The Tabor and Northern Railroad

With the rapid growth of a national railroad system in the 1870s, Tabor found itself isolated from major rail lines operating several miles away to the north and west.  Tabor was a vibrant agricultural and commercial center as well as being home to Tabor College, and reliable transportation was seen as an important component in the town’s continued growth and prosperity. The solution was found in the construction of a small line connecting Tabor with Malvern, nine miles northeast, where connections could be made with the Burlington Line which linked Southwest Iowa to Omaha, St. Louis, Chicago and points beyond.

The T&N Railroad depot in Tabor, around 1910

After raising the necessary funds through tax levies and bond sales, the Tabor and Northern Railway (T&N) was born, beginning operation in 1890 with two passenger cars and one baggage and freight car. The twice-daily roundtrip to Malvern was an immediate and profitable success with a steady exchange of passengers between the towns to attend social and sporting activities. Typical was an event on January 12th, 1899, where the T&N carried skaters to Malvern's cold storage plant for 35 cents, round trip, for a day on the ice. The linking of Malvern and Tabor socially was important, but the underlying commercial benefit of the tiny railroad was the opening of markets for local merchants and farmers wishing access to livestock markets in Omaha and Chicago. As recounted in Sidney Newlon’s book Train Time, “as many as twenty carloads of cattle and hogs went out of Tabor a day (with a peak of 28 in the early 1890s).”  But the little train carried other commodities as well. In 1895 the T&N reported that there had been 452 carload shipments in and out of Tabor that year which included “137 carloads of hogs, three cars of iron rails, one car of brick, eight of apples, six of wheat, one of potatoes, 114 cars of cattle, three of household goods, two of oats, one of rye and two of baled hay.”  Other items moved by the railroad included the U.S. Mail, lumber, bridge iron, coal, concrete, stone, lime, salt and oil.

Tabor and Northern Railroad ca 1910 (1aX
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An 1891 Bill of Lading for a calf purchased by Alfred T. Wilkins, owner of a farm one mile north of Tabor

Train Time.jpg

The T&N would meet and surmount the challenges of blizzards, derailments, worn tracks and much more during its 43 years of service, but it was never able to overcome the advent of automobiles and the highways that were constructed to support them.  The mid 1920s saw a steep decline in revenues due to the increased use of trucks to haul freight.  With the scrapping of its single passenger coach the line provided a box for a seat in the freight car, with a pot bellied coal stove for heat in the winter. There were few takers.  At their annual meeting in 1931, stockholders were told that the line had earned a small profit of $786.62 the previous year. The figure included $1.50 from only three passengers. The meager income, however, couldn’t begin to cover servicing an increasing debt load and the company began losing money with the train running sporadically, sometimes only a few times a week.  The hometown railroad passed into history on October 10, 1934, when all assets, including rails, locomotive and rolling stock were sold at auction for $7,735. The remains were sold as scrap. The final act did not go unnoticed though‒ newspapers throughout Iowa carried the news with the Oelwein Daily Register, in northeast Iowa, printing a brief but fitting epitaph, noting the train had given “dreams to many."

To learn more about the history of the T&N, copies of Sidney Newlon's book are available for $7.50 from the Tabor Historical Society. Write to P.O. Box 584, Tabor, Iowa, 51653.  Please include $2.00 for postage.