Railroad memorial

Rock Island Railroad Celebration

What has been referred to as “the largest celebration Pocahontas has ever seen” dates back to September 4th, 1900, which was the celebration of a railroad finally making its way through town. Pocahontas was the last county seat in Iowa to get a railroad, and it happened during a year when Iowa was fifth overall for railroad mileage among the United States.

The Rock Island line, one of the richest railroads in the country, made its way from Gowrie to Pocahontas in July 1990. Ninety-three hundred feet of railroad tracks were laid in Pocahontas on July 25, 1990, the day before the long-awaited railroad finally arrived. The track was laid on the train depot grounds at 5:30 PM on the 25th, with the train arriving in the early morning of the 26th from Palmer. Anthony Larson of Palmer received the honor of being the first passenger to ride the railroad into town. 

The railroad track arrived near the height of Pocahontas County’s population, with over 15,000 residents in the county. The railroad arriving in town was viewed as a pivotal moment for the community, as it now connected them to great opportunities. It was viewed almost as a matter of life and death to secure a railroad route in Pocahontas, considering how the current travel infrastructure we’re used to today weren’t in existence back then. Celebration plans began booming in August once the railroad was officially finished after reaching Laurens. September 4th was selected as the day to execute that grand celebration, and eleven committees were formed to create the largest celebration possible.

An estimated 5,000 to 8,000 people attended the Railroad Celebration, arriving in carriages, buggies, by horseback, on hayracks, bicycles, and of course, by train. There were a wide variety of festivities throughout the day that started at 10:30 in the morning, involving a barbeque of roast ox, ball games featuring the best teams around, a collection of races including greased pig races, speeches led by important leaders to the day like Mayor F.E. Hronek, and parades. Perhaps most interestingly, it was noted that the County Clerk was called to issue four marriage licenses that day. As the day entered the evening, the celebration carried on strong with a balloon accession, wrestling match, and a magnificent fireworks display. The young folks kept the night alive by dancing at the Bowery in the park and at Woodman Hall through the early morning hours.

To put on a celebration of this size and stature would be quite the feat, as noted by the July 10th 1980 edition of the Pocahontas Record-Democrat. Although the Rock Island Railroad is no longer in town, the reputation of the Railroad Celebration lives on to this day. Portions of the elevated ground where the tracks once laid are still noticeable in parts of Pocahontas and Palmer today.

For more information about the Rock Island Railroad line, check out this blog on the memorial site located in Pocahontas. And for more history from Pocahontas County, read about the Lidice Massacre Memorial or the Rise, Fall, and Return of the Iowa Bison on our blog!

History & Heritage Posted June 8, 2023

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