What an old depot photo can teach us

WEBSTER CITY — Recently, a friend, knowing of my interest in Webster City’s railroad history, emailed me an old photograph. As with too many old photos, there is no indication as to who took the photo, when it was taken, or, most intriguingly, why.

The location, though, is unmistakable; it’s the Illinois Central depot in Webster City. The owner, a serious student and collector of old photos, informs me this “is an albumen print mounted on cardstock, a type of print very popular between 1860 and 1890.”

Developed by Frenchman Louis Blanquart-Evard, this process, which uses silver and egg white, resulted in a sharper image, and made printing photos on paper practical and affordable for the first time. I’m told that, judging by the clothing people in the photo are wearing, the date of the photo is likely sometime in the decade 1890-1900.

We must clarify this is not the depot preserved in Wilson Brewer Park, but the one that preceded it. When the IC first reached Webster City — its first train arrived from the east to great local fanfare on April 6 1869 — railroads were much in the national news. Just a month later, on May 10, 1869, the famed golden spike was driven in Utah to mark completion of the first transcontinental railroad.

Four more railroads would be built across the continent from east to west, but the original route continues in service today, passing through Boone and Ames, and remains a busy, vital artery for freight traffic 154 years after its completion.

Let’s take a closer look at this photo, for it has much to tell us.

First, the depot itself is a combination freight and passenger station; witness the high-level loading platform, the large freight door on the upper-level platform, and the barrel and wooden crate next to the door. These are “less-than-carload” shipments, small amounts of cargo put into a box car carried at the front of every local freight train exclusively for such shipments. The cargo would be loaded, or unloaded, while trains stopped on the main track in front of the depot, taking only a moment or two, and so, unlikely to delay other trains.

Once on board, a brakeman would arrange them in station order to facilitate unloading at the correct destination. In 1890, such service was available to about 50,000 stations in the USA, Canada and Mexico.

Next, look at the four well-dressed gentlemen on the platform. Next to them are two containers with a better grade of packaging than those near the freight door. This may mean they’re express parcels, time-sensitive goods that traveled at premium rates in express cars of passenger, not freight, trains.

In this era, nearly every passenger train would have had an express car. There were once several competing express carriers, but after 1918, express shipments from Webster City were handled by the Railway Express Agency, a separate company from the railroads themselves. The service was fast and reliable, and Webster Citians greeted the arrival of the “express man,” in his smart uniform, and in a distinctive red and green wagon — later trucks — with the same excitement and anticipation as UPS, Fed Ex or Postal Service deliveries today. Webster City factories, retail merchants, schools and medical offices all relied on express service as late as the early 1960s.

At far right, we see canvas sacks on the horse-drawn wagon, probably the U.S. Mail, just arrived from the post office. The local post office received and delivered sacks of mail from and to all passenger trains serving Webster City in 1890. Outbound mail for IC trains was sorted for destinations to either the west or east. Once aboard railway post office cars, mail was sorted for individual stations enroute by employees of the post office itself. If, for instance, a letter was addressed to someone in Blairsburg, the next station east on the IC mainline, the clerk had to be fast to sort and make it ready to be put off the train there. If, for whatever reason, he missed putting the letter off at Blairsburg, it would be taken off at the next station, and returned on the first available westbound train.

The post office regularly tested railway clerks for efficiency. A minimum score of 96% in sorting accuracy at a pre-determined speed was required to continue holding the very desirable, well-paying jobs.

Now, look at those wires entering the second floor near the corner window. Although US railroads began using telephones in 1879, the wires in the photo are almost certainly telegraph lines. One line would have been reserved exclusively for the local railroad telegrapher to reach the company’s dispatcher. Dispatchers, located in Fort Dodge and Waterloo, would send orders for train movement to operators in Morse code, who then wrote them out, in English, by hand on thin paper, bundled and handed them to engineers and conductors of passing trains. Such orders authorized train movements and kept them from running into each other.

Telegraph operators had to know how to quickly and accurately use Morse code. The best could transmit as fast as 90 words a minute, although 40 wpm was the usual standard needed to secure railroad employment. “Learning the code” was one of the fastest ways an ambitious lad could get off the farm and “go railroading” in 19th century America. It was a passport to moving, and living, wherever one chose, as railroads expanded across the North American continent.

Other telegraph lines in the photo are for “commercial” traffic, which Western Union Company, the firm owning the lines themselves, provided for the general public to send urgent messages. If, say, a baby was born in Webster City and the proud parents wished to send the news to folks in Chicago faster than by mail, a telegram was the only real option.

The IC’s agent on duty, and they were there 24 hours a day 365 days a year, would ask telegraph patrons to write out their message on a blank form, compose and send the message by Morse code, and collect the fee due once the agent at the other end confirmed arrival.

Before Western Union opened an uptown, storefront office in Webster City, folks came down to the depot to send or receive telegrams. For an additional fee, and a hoped-for tip, a boy on a bicycle would deliver telegrams to residents inside the city limits during business hours.

Prior to newspapers having their own news service telegraph or telephone lines, local reporters made the depot part of their daily beat, hoping to be the first to get the news, and print it ahead of competitors. The Associated Press, founded in 1846, was a “wire” service by virtue of its telegraphic bulletins to newspapers across the country. These dispatches of world and national news were received several times daily at railroad stations nationwide. The speed of the telegraph transformed the timeliness of news in remote, rural places like Webster City.

The only train control system on the Illinois Central Iowa Division of 1890 were signals such as those in front of, and extending above the roofline of, the depot. The signal arms in the photo are set at “stop,” suggesting a train is due. The signal blades, painted red, could be seen about a mile away in good daytime conditions. At night kerosene lamps on top of the signal, displayed red or green, respectively, to govern train movements.

Electricity was still new in Webster City in 1890, but a single electric light has been installed on the corner of the depot. The IC knew electricity was the future, but the lights were expensive, and subject to failure in windy or stormy weather. Just in case, an old, reliable pitsch gas lantern next to the door passengers used to enter the depot, remained to ensure safety after dark.

The 19th century saw rapid development of ever-better photographic processes, equipment and results. From about 1850, tintypes, images printed on thin sheet metal substrates, were state-of-the-art. Ten years later saw the advent of wet-plate photography. At that time, exploration and settlement of the west was in full swing, so many scenic wonders of that vast region — Yellowstone’s geysers, Yosemite’s Falls and Grand Canyon — were captured on wet-plate apparatus.

Two further developments made photography affordable for more Americans, about 1880, dry-plate processing, and, in 1888, the first practical roll-film camera, the remarkable Kodak Number One. The simple box cameras used film, also made by Kodak, to record a single image in each frame. This technology, in its essential form, was the principal means of photography for most people, until 1986 when Canon launched the first practical digital camera. That, and rapid development of cell telephones, turned everyone into a photographer.

With all we know, or can deduce about this wonderful old photo, much remains a mystery or left to the imagination. I’m just grateful some unknown person had the presence of mind to aim a camera at what was seemingly ordinary, everyday activity at the depot on that long-ago day.


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