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Mason City, Iowa: Iowa Traction Railroad

Description and History

Although the Iowa Traction Railroad (IATR) hasn't carried passengers since 1936, I've included it on this site because it is a link to a mode of electric passenger transport that was once common in the United States, especially in the Midwest (basically the region extending from Ohio westward to Iowa). The IATR is one of the last surviving electric interurban railroads in the U. S., and the only one that still uses electric locomotives to haul freight in regular service. (The East Troy Electric Railroad in Wisconsin also hauls freight, but only occasionally, on demand.)

The IATR extends about ten miles from Mason City westward to Clear Lake, running mostly as a single-track line next to the north side of Cerro Gordo county road B35 (19th Street SW in Mason City). A half-mile branch in Mason City connects it to the Iowa, Chicago & Eastern Railroad which runs parallel to the north. It also connects to the Union Pacific Railroad via a short interchange track at a crossing with that railroad. The IATR's office and shops are at the hamlet of Emery, about halfway between Mason City and Clear Lake on road B35.

The IATR began life as the Mason City & Clear Lake Railway on 4 July 1897. At first, it did good business carrying passengers to the resort town of Clear Lake, who arrived in Mason City on steam railroads. It even carried passenger cars switched from those railroads, to provide a one-seat ride. As automobiles became common, this traffic decreased, and passenger service ended in 1936.

However, like several other Iowa interurbans (and unlike most interurbans elsewhere), the MC&CL had a solid base of freight traffic, switching carload freight between steam (later diesel) railroads and online customers. In 1950, new owners changed the name from "Railway" to "Railroad." In 1961, the line changed hands again and was renamed the Iowa Terminal Railroad (ITR). The ITR acquired another nearby interurban, the Charles City Western Railway, which ended electric operations in 1968 after a tornado destroyed much of the overhead wire, and was abandoned completely some years later. Finally, in 1987 the remaining ex-MC&CL line was sold one more time, to David Johnson, its present owner, who gave it its present name.

The current working equipment consists of four small electric "steeplecab" locomotives built 1917-1923 by the Baldwin-Westinghouse partnership. The IATR's predecessors acquired them secondhand from other interurban railroads. I think these are the only locomotives of their type that still "work for a living," and are not part of a museum operation.

(not necessarily with same number)
50 1920-1948 Washington & Old Dominion Railway
1948-1956 Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway
1956-1963 Kansas City, Kaw Valley & Western Railway
1963- Iowa Terminal Railroad et seq.
51 1921-1940 Northeast Oklahoma Railroad
1940-1954 Cedar Rapids & Iowa City Railway
1954-1963 Kansas City, Kaw Valley & Western Railway
1963- Iowa Terminal Railroad et seq.
54 1923-1968 Iowa Southern Utilities, later Southern Iowa Railway
1968- Iowa Terminal Railroad et seq.
60 1917-1932 Youngstown & Ohio River Railroad
1932-1948 Union Electric Railway
1948- Mason City & Clear Lake Railway et seq.

Other Sites


Most of these pictures were taken 30-31 July 2003. Unfortunately, my visit came near the end of the annual two-week summer shutdown of the IATR's biggest customer, an AGP soybean processing plant, during which there is very little traffic. I did get to see one switching run on the first morning, taking some cars from the IC&E interchange to AGP.

A Brief Day's Work

This sequence shows a typical mode of operation using two locomotives. One pulls cars onto the main line from a spur track, then the other one pushes the cars into another spur.

[picture] Locomotive #60 returns from the IC&E interchange pulling a string of cars.

[picture #1] | [picture #2] #60 passes #54 which is waiting on the main line just east of the IC&E interchange track.

[picture] Now #54 takes over and pushes the cars westward along 19th Street SW...

[picture #1] | [picture #2] ...then across the road and onto the AGP spur, where another railfan is waiting.

[picture] Its brief job done, #54 rests with poles down on the AGP spur, in front of the soybean elevators.

[picture] Later in the day, looking in more or less the opposite direction from the preceding picture, we can see both #54 and #60, which is resting on the main line just west of the AGP spur.

[picture] At about the same time as the preceding picture, #50 was resting on the main line near the UP interchange. There must have been some more work after the morning run documented above, but I didn't see it.

Interchange Points

[picture #1] | [picture #2] A Union Pacific train passes the IATR crossing and interchange, next to 19th Street SW. (These views both look towards the east.)

[picture] A lone car waits at the end of the overhead wire at the IC&E interchange, in a view looking down the IC&E tracks from the west.

Emery Yard and Shop

[picture #1] | [picture #2] Two views of Emery from the east, one distant and one closer. Locomotive #51 is sitting on a siding.

[picture] The shop building.

[picture] The western entrance to the yard.

[picture] A closer view of #51.

[picture] This snowplow comes in handy during the winter.

The West End

[picture] Between Emery and Clear Lake, the line runs mostly alongside county road B35 through open farm country.

[picture #1] | [picture #2] Approaching Clear Lake, the line jogs to the north to run along the south side of Main Avenue, and passes the Iowa Trolley Park, which was not operating when I visited, but has since resumed operating some non-electric equipment.

[picture] The western end of track is underneath the I-35 overpass just outside Clear Lake. The Williams Pipeline Company here has not needed rail service during the last few years.

[picture] A bit west of the I-35 overpass, an asphalt strip in the old concrete pavement shows where the line once veered into the middle of Main Avenue as it continued to downtown Clear Lake. This trackage and a freight house in Clear Lake survived into the late 1960s. During 2004 this section of Main Avenue was repaved, so this small trace of the old trackage no longer exists.

The East End

[picture] Just east of the UP crossing is a siding protected by a semaphore signal.

[picture] Further east, the line crosses Federal Avenue (US 65), Mason City's main north-south artery. Heading east (towards the camera location), a track once curved to the north (right) to carry passenger service downtown along Federal Ave.

[picture] Continuing east along 19th Street SE, the line runs through a residential area. Here we are looking west from South Carolina Ave.

[picture] Just east of South Carolina Ave., the line curves to the north.

[picture #1] | [picture #2] This is the easternmost section of the line, looking south and north from 15th Street SE. The tracks finally disappear into shrubbery.

Car #727

Although the IATR does not operate scheduled passenger service, it does have a single passenger car, #727, which originally ran on the Chicago, North Shore & Milwaukee Railroad. After the CNS&M ended service in 1963, this car went to the Iowa Chapter of the National Railway Historical Society, which operated it on the Southern Iowa Railway; then, after the SIR was abandoned, it was bought in 1967 by the IATR's predecessor, the Iowa Terminal Railroad. Car #727 is occasionally used for chartered excursions.

All of the pictures below, except the first one, were taken on 4 June 2005, when I had the good fortune to observe a chartered excursion trip using #727.

[picture] In the carbarn at Emery in July 2003. The preceding winter, it had been returned from the Iowa Trolley Park, which had had custody of it for several years.

[picture #1] | [picture #2] At Ray Rorick Park, on the track that leads to the ICE interchange, waiting for a trip to begin.

[picture #1] | [picture #2] Heading west along 19th Street SW, between the AGP plant and Taft Avenue.

[picture] The crew changes ends at 19th and Taft for the return trip. On this excursion, #727 shuttled back and forth between Rorick Park and this point.

This page was last updated on 24 January 2008.

Presbyterian College > Academic Web Server > Jon Bell > Transit > (Cities | Types) > Mason City

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