Raccoon River Valley Trail

Iowa

At a Glance

Name: Raccoon River Valley Trail
Length: 88.1 Miles
Trail activites: Bike, Inline Skating, Fishing, Wheelchair Accessible, Snowmobiling, Walking, Cross Country Skiing
Counties: Dallas, Greene, Guthrie
Surfaces: Asphalt, Concrete
State: Iowa

A Brief History

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.

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.

Do you have Historical Photos of the Raccoon River Valley Trail?
Share with TrailLink!

Nearby Trails

Heart of the Warrior Trail

Iowa - 3 miles

The Heart of the Warrior Trail runs east-west through Waukee, a small city in the Greater Des Moines area. On its east end, the trail begins in Lions Park. ...

Clive Greenbelt Trail

Iowa - 7.9 miles

The Clive Greenbelt Trail meanders along the northern bank of Walnut Creek through the Des Moines suburbs of Windsor Heights and Clive. Because of the ...

Jordan Creek Trail

Iowa - 8.5 miles

The Jordan Creek Trail runs through the affluent Des Moines suburb of West Des Moines, linking houses and apartments to schools and recreational amenities. ...

Accordion

Colby Woods Trail

Iowa - 3 miles

Residents enjoy getting outside and onto this popular Urbandale trail thanks to its ease and connectivity to neighborhoods, parks and other trails. The ...

Walnut Creek Trail (Iowa)

Iowa - 3.2 miles

The Walnut Creek Trail serves as an important trail connector in West Des Moines. On its northern end, it seamlessly links to the Clive Greenbelt Trail, ...

Waveland Trail

Iowa - 1.7 miles

The Waveland Trail runs through the historic neighborhoods of Waveland Park, Waveland Woods and Waterbury in western Des Moines. Along the way, the trail ...

West Des Moines Levee Trail

Iowa - 1.2 miles

The West Des Moines Levee Trail was named in 2015 as one of the Top 10 most frequented trails in the Des Moines trail network. The trail is the connector ...

Great Western Trail (IA)

Iowa - 16.5 miles

The 16.5-mile Great Western Trail in central Iowa is built on a former rail bed for the Chicago Great Western, originally constructed in 1893. The trail ...

Trestle to Trestle Trail

Iowa - 3.7 miles

Polk County's Trestle to Trestle Trail stretches from Des Moines to Johnston, one of its northern suburbs. The 3.7 mile asphalt trail, which runs near ...

Bill Riley Trail

Iowa - 2.7 miles

The Bill Riley Trail delivers a short but immersive trail experience in a tranquil natural setting. The trail begins at the southern end of the Walnut ...

Inter-Urban Trail (IA)

Iowa - 1.3 miles

Des Moines' Inter-Urban Trail was opened in 1998 on the abandoned tracks of the Urbandale streetcar line. Residents and visitors of Iowa could ride the ...

Neal Smith Trail

Iowa - 26 miles

The Neal Smith Trail, which connects to the John Pat Dorrian Trail in downtown Des Moines, runs through a portion of Des Moines itself before leaving the ...

Explore by City

Explore by City

Explore by Activity

Explore by Activity

Log in to your account to:

  • View trail paths on the map
  • Save trails to your account
  • Add trails, edit descriptions
  • Share photos
  • Add reviews
OR

Register for free!

Join TrailLink (a non-profit) to view more than 30,000 miles of trail maps and more!
OR