expansion to the north, completing a 14-mile extension to Denver in 1901. Two years later, it established a nearby connection with the Chicago Great Western Railway (CGW), one of the Midwest’s notable railroads, serving much of Iowa as well as reaching Omaha, Chicago, Kansas City, and the Twin Cities. This interchange proved to be of vital importance to the W&CRFT. Most standard-line railroads, especially those in the East, balked at the thought of working with interurbans, believing that they were not only inferior but also took away potential freight and passenger traffic. However, the CGW was different and willing to work with these small systems.

In 1903, the W&CFRT reached nearby Sumner, Iowa, via trackage rights over the CGW. A year later, it was reorganized as the Waterloo, Cedar Falls & Northern Railway, whose nickname became the “Cedar Valley Road.” In 1910, the interurban discontinued trackage rights between Denver Junction and Waverly after it extended its electrified system to that town but continued scheduled passenger trains into Sumner over the CGW. From very early on, the WCF&N worked to build up a profitable freight and interchange business, one of the first to do so, and this effort paid off years later when the company was still in operation after most other interurbans began failing in the 1920s (the result of little freight coupled with declining passengers). During 1912, it looked south of Waterloo, opening 16.5 miles of new railroad to La Porte City that December and reached Urbana, another 20 miles to the southeast the following December. Finally, service was opened to Cedar Rapids on September 14, 1914. Here, the WCF&N interchanged with fellow interurban Cedar Rapids & Iowa City (the “Crandic Route” that is still in service today), as well as with notable railroads such as the Milwaukee Road, Chicago & North Western, Rock Island, and Illinois Central.

The entire interurban operated on either a 1,300- or 600-volt direct current system, where the latter was normally employed through the largest cities it served. In all, the WCF&N operated a network of 59.28 miles between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids as well as an additional 22.09 miles from Waverly to Waterloo. This went along with the aforementioned 8-mile branch to Cedar Falls. During peak years, the Cedar Valley Road operated eight trains daily along its main line, and even handled Pullman equipment through to Waterloo via Chicago in conjunction with the Chicago & North Western, one of the few interurbans to host such service. Surprisingly, passenger service on the system survived beyond World War II, although it had ended entirely before 1960. The first segment to lose service was the Waverly-Waterloo route, which was canceled in August 1954. Then, a fire at the WCF&N’s Waterloo roundhouse on October 31 of that same year destroyed all of its passenger equipment except for one car. This event expedited the end of remaining passenger services between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids (then down to only one run each way), which occurred on February 19, 1956.

According to George Hilton and John Due’s book The Electric Interurban Railways in America, incredibly, the original branch to Cedar Falls hosted passengers for the longest time, surviving until July 31, 1958. It was the last electrified service in Iowa of its kind. Undoubtedly, the road’s long life was due almost entirely to its dedicated freight service. It slumped during the Great Depression but rebounded to see revenues reach an all-time high in 1940. However, as with most interurbans, it was plagued with a high operating ratio, causing it to enter bankruptcy in 1944. It was able to weather this setback. In 1956, the WCF&N was sold to the Rock Island and Illinois Central (IC), which operated the property jointly as the Waterloo Railroad.

In 1957, remaining electrified freight service ended, replaced by a fleet of four Electro-Motive SW900 diesel switchers, #1-4. Soon after, the Waverly segment was abandoned, and in 1968, the Rock Island sold its share to IC, which subsequently began abandoning most of the former interurban through the 1980s. Today, the only remaining sections of the former WCF&N still in service are based around Waterloo and owned by Canadian National, which acquired the IC in 1998.

Visit railroad attractions, including the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone; Delmar Depot Museum in Delmar (inside the restored Milwaukee Road depot); Midwest Central Railroad that operates restored steam locomotives in Mt. Pleasant; and the official Union Pacific Railroad Museum in Council Bluffs.

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