The Way to Go

Today we take cars for granted. They are everywhere, most families own at least one car— usually more! Buses provide transportation in cities as well as for cross-country travel. Trucks deliver goods all over the country. We would not know how to get along without these forms of transportation.

Back in 1900 horses provided power for most travel. People usually thought in terms of ten-mile trips. If they wanted to go farther, they planned to take a train. Railroad depots were usually no more than ten miles from where a person lived. Trains came and went often. For example, in the town of Jefferson there were seven westbound and six eastbound trains daily.

But trains had their limitations. Railroad transportation began and ended at the depot. For trips between town and farm, for emergencies, or for pleasure riding, people used a buggy or a wagon, pulled by horses.

Then came the gasoline engine powered automobile. It solved the problem of faster than wagons, short-range transportation, and it bridged the gap between the railroad station and a traveler's final destination.

Iowans Love Their Cars

By 1922 Iowa was second (behind California) in the number of automoblies per person in the state. For every five Iowans there was one car. Even during the Great Depression (the 1920s and 1930s) when people had little money and many were losing their farms and businesses, automobiles remained in use. By then cars were considered necessary by those who owned them. Although the number of cars purchased decreased, people repaired their old cars and kept them running.

During the early 1940s the nation was at war. Passenger cars went out of production while factories turned out tanks, machine guns and airplanes for the armed forces. By the time the war was over in 1945, the cars people owned were five or six years old. Manufacturers could barely keep up with the sudden and increased demand. More people wanted and purchased cars each year.

By the 1960s the problems created by the large number of cars in use could not be ignored. The exhaust from cars polluted the air. Accident rates climbed as careless and drunken drivers continued to use the highways. In 1973 gasoline consumption was higher than the supply of gas. Gasoline shortages, combined with high prices for fuel, caused people to think about the way they used their cars. Some people decided to use other means of transportation when they could. The state of Iowa helped to finance 18 city bus systems to encourage more efficient fuel use.

Periodically, as gas prices go up or down, Iowans begin to think differently about their vehicles. Some may even think they wish they didn't have cars. But almost 100 years ago Iowans got their first taste of automobile travel, and it seems there's no turning back! 


  • Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., "The Way to Go,” The Goldfinch 4, no. 2 (Spring 2000): 2-6.