Anyone have any insights into how the Iowa Transfer Railroad in Des Moines operated?

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Anyone have any insights into how the Iowa Transfer Railroad in Des Moines operated?

Post by railfan2000 »

I've been fascinated by this tiny little switching railroad for a decade now but information on it is sparse. Most comes from an article in the C&NW Historical Society Magazine and tidbits here and there, but nothing seems to provide much detail on how the railroad actually operated. If anyone isn't familiar, the Iowa Transfer was basically a central interchange yard in downtown Des Moines. It owned one switcher and one short yard located literally next to the capitol wedged partially under the road bridge and between the Burlington and Rock Island mains. The 8 railroads of Des Moines (though Wabash and Milwaukee interchanged through their jointly owned DMU). Each railroad (including the local electric interurban) apparently would be assigned a track to drop off cars for interchange and pick up cars that had been left, but I suspect this got a little fuzzy on busy days and I think changed daily. The little yard was handling 400+ cars a day the last year I can find statistics, which is in the late 1930s, presumably more, possibly many more, in the war years and post-war boom years before declining in importance and disappearing as mergers changed traffic patterns and local industry shifted.

Where I run out of information and get stumped, however, is in the logistics and operations. The yard was indeed tiny, its tracks were something like 1000 feet long in a diamond-shaped yard, so the larger railroad would presumably have been making two or more trips a day to even fit all those cars in the yard. Probably many more for the Rock Island and Des Moines Union, which, being the "main" and local terminal switching railroad of Des Moines, respectively, were also its largest interchange partners, I guess that wouldn't exactly be surprising given the nature of urban transfer runs. But then I run into the first bottleneck, how does one little Alco S1 switch 500+ cars a day? That's quite a feat, probably not impossible, but surely stretching the limits of flat switching with a limited capacity yard that would also be clogged with all those transfer movements. So, I'm presuming the cars for interchange weren't just dumped into the yard with no rhyme-or-reason and the transfers were pre-blocked in some fashion and/or there was some sort of schedule as to what railroad's cars you'd drop when. Again not a stretch, the cars would be essentially blocked if you were making 7 transfer runs to 7 different railroads anyways, the cost and time savings were in the central, accessible location and (hopefully) fewer, shorter movements.

So I'm guessing the little S1 was mostly employed shuffling cuts of cars between tracks, moving bad order cars to the short bad order/repair track, maybe tacking on cabooses to the other end of trains, and perhaps doing some light classification for the smaller interchange partners, especially the electric RR. Anyone have any actual information or better suppositions here? I'm also assuming the switcher primarily used one end of the yard (probably the west side that had a long, straight section leading mostly to the Burlington) and interchange traffic mostly used the other side (probably the east side which connected directly with the DMU and a jumble of crossings as far as I can tell) to minimize interference. Des Moines was such a mess of interlocking trackage and switching agreements and I have no idea what railroad took what route to get where.

I probably had a dozen other questions I'm forgetting about, so if anyone wants to add anything else or tell a story or just mention an interesting anecdote go right ahead.

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