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Railfan Extra Board - September 2010

The Iowa Traction remains the sole example of electric interurban freight in the Midwest, and quite possibly the last operation of its kind in America. Here we find motor No. 50 (built 1920 for the Washington & Old Dominion Railway) switching out the railroad's main customer, the AGP soybean plant in Mason City, Iowa in March 2009.

The Iowa Traction remains the sole example of electric interurban freight in the Midwest, and quite possibly the last operation of its kind in America. Here we find motor No. 50 (built 1920 for the Washington & Old Dominion Railway) switching out the railroad's main customer, the AGP soybean plant in Mason City, Iowa in March 2009.

Iowa Traction: It's electric! (Boogie-Woogie-Woogie)

By Otto M. Vondrak/Photos by the Author

Instead of time-consuming run-around movies, the crews keep motors spotted at strategic locations, and use them as needed. Two motors are working the Union Pacific interchange in Mason City on March 12, 2009.
Instead of time-consuming run-around movies, the crews keep motors spotted at strategic locations, and use them as needed. Two motors are working the Union Pacific interchange in Mason City on March 12, 2009.

Electric railroads once criss-crossed the nation, from busy city centers to rural farm country. It was common for even the smallest of cities to have some sort of electric railway as a sign of growth and status. The period following World War I was not kind to the trolleys and interurbans, as equipment and infrastructure began to show their age. By the 1920s, many electric railways were in slow retreat, and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 hastened the end for many smaller lines.

A hearty handful of electric lines managed to survive the period between the wars, notably the South Shore and North Shore lines in the midwest, the sprawling Pacific Electric system of Los Angeles, and select streetcar systems in other major cities. While passenger traction was dwindling, electric freight was becoming downright scarce. Into the 1970s, aside from a couple of rare examples of mainline electrification, the old freight interurban was making curtain calls across the country.

The Iowa Traction can trace its roots to the Mason City & Clear Lake Railway of 1897. Initially the line did a brisk business carrying passengers from the steam roads at Mason City to the lakefront resort at Clear Lake. After 1936, the line was freight only. A strong base of customers kept the line alive with carload and transfer freight over the years. The line changed hands in 1961 and became the Iowa Terminal, and continued to soldier on with a fleet of Baldwin-Westinghouse steeple-cab electrics of various pedigree. In 1987, the line was sold to railroader Dave Johnson and renamed the Iowa Traction. Smart management ensured steady customers for this classic traction line. The Iowa Traction remains one of the only remaining examples of trolley freight in the 21st century.

Railfan Extra Board

Some of my friends did not understand my excitement when I told them I was traveling to the middle of Iowa at the tail end of a bitterly cold winter season to photograph this interesting operation. My simple explanation of "It's electric!" did not seem to sway them. Fortunately, I traveled with two railfan buddies (one who flew in from California, the other from upstate New York) who shared my enthusiasm. We spent a great couple of days getting to know the Iowa Traction crews and observing the daily operations of this fascinating line.

The sounds of electric railroading are unique: The whine and whirr of gears against electric motors, the twang and sway of trolley wire, and the occasional snap and spark of ozone from the contact. Even though the equipment is museum vintage (the oldest locomotive on the roster was built in 1917, the newest in 1923), the Iowa Traction is a working railroad in every sense of the word. How many railroads can say they are getting their money's worth from locomotives approaching their ninetieth year of service? While this style of railroading may be largely extinct, one can still enjoy the sights and sounds of electric freight in the rolling cornfields of northern Iowa.

 
 

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