Now arriving: Webster City railroad history

The five builders of Webster City’s railroads are the topic of this year’s first history lecture at Mulberry Center Church

-Messenger file photo
Ken Lundy is pictured during a visit to the Depot Museum at Wilson Brewer Historic Park in 2023 when he delivered an information board focused on railroads.

WEBSTER CITY — Think you know your Webster City history? Then surely you know the name Walter Willson, local landowner and politician. Webster City’s best-known hotel and one of its streets are named for him, too.

But, is there more to his story?

Jacob Funk may be on your radar. Successful banker and landowner, there’s a street on the city’s west side named after him.

John Duncombe, namesake of the erstwhile village just up the Illinois Central from Webster City. Check.

John Blair?

If you’re drawing a blank, and we bet many of you are, you’re going to have to come to the lecture to hear his story. We just don’t have room here to do him justice. Oh yes, Blairsburg was not named after him. Sorry.

The fifth of Webster City’s railroad builders is one everyone knows: Abraham Lincoln. In the 1850s, while still an attorney and before running for president, he represented the Illinois Central in more than 50 cases.

But Mr. Lincoln?

Webster City?

Dear readers, this is history, not speculation. Come. Listen. Be amazed and entertained.

Yes, there is a Lincoln connection.

Ken Lundy is a self-described amateur historian and railroad enthusiast. A Webster City native, he’s done extensive, original research for his presentation “The Entrepreneurs & Intrigue Behind Webster City’s Railroads.”

It is the first program in this year’s series of free lectures at Mulberry Center Church in Wilson Brewer Park, Webster City.

This is local history at its best.

You’ll learn the facts, of course, but more interestingly, the intrigue you see in the title. Take our word: It’s not there for nothing.

It’s no coincidence the presentation is taking place on May 11, National Train Day, 2024. Celebrated the Saturday closest to May 10, the day, in 1869, when the first transcontinental railroad was completed at Promontory Point, Utah; it’s a day everyone can celebrate their own love of trains.

Invented to serve the coalfields and mills of northeastern England, the earliest railways were primitive affairs. Horse-drawn coal cars were pulled over iron rails crudely fastened to wooden crossties. Capacities were low, and so were speeds.

From that humble beginning, now more than 225 years later, railroads remain important haulers of freight in nearly every country of the world. In a hand-full of them, bullet trains travel as fast as 275 mph. Very few inventions remain relevant enough to reach their 100th anniversary, let alone surpassing their 200th. No wonder we’re still talking about railroads, and celebrating National Train Day.

Since the beginning, railroads have evoked admiration, and even wonder, from onlookers.

Ken Lundy is one of them.

We asked Lundy how he became a railroad fan. “Not really sure,” was the reply. Could the location of the family home on Wood Street half a block from the I.C. mainline have been the start of it? Lundy remembers, “Whenever I heard a train whistle, I just sort of naturally ran toward the tracks.”

In 1950s America, trains had everything a young boy wanted. They were big, noisy, powerful, and, out in the country, fast. According to Lund, “Once you’re hooked, you’re hooked.”

More than 50 years later he still is.

America’s railroads looked toward a bright future in the years just after WWII. It was widely acknowledged the nation’s railroads played a crucial role in winning the war. Heavy freight trains pounded the rails day and night to deliver the critical goods needed by both U.S. and Allied forces: an unending stream of goods produced by what Eisenhower called “the arsenal of democracy.” At the peak of wartime demand, 1944, more than 72% of all freight traffic moved by rail. Similarly, more than 75% of all commercial passenger movement during the war was by rail, including an almost unbelievable 97% of all military personnel.

At some point, Lundy discovered a world of railroading beyond Wood Street. Just a dozen blocks to the east, in central Webster City, stood the I.C. depot, C&NW depot, C&NW interlocking tower, the busy tracks serving the Franklin Laundry and Morton Foods plants, and “public team tracks,” where freight cars were switched for loading and unloading by firms that didn’t have private spurs of their own.

Seemingly everywhere the young Ken Lundy looked in Webster City, he saw trains at work.

I.C. passenger trains handled large volumes of mail and express traffic, as well as passengers destined to Waterloo, Dubuque, Rockford, Illinois and Chicago to the east, and Fort Dodge, Storm Lake, Cherokee and Sioux City to the west. Downtown merchants still received merchandise by express or less-than-carload freight service. Local hatcheries — and there were several — shipped live baby chicks to markets across the country.

The I.C. switched carloads of coal into the city of Webster City’s electric utility plant. The great Chicago catalog merchants — Sears, Wards, Alden’s and Spiegel — all shipped most orders by the Railway Express Agency. Long before FedEx or UPS, it was the familiar red and green Railway Express truck that pulled up to your house. And the “express man” not only delivered; he would pick-up shipments at your front door as well. No need to go downtown to the depot. Western Union delivered telegrams all over town.

Lundy might have already been hooked, but his love of trains was destined to intensify.

“My dad, Harold Lundy, was warehouse foreman at Brin’s Furniture store. After school, I’d go downtown, wait for dad to get off work, and we’d ride home together. The store which for years advertised its location as “around the corner on Seneca Street” was also close to a railroad, this time the Chicago & Northwestern.

“Brin’s received most of its new furniture by the boxcar load, probably from factories in the southeast where most furniture was, and still is, manufactured.”

Now … picture the nightly eastward passage of Illinois Central’s lordly eastbound Hawkeye, due to make its brief stop in Webster City just about 10:30 p.m. The atmosphere on the depot platform was almost magical. First, the locomotive headlight appeared far to the west, (IC passenger engines had two headlights, one fixed, the other, a sweeping Mars Light piercing the gloom. As the train whistled for Grove Street crossing, people hurried out of the depot onto the platform. The heavy express wagons were trundled out to the exact place the express and baggage cars would come to rest, all under cover of night and with steam from underneath the cars swirling everywhere.

But Lundy and his father weren’t at the depot just to see the train come in. Oh, no. They were there on business.

“My mother raised Siamese kittens and sold them to a pet shop in Chicago. Dad and I took them down to the depot in baskets, where they were put aboard the express car on the eastbound Hawkeye. Dad slipped the expressmen a few dollars to ensure the cats were fed and watered on the way to Chicago.”

Hooked, you ask? Who wouldn’t be?

Lundy’s research for the presentation is full of politicians, lawyers and entrepreneurs, building railroads, as he says, “with other people’s money.” In every aspect of Webster City history, he noticed the same names kept coming up, again and again. Come and hear how their stories are connected to create much of the Webster City we see and know today.

Brushing off all the work that went into the presentation, Lundy told The Daily Freeman Journal, “It’s a great story, and one I hope all Webster Citians can connect to.”

The presentation is Saturday, May 11, at 1:30 p.m. in Mulberry Center Church, Wilson Brewer Historic Park, corner of Superior & Ohio streets, Webster City. There is no charge, but a freewill offering is welcome.

For those unable to make the lecture itself, Lundy will be in the depot from 10 a.m. Saturday morning until the presentation at 1:30, then afterwards until about 4 p.m.


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