On Track With the Burlington

Several large railroad companies built successful lines across Iowa in the 1800s. The Burlington story is similar to that of the others and is an example of large railroad company growth in Iowa.

Railroad fever spread across the West in the 1850s. Railroads had replaced stagecoaches and freight wagons in the East. The people of Burlington, Iowa, caught railroad fever. The city was never the same.

In 1852 the city leaders of Burlington took action. They didn't have the money to build the railroad, but they found businessmen in the East who could. A group from Boston was willing to invest in the Burlington and Missouri River Rail Road. Their plan was to build a prosperous railroad across Iowa to the Missouri River.

The new railroad was called the B & M. The Federal Government wanted to help expand the railroads, so they started land grants around 1856. These grants allowed the Government to give land to the railroads and then the railroad could sell the land and use the money to construct the railroad. The B & M was one of the many companies that received land in Iowa from the Government. Some land was sold to settlers who would be doing business with the railroad. Another important source of income for the B & M was building towns. Town lots sold for more money than farmland.

Investors bought land in areas that would become towns on the B & M rail line. They knew the town lots would increase in value once the railroad arrived, and then they could sell their land at a good profit. The B & M platted towns along the main rail line. Most were built to serve as depots for the growing agricultural area.

Creston: More Than a Depot

Creston, however, was more than a depot. The B & M company located a large railroad shop and roundhouse there. Locomotive repairmen, mechanics and construction crews worked in the shops. Many people came to live in Creston and work on the railroad. By the 1890s over 1,000 people worked on the trains, in the roundhouse, in the yards or in the shop. The B & M donated land for city buildings and a church and built a public library.

In the 1890’s the payroll for Creston railroad workers totaled about $40,000. The workers spent their paychecks in Creston on rent, food, supplies and entertainment. All of this helped the town to grow.

Although Creston was built with the railroad as the major industry, farming became the major activity of the surrounding area. This helped Creston survive when the diesel engines replaced steam engines in the 1930s. The Creston shops and roundhouse were all designed for work on steam engines. When the steam engines were replaced, the amount of work in the shops declined and the number of men employed was reduced.

The Burlington

Through the hard work of many Iowans, including the railroad workers in Creston, the Burlington, which the B & M came to be called, was admired for its speedy and reliable service.

The U.S. Postal Service Hires the Burlington

The United States Postal Service noticed how reliable the Burlington was. In 1884 an official asked if the Burlington would be interested in carrying the U.S. mail from Chicago, through Iowa, to Council Bluffs. The problem was the mail train would have to leave Chicago at 3 a.m. and arrive in Council Bluffs in time to meet the next mail train west. The Burlington proved it could meet the deadline and this led to an 83-year contract between the U.S. Postal Service and the Burlington. Twice during that time competing railroads tried to beat the Burlington's time and take the contract with the postal service. No railroad was ever able to do it.

The Burlington and Air Brakes

The Burlington was not only a leading railroad as far as reliability and service were concerned, but it was also a leader in technology. Both the railroad and the city of Burlington played an important role in the development of air brakes for freight trains.

George Westinghouse had developed a series of air brakes for trains, each one an improvement over the one before it. The brakes for freight trains, however, were still unsatisfactory in 1886. In the summer of that year Westinghouse agreed to test his latest air brakes for freight trains on a hill in West Burlington, Iowa. Testing continued throughout that summer and by the end of the next summer, Westinghouse and the Burlington had developed a successful air brake for freight trains.

Susie, the Talking Sow, Educates Kids

After 1900 the Burlington officials took a special interest in some of their important customers, the farmers. The Burlington sponsored special trains designed to teach new farming techniques. One of these trains was the "Burlington Pig Crop Special," which traveled through southern Iowa in September of 1929.

Iowa State College created exhibits for the train that showed farmers how to protect their pigs from disease. One of the exhibits was Susie, the talking sow. Susie sat beside a graveyard of baby pigs and explained to farmers how their lives could have been saved with proper care. Many school children visited this educational train, and it was very popular everywhere it stopped.

The Zephyr

When cars and trucks began to carry both people and freight in the 1930s, the Burlington people knew they had competition. The company came up with the idea of putting an engine similar to that of a truck in a new lighter-weight locomotive. The entire train was made of stainless steel, a very light material. This new diesel-fueled train was called the Zephyr. The Zephyr sped across Iowa in three hours and 32 minutes, much faster than a car could travel at the time.

This speeding train signaled a new era in passenger train service. During this time passenger trains took Iowans to their destinations in comfort and luxury. After service was extended as far as California on the California Zephyr "vista domes,” passenger trains with glass tops, provided travelers with an exciting view of the countryside.

Even with the luxury of the Zephyrs, people usually preferred the convenience of their own cars. By the 1950s airplanes attracted those in a hurry. This competition forced the Burlington to run fewer and fewer passenger trains in the 1960s. Other railroad companies had similar problems, and many of the nation's railroads looked to the United States government for help.

Government to the Rescue

Together the government and the railroads formed the National Railroad Passenger Corporation, which took the name Amtrak —Am from America, tr from travel, and ack from track. Amtrak took over the passenger business for most railroads in 1971. The Burlington was one of the first railroads to become part of Amtrak.

The Burlington's long history of service in Iowa is a part of the state's transportation story. The railroad provided many Iowans with jobs and helped towns develop and grow. Even today people who ride Amtrak are riding on a system that the Burlington railroad helped to build.


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “On Track with the Burlington,” The Goldfinch 5, no. 2 (November 1983): 6-7.


Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.