Liza Jane Train–Part 1

Riding on a Branch

Editor [W. G.] Ray in the Grinnell Herald [probably about 1920]

Did you ever ride on a branch? No? Well, then you ought to do so. Go to Montezuma [Iowa] or State Center or Monroe, view the landscape o’er, get more scenery and more ride for a dime than if you were on the Rocky Mountain Flier or the Oriental Limited.

The mountains of Guthrie County

The writer took a ride the other day on the Guthrie Center branch. We’ve done it before and we’ve always looked out the window to enjoy the mountain scenery, for the scenery along the branch is striking and beautiful and embraces about everything in undulating landscape to be desired. At Stuart you climb into the beautifully upholstered day coach at 6:40 A.M. and at 8:00 o’clock you land in Guthrie Center, after having passed through the enchanted country. Just think of it, eighty minutes of riding for only forty cents–a half a cent for every minute you ride. If you take No. 7 on the main line you pay $1.12 and reach Des Moines just ninety minutes after you start, thus paying a cent and a quarter a minute. Now that is real extravagance. It makes the cost of traveling too high. For a real low priced ride where you get your money’s worth, take a branch train every time.


Stuart, the center of civilization

But to revert. Leaving Stuart, the center of civilization for a large stretch of Iowa’s acres and you travel by early morning moonlight to Menlo, the hither end of the branch. Menlo once had a fire and the station went up in smoke. Now a beautiful brick and plaster building well lighted and comfortable, greets the traveler–one of the neatest in Iowa. Leaving Menlo, you parallel the main line a short distance from the station, then all at once your car begins to descend while the main track keeps its level and maintains its course westward. Right here the engineer takes a pull at the steering lever. You wheel quickly to the right and in less than a minute you are shooting the shoots down one of the head gulches of Spring Branch Canyon. The world is left behind you, as you go deeper into the canyon and the sun’s rays fail to reach you as they come aslant the sky, casting a glimmer of light across the fast receding summit of the hills.

Menlo (2)

Now you take another curve and on one side the ravine goes almost sheer down to a dangerous depth, while on the opposite side bluffs rise to the heights above. Then again as you round the curve you see ahead the rapid descent of Spring Branch, down, down, and still down to a lower level several hundred rods away. But you never forget the ever varying beauty of the bluffs, the grandeur of the beetling cliffs, nor the eroded caverns that yawn below as if inviting the engineer to let the train crash into their depths. But he has had long years’ experience running an engine in a mountainous country, and his touch is steady as he unerringly guides the iron horse along its track of steel, the steady pull of the set brake holding its ponderous weight in well disciplined check.

Now you’ve dropped to the level of the universe, the break is released, and the train gambols along the back of a rambling creek skirted with oak, hickory and tag, a beautiful, restful sight, while on the other side of the train the hills rise to rugged heights so abruptly that no adventurous tiller of the soil has yet tempted their dangerous slopes with the plow.

A little farther and we reach and cross the rippling waters of the Beaver, and the valley widens slightly into a veritable beauty spot where, in summer’s green, okay and hickory join with violet, wild rose and fern to give it a charm that entrances the viewer’s heart and lefts him into the enchanted realm In early spring the May apple and the Jack in the Pulpit lift their artistic heads above the grass and later golden rod and thorn-apple add their mellowing touch to the finished work of all the mighty painter.

There had to be a Glendon for two reasons

And now you are at Glendon. There had to be a Glendon for two reasons. It was time to have a station, and again at this point it was necessary for the train to stop, to give the engine a rest and more fuel to pull itself over the sierra that separates the Beaver from the valley of the ‘Coon. A few minutes are spent by the engineer and conductor in prayerful meditation, the brakes are loosened, the fireman pushes manfully at the proper end of the coal shovel, the draft in the firebox is pulled open to its widest limit and amid the huzzas of the passengers the engine begins its arduous climb.


Up, up it goes on its circuitous track, rising gradually from the level of Beaver to the lofty heights of ‘Coon River Pass. And as you climb, ever lower sinks the valley and deeper and father extends the vision up and across the Beaver, taking in its delicately wooded banks, the precipitous slopes that skirt its shore, and the long thread of the winding stream and trees until they disappear in the distance, away out in the right farm land whence the brook takes its rise.

And yet if you fail to observe the sight on the other side of the train you lose much of the beauty of the spot. Here as you wind up the hill, a deep ravine filled with trees reaches back into the deep woodland bluff beyond, and then you ride beneath the deep slope of almost overhanging hills never touched by plow, where native grass and wild flower bloom in bewildering profusion. And now as you climb still higher you become aware a tensity on the part of the conductor as with watch in hand he times the very-increasing puffs of steam and smoke as they emerge from the furnace stack and notes with deep concern the surely slackening speed of the train, and you know he is wondering “Will she pull it” Can she pull it?” for, know, gentle reader, many a time when the train has been heavily loaded with five or six cars the engine has proven unequal to the task, and it has been necessary to take the train over the divide in shifts.

Ah, we note that the conductor pockets his watch with a satisfied smile; and we know that the tunnel is reached and the climb completed. The tunnel, we say; it has no arch save the blue sky, but a tunnel nevertheless, for has it not been drilled out of the solid rock at the great expenditure of gunpowder and nitroglycerine? In the days when this magnificent piece of engineering was done dynamite was yet in its infancy.

Monteith’s back yard

The train slowly pulls through the hole in the rocky walks, daylight shoots up in front of you, and without warning you see far below the enchanted valley of South ‘Coon. Again the brakes are applied and slowly but softly you glide down the gentle slope until the level of the stream is reached, and you stop at Monteith. Monteith, with its white homes nestling on a gentle slope,–beautiful to see as you approach, but the Rock Island has done it an ill turn. The station is located in Monteith’s back yard and the traveler must reach it through a poorly kept alley and must follow a dirt path through the coal sheds and corncribs before the front lawn is sighted.

You can see where Guthrie Center Branch is noted.

Then to Guthrie Center is a five mile trip in the valley of the South ‘Coon through as rich a farming country as smiles upon the tiller of the woil anywhere in Iowa; deep soil with a gently sloping ascent to the upper level and all so even and free from abrupt rise as to make every foot tillable where the trees do not grow.

The groves were God’s first temples and along the ‘Coon on the left we can imagine were many shrines set up by the native worshipper, where ‘midst towering oak and elm he bowed in humble submission to the great spirit and burned incense to the god of love and of the harvest.

And at one minute before eight the station at Guthrie Center is reached, for engineer and conductor have conspired together to shorten the ride and cheat the traveler out of a part of his money’s worth.


Guthrie Center!

Guthrie Center! What does it mean to you, gentle reader? To us it means a town on the slope rising from the east of the ‘Coon, split with three or four ravines, a rise so gradual as to make the effect a charming one, with well built and well kept business houses and beautiful homes. And there are men who have stayed with Guthrie Center from an early day, men who have given it character and push and reputation, men who love the town which has been kind to them and the people who have been neighbors to them. There are its two papers, the Times, owned by H. W. Stoy, who has been with it over thirty years, and has made it a strong town paper. Mr. Stoy knows what a county paper ought to be, and he has put into its production a ready pen directed by a keen and discerning mind. And the Guthrian–made famous by Father charlie Ashton, who had his enemies because his ideals were high and because he advocated them with a vigor that sometimes cut deep beneath the sensitive skin, but who was never found on the wrong side of any moral question. The paper was later owned by Alex Grisell, a tower of strength to any cause, but now owned by his sons, Tom and George, who are making it a more vigorous representative of the town than it has ever been.

But the present newspaper men are recent arrivals compared with some of its citizens who have lived, loved, married and prospered in Guthrie county. There’s Pete Lenon for instance, one of the real old timers who in his younger days was active and aggressive, but who is now retired. Among men who have been influential in Guthrie county for forty, [sic] years, or nearly so, and who still retain a broad and earnest interest in Guthrie Center affairs, and are still in active business or professional life, are Judge Applegate, who has been on the district bench so long that even the old settler has to stop and count the years before he can give the date of his first election; E. R. Sayles, C. W. Hill, J. D. Brown, E. W. Weeks, Senator John W. Foster, Frank Hopkins, Tom Foster, A. D. Lemmon, W. W. Hyzer, men who have served on school boards, town councils, church trustees, who have been vital parts of an active, progressive citizenship, who worked to put Guthrie Center on the map and who have kept it there and whose voices are still heard when public spirited action is desired. There are others, many more, but these are well known citizens, some of them of more than statewide reputation, who have worked and talked for Guthrie Center and whose influence at home today is as strong as it ever was.

Glendon’s tile factory and many kilns

Take a ride on this branch some day, view the rapid and canyonlike descent of the ravines leading into Spring Branch, note the quiet, curving line of beauty that makes the Beaver a silvery thread in a circlet of Amethyst, note the ascent from Glendon to the summit–not forgetting the tile factory and its many kilns, on the steep slope of the ravine, almost as you might imagine a feudal castle of old to be placed, safe from assaulting barons and their knights; note the rock hewn tunnel and the beautiful sight as you slowly descend to the ‘Coon bottom, and then say if this trip is not wonderful in its exquisite and ever-changing beauty.

Glendon tile factory

And when you have reached your destination meet the finest men and women on the continent, and get inspiration from the citizenship of Guthrie Center.

Note: William George Ray (1857-1936), graduated from Iowa College (Grinnell) in 1882, was superintendent of a couple of schools, Principal of Guthrie County College in Panora (1833-1887); served on a school board and was a State Representative, also Editor-Publisher of the Grinnell Herald from 1890-1936.


Locals know the Guthrie Center branch train as the Liza Jane. Headings for breaks added for this blog post.



  1. Dear Joy, my name is Dan and I’m co-director of a forthcoming documentary film that centers on the family of “Liza Jane” songs. As you might imagine, we’re interested in knowing how the branch line came to be known as the Liza Jane, and if there are any printed materials that refer to this name. There are a wide variety of lyrics to the “Liza Jane” songs, and in some versions, Liza Jane is said to be riding the train (an unspecified line) and in other lyrics, sadly, she’s said to have perished on the (unnamed) line, although there’s a lighthearted edge to most “Liza Jane” renditions. Perhaps it’s a coincidence that that there’s a branch named after our poor gal, or perhaps there’s more to it. If you had a few minutes to write us back, we’d be much obliged. Sincerely, Dan

    • If you had a look at Parts 2 and 3, you know that she was called Liza Jane about from her beginning in the 1880s, but since the song wasn’t published until 1916, makes me wonder. My mother, grandparents, and great grandparents rode her at least in the 1920s, as Goffs lived in Guthrie Center, and Wilsons lived in Stuart, where Liza Jane stayed ovenight. (She made her one turn-around per day at Menlo, which was originally called Guthrie Switch.)

      I’ve shared your note on a Stuart Facebook page, where a historian or two lurk, but I guess I knew more about Liza Jane than they do. Wish I had more info for you!

      • Hi Joy, I did see your parts 2 and 3 after I wrote my note to you. I was so excited to find this, that I didn’t notice the other posts — thanks for posting all of that material! Actually, it was just one version of the song that was published in 1916, but the song has much longer history of publication and performance, that dates back to before 1880, so it’s very possible that the branch line was named after the song, especially since you refer to it as the “Old Eliza Jane.” I’d be grateful to know if any more material comes to light, but thanks again for reading and replying to my question. I am much obliged. Sincerely, Dan

      • Will do! I’m fascinated by that old train and have located the great granddaughter of one of the engineers. Made a display about him and the train for the restored Depot at Stuart, Iowa.

  2. Hello Joy, you might be interested to know that workers who built the intercontinental railroad were said to be singing a version of “Liza Jane” in 1865 as they went about their duties. You can find this reference in a book by Stephen E. Ambrose entitled Nothing Like It in the World. It’s anybody’s guess if your beloved branch line is named for the song, but it’s definitely possible, and as I mentioned before, there are enough train references in various “Liza Jane” versions for the tune to be considered a “railroad song.” In my opinion, anyhow. Thanks again for posting these highly informative posts. Sincerely, Dan

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