The two earliest forms of transportation in Iowa were on foot and by water. Before the western expansion into Iowa by explorers, pioneers and settlers, Native Americans moved from place to place on foot, on horseback or on water using dugout and bark canoes and skin boats.
Rivers in Iowa were an important part of life for native peoples. They relied on them for fresh water for cooking and drinking. River valleys were also a rich source of food because the Native Americans would hunt animals as they came to the rivers to drink. Along with animals, the Native Americans would harvest plants around the rivers as another source of food.
Like Iowa’s native people, the earliest explorers came up the Mississippi River in flatboats, keelboats or rafts. Early settlers came to Iowa carrying all their possessions using these same routes along Iowa rivers. Others arrived on foot, on horseback, or covered wagons. Once they reached river towns along the Mississippi River, settlers relied on animals, particularly horses. Oxen teams were used to carry people, possessions and goods to the new land too. Carts, sleighs and buggies of all kinds were used during Iowa’s settlement.
In 1835 Captain Stephen Watts Kearny and the First Regiment of Dragoons blazed a trail through Iowa, following the course of the Des Moines River. The Dragoons were a lightly armed cavalry organization authorized by Congress in 1833. The term “Dragoon” originated in England where it applied to certain cavalry forces. The name was taken from the word “dragon,” a short, long-bored musket or carbine that was carried by these early soldiers. The Dragoons played an important part in opening Iowa frontier, establishing what are now known as the “Dragoon Trails.” Today you can travel this scenic 200-mile corridor along the Des Moines, Boone, and Raccoon rivers by following the Dragoon Trail signs.
Throughout the history of Iowa, river towns and riverboats played key roles in both transportation and economic development. However, successful travel on Iowa rivers other than the Mississippi depended on high water levels. Flatboats and barges carried supplies and navigated the Missouri River until the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. In 1857 there were 46 boats operating on the Missouri River. However, this waterway was difficult to navigate and obstructed by many snags.
At times in Iowa's history other rivers including the Des Moines, Iowa, Cedar and Skunk, supported a variety of boats to carry goods and supplies mostly down Iowa’s interior rivers. These services were largely dependent on the water level of a river at any given time and were not generally very reliable.
Stagecoaches were used in Iowa to meet the need for mail delivery to western settlements. Equipped with seats for passengers, stagecoaches became a popular means of passenger travel. The first regular stagecoach line in Iowa began operating in 1838 and ran twice weekly from Burlington through Fort Madison and Montrose to St. Francesville, Missouri—an 18 hour trip of 45 miles. The standard fare was "ten cents, per mile and a fence rail.” The male passengers used the fence rails for removing “sloughed-down” coaches. Prior to the postal laws of 1845, the mail rate on the stage for a folded single sheet delivered more than 400 miles was 25 cents. The first stages were described as “wagons without springs and with white muslin tops, drawn by two horses.”
Towns near stagecoach stops benefited financially due to increased demand for lodging, meals and livery stable and blacksmith services. Despite its popularity, many problems plagued travel by stage. Mud and plank roads, winter blizzards, prairie fires and robberies added up to discomfort and long delays. Stages gave way to the railroad or the “Iron Horse” when smaller communities obtained rail connections. The last coach of the Western Stage Company left Des Moines on July 1, 1870
- Iowa Department of Transportation. Discovering Historic Iowa Transportation Milestones. Des Moines, Iowa: March 2000.