High Trestle Trail History


At a Glance

Name: High Trestle Trail
Length: 31.4 Miles
Trail activities: Bike, Inline Skating, Wheelchair Accessible, Horseback Riding, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Boone, Dallas, Polk, Story
Surfaces: Asphalt, Concrete
State: Iowa

A Brief History

The history of the High Trestle Trail as a rail corridor dates to two different railroads: the popular trestle for which it is named was owned by the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul & Pacific (CMStP&P, a.k.a., the Milwaukee Road), whose main line to Omaha passed over the bridge; additionally, the route from east of Madrid to Ankeny was the property of the Chicago & North Western (C&NW). Both roads were once the largest in the Midwest, stretching from Chicago to Wyoming, and for the Milwaukee Road, even reaching Puget Sound. However, both corridors began with much more humble beginnings in 19th century and were only later acquired by the C&NW and Milwaukee Road. During that time, the Milwaukee was working hard to expand its network throughout the Midwest, including reaching the city of Omaha, and connected to Des Moines along the way. This was also the case for the C&NW, which operated the segment north and south of Ankeny as a secondary branch line into the capital. The Milwaukee segment was abandoned in the late 1970s, while the C&NW route passed into the hands of Union Pacific and then was abandoned in the mid-2000s to form today’s trail.

On the map, the High Trestle Trail resembles an upside-down “L”; the vertical segment north of Ankeny was the first to be built. The line’s earliest history dates to the Iowa & Minnesota Railway of 1866. The line was partially graded north of Des Moines but saw no actual rails laid. During 1870, the property passed into the hands of James Callanan, a Des Moines investor, banker, and businessman who renamed it the Des Moines & Minnesota Railroad (DM&M) and intended to push the line north to Ames to connect with the Chicago & North Western main line to Council Bluffs. The latter had already been in service since 1867. Further plans hoped to see the DM&M reach into Minnesota. After 4 years of construction, the 3-foot, narrow-gauge line was opened to Ames (37 miles) on July 29, 1874.

Unfortunately, the road was unable to make it much farther than Ames before bankruptcy hit and the property was acquired by the Toledo & North Western Railroad (a C&NW subsidiary) on May 28, 1879. Soon after, the line was converted to standard gauge (4 feet, 8 ½ inches), and by December 1880 had pushed as far north as Webster City. The DM&M merged with the T&NW in 1884, which itself disappeared into the Chicago & North Western. Throughout the rest of the 19th century and into the 20th, the C&NW continued to radiate throughout America’s Breadbasket, acquiring small systems and building new railroad to tap the region’s vast agriculture industry. In the process, the North Western became one of the classic “granger railroads,” so name for its dependence on agricultural freight. At its peak, the C&NW reached Chicago, Omaha, the Twin Cities, Duluth, Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, and into South Dakota and as far west as Lander, Wyoming.

For the Milwaukee Road, its reach across Iowa did not begin until the early 1880s. At this time the then Chicago, Milwaukee & St. Paul was purchasing smaller companies and building new railroad all over the state (it eventually would own two main lines across Iowa, the only railroad to ever do so). One of its main objectives was Omaha, an important terminal city that was already reached by rivals C&NW, Chicago Rock Island & Pacific (Rock Island), and Chicago Burlington & Quincy (Burlington). An important component in reaching the city was the narrow-gauge St. Louis, Des Moines & Northern Railway (StLDM&N) of 1880, which intended to link the capital with the nearby C&NW main line. By 1882, the StLDM&N connected Des Moines with Waukee to the west and Woodward, Madrid, and Boone to the north. In all, the railroad was 42 miles long. The company later went bankrupt and was renamed the Des Moines & Northern Railroad on November 22, 1889. Less than two years later, the property was again renamed the Des Moines, Northern & Western Railway when the DM&N merged with the much larger Des Moines & North Western (which connected Des Moines to Spirit Lake, some 178 miles to the north). During 1899, the system was absorbed into the CM&StP and became standard gauge.

The section from Woodward (known by the railroad as Woodward Junction) to Madrid became part of the Milwaukee Road’s main line to Omaha. It wasn’t until 1912 that the railroad constructed the first massive bridge over the Des Moines River. Completed in May 1913, the steel girder structure cost the railroad $675,000, sat 145 feet above the river, and was double-tracked in conjunction with the rest of the main line between Chicago and Manilla, Iowa. During its time in service, the bridge was a vital component as part of the Omaha main line. At Omaha, the railroad interchanged lucrative freight bound to and from Chicago with the Union Pacific, Santa Fe, and other roads. Additionally, one of its popular streamliners, the “Midwest Hiawatha,” regularly ran the route that was said to be virtually straight as an arrow as it darted across the Heartland. This was important for the Hiawatha, which typically cruised at 100 mph.

During 1972, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers replaced the Milwaukee’s bridge with a new 2,526-foot span (located 70 feet south of the original); the reason: the Saylorville Dam and Reservoir project 15 miles downstream. The bridge was completed during December 1973. Due to poor management, the Milwaukee Road fell into bankruptcy in 1977, and most of the Omaha main line was abandoned after 1979. The C&NW branch to Des Moines survived the turbulent 1970s and was still in use when that railroad was acquired by the Union Pacific (UP) in 1996. The UP ended freight service on the line in 2003 and sold it to the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation in 2005, setting the stage for today’s High Trestle Trail, which opened in 2008.

Attractions not far from the trail include the Boone & Scenic Valley Railroad in Boone; Iowa Trolley Park in Clear Lake; and Trainland U.S.A. in Colfax, featuring a large O-gauge layout. Additionally, if you don’t mind the drive across the state to Council Bluffs, you’ll find the popular Union Pacific Railroad Museum as well as the RailsWest Railroad Museum.

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