Pella Chronicle

CNHI/Southeast Iowa

November 28, 2013

Road to Iowa history

OTTUMWA — The Iowa Department of Transportation librarian fielded a lot of questions in Wapello County this week. But he knew most people were thinking, "The DOT has a librarian?"

Leighton Christiansen finds the books, essays and articles needed by engineers when they are researching highway design. He also lists and cares for thousands of photos, maps and other documents generated by the DOT. For the 100th anniversary of "official" Iowa transportation, Christiansen and his colleagues found some of the most popular photos in order to tell the story of boats, railroads and the relatively new innovation of automobiles.

One photo showed an old-fashioned car sunk to its axle in mud on an Iowa road deep with wagon wheel ruts. History lovers at the Ottumwa Public Library "Reminisce Society" event reacted audibly to the picture.

"When it rained, folks would say that the [wonderful] roads in Iowa are as wide as they are deep," said Christiansen.

But as mechanized farm equipment became more accessible, farmers began producing far more than they and their neighbors needed. Agriculture was changing the economy. Or it could, if farmers were able to get their product to market. That was one of the first big motivators for getting Iowa's roads in shape.

In the early 1900s, there were a few miles of paved roads. The rest were either gravel or dirt. The interstates didn't exist. The changes from 1913 to 2013 would make for a stunning before-and-after image. Christiansen said Iowa has 100,000 miles of roads (the distance from one side of the United States to the other is roughly 3,000 miles) and 24,000 bridges.

Early on, one popular idea involved sticking planks onto the surface of the roads. One long set of planks for one wheel, and about a yard to the left, another long set of planks for the other wheel. Wapello County boosters were advocates of road improvement. Like other officials, they wanted visitors to bring their business to their neck of the woods. Over time, 19th century Wapello County came up with $8,000 for wooden planks, Christiansen said.

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