Four generations of my Iowa ancestors rode the Liza Jane between Guthrie Center and Stuart, including my mother Doris. I’ve collected clippings about it, tried to follow the old railroad grade–by map and with Mom on gravel roads, and tried to imagine what it was like to take that exciting and scenic trip through Guthrie County.
From History of Menlo, Iowa: Gathering Steam for the Second Century, 1969: The branch train, called Liza Jane or Ol’ Liza, to Guthrie Center was completed in 1880. She made two daily trips to Guthrie, carrying mail, express, and freight to Glendon, Monteith, and Guthrie. The train returned hauling hogs, cattle and grain for market. Menlo’s turntable rotated Liza Jane for the second trip to Guthrie. Sometimes you could hear the engine after dark chug-chugging up the steep grade. Liza was housed at Stuart’s roundhouse overnight.
Memories of ancestors
My ancestors, David and Emilia Jordan lived just east of Monteith. When their Goff grandchildren visited, including my grandmother (Leora Goff Wilson) liked to watch for Liza Jane to come through Windy Gap east of Monteith.
In the early 1900s, when they were in Guthrie Center, they liked to watch Liza steam and rumble and into the depot, and watch the engine turn around in the roundhouse.
Once the Goff family rode the Liza Jane to Des Moines to attend the Iowa State Fair. A “special” took the fair-goers back to Liza to return to Guthrie County.
John Murray Johnston, Engineer
One of Liza’s engineers was John Murray Johnston, a Civil War veteran who moved to Stuart in 1880 and worked 42 years for the Rock Island Railroad. One winter he was on a return trip from Guthrie Center when the train was snow bound in Windy Gap for three days, having run out of coal and water. Engineer Johnston’s last run was on the Guthrie Branch in 1912.
Liza Jane hiked to Des Moines
From The Guthrian, April 5, 1912: “Old Eliza Jane that keeps the communications open between the main line of the Rock Island and Guthrie Center, had a new and exciting experience last Monday. On that morning she had on board about 35 passengers destined east. In her usual leisurely manner she ambled down the right of way to find that she was too late at Menlo to catch the east bound train. To express it mildly the passengers many of which had important engagements [were] peeved, and sent in messaged to head quarters that made the wires sizzle. The Superintendent wired back for the Eliza Jane to become a limited and to hike to Des Moines, with all speed without stopping for feed and water. It is said the old girl just let her self out and humped along making the telegraph poles look like a fine toothed comb and the towns as she whizzed through were blots on the landscape. She got to Des Moines alright and back to Guthrie Center the same day.”
Guthrie Times, July 18, 1912: “Our branch train did not show up Friday until noon, due to a wash out of a small portion of the track at Glendon.”
World War I
The summer of 1917, Clabe Wilson was called to take a physical for the draft. The whole family rode Liza from Glendon to Menlo where physicals were being given. He was exempted because he had a family, but they watched draftees leave on the train.
Liza Jane Smashes Truck
The Guthrian, June 12, 1919: “The Guthrie Center branch train ‘Liza Jane’ may, according to some critics lack pep, but she can smash things once in a while. Lloyd Shipley can testify to that. Saturday, he drove his big farm truck to the station for some potatoes. He swung the truck around by the west platform, loaded his potatoes and was about to be gone, when swoop-down the track comes ‘Liza Jane’. The Ross truck had just arrived and was parked north of Shipley’s, and the force of the collision sent it up on the platform, threatening the Sunday dinner strawberries and lettuce. J. W. Ross’ young granddaughter was standing near but very luckly [sic] sumbled [sic] and fell, which kept her from being crushed against the station wall. . . .”
More ancestor stories
Early 1920: Clabe and Leora Wilson were living just east of Stuart. Leora was sick with the dreaded influenza during an ice storm. They had no phone but she managed to write her mother, who then lived in Guthrie Center, that they’d all been sick. Grandmother right away took the Liza Jane to Stuart, arriving after dark. It was so icy that she had to crawl part of the way to her daughter’s, pushing her bag. Leora said she was so miserable that she would have gladly died, but had three small children to care for, including my mother (the baby).
1921: Grandmother was at Wilsons in Stuart, then living in the “Chittick house” (515 Gaines Street), when Leora Wilson gave birth to twins, Dale and Darlene. Doris, not yet three years old, was sent home with Grandmother, likely on the train.
Leora Wilson even took the twins in their “double cab buggy” on the train to her parents’ in Guthrie Center, up a hill to the northeast of the depot. That would have been a challenge to hike up there even without pushing a stroller, but Leora had adult or nearly adult siblings who probably met them at the station.
May of 1923. Grandmother was there to help with another new baby–Danny, also born in the Chittick house. The two oldest, Delbert and Donald, could follow their dad around, and the twins had just turned two. Now another baby. What to do with Doris, the four-year-old?
Another ride to Grandmother’s Victorian house in Guthrie Center, where her aunts had little Doris stand on the table and turn slowly so they could pin the hem in another dress they’d made for her. She slept upstairs, where the oil lamp made eerie shadows on the walls. A flowered pitcher sat in a bowl on a chest of dark wood, like the rest of the furniture.
A picture of a girl watching a robin hung on the wall. “Why doesn’t the robin fly away?” Doris wanted to know. She hadn’t had much luck catching one. In the morning, she woke to the smell of boiling coffee and the sound of her grandmother’s sweet low voice talking to Grandpa. Doris slipped down from the bed and tiptoed down and around the curved staircase, stopping to admire the diamond shapes in the windows, especially the red panes.
One day, Doris caught a robin in Grandmother’s yard. She was homesick, so took the robin to bed with her. When Grandmother found her, she was surprised at the bird. “Lawsy, girl. You have mites crawling on you. Take the robin outside. You’ll have to have a bath.”
Another day, Grandmother heard Doris crying and found her slumped with her head on her knees on the staircase. “What’s wrong, honey?”
“I want my boys,” meaning her older brothers whom she tagged around with. She was homesick.
Grandmother took her on her lap and soothed her, singing in her low alto voice, “In the Sweet Bye and Bye” and “The Little Brown Church in the Vale.”
Grandpa said he’d buy her something to take home. A doll, any doll she wanted. Aunt Georgia and Aunt Ruby walked downtown with her, and found the biggest and best doll there, with a yellow dress. Doris found one she liked better–a smaller one with a pink dress. “Let’s look at the yellow one again,” her aunts coaxed. “Wouldn’t you rather have it?” No, she wanted the pink one.
Grandpa said he had some business to do in Stuart, so he was the one who helped Doris onto the chuffing Liza Jane. When they arrived at the Stuart depot, Grandpa held the doll under his arm as he helped the little girl down from the coach. As usual, he always found someone he knew to talk to, and was soon in conversation with another man. Doris heard a crash, and there was the pink doll on the platform with a broken head. She tugged at Grandpa’s coat. “I’ll get you another,” he promised, but he never did. Doris didn’t care. She just wanted to go home.
As Guthrie Countians began to travel more by car, the train was used less for passengers. Eventually the depots were closed. The Stuart Depot has recently been restored as a museum and community building.
I ordered three more commemorative bricks–to remember that my grandfather, Clabe Wilson, was a nightwatchman in Stuart, and that Dale, Darlene, and Danny Wilson were born there.
Ever since I’ve known about the Liza Jane, I’ve wished I could have ridden it through the rolling hills of beautiful Guthrie County, wheeled into the canyon of Spring Branch, pulled through the rocky tunnel at the top of Raccoon River pass, whistled through Windy Gap at Monteith–the perfect roller coaster in my opinion–to visit my own grandmother in Guthrie Center.
Sources: “Riding on a Branch” by Editor [W.G.] Ray in the Grinnell Herald, no date but between 1916 and 1936, probably about 1920; Centennial history of Menlo; newspaper clippings from The Guthrian and Guthrie Times.