Book Review: Grass Between The Rails by Rehder and Cook

This is one of the smartest, best books on Allamakee County history I have found. I got mine last summer from the Allamakee County Museum.

The author’s forward, written 40 years ago, does the best possible job capturing what the book is about:

A shortline railroad is fascinating in its personality, for it seems to take on the flavor of its locale. This is true of the now-abandoned Waukon (Iowa) branch of the Milwaukee Road.

The branch followed Big Paint Creek from the Milwaukeee’s “River Line” 23 miles inland to Waukon. Limestone bluffs more than two hundred feet high surround the narrow valley through which the trains wound a steep and torturous path.

Rail service through this remote northeast Iowa area began with the 3-foot gauge Waukon & Mississippi in 1877. The road became a part of the Chicago, Clinton, Dubuque & Minnesota a few years later, then joined the Milwaukee’s expanding system in 1880. It remained narrow gauge until 1884.

There is much of interest in the history of this small branchline. The rugged terrain through which it ran, the trials of local businessmen as they pursued their dream of a railroad, the line’s role as a carrier for the ore from Iowa’s only operating iron mine, the railroaders, its use as a pawn by the Milwaukee against encroachments by other lines into this rich agricultural area add up to a story… many stories that bring back the days of steam… the early days when the railroad was the link with the outside world.

Although a visitor to the area today would find little to see, it doesn’t take much to bring it back to life, when the world was as close as the depot and you could catch a ride anyplace along the tracks… when neat American Standards struggled up the stiff Cemetary Hill grade into Waukon… when rains sent water cascading down the narrow valley washing out rail and bridges over and over again.

Of the authors, little is known.  They are listed as “Denny Rehder with Cecil Cook.” The back cover talks a little about these two men:

DENNY REHDER was first introduced to the beauties of northeast Iowa when he married Pat O’Brien of Waukon. He started researching about the history of this area ten years ago while serving as publications editor for the Iowa Conservation Commission. The early research for this book was intended to serve as background information for a model railroad he was building. However, modelling took a back seat when the wealth of photographs and related material he acquired suggested a book on the little branch line would be possible.

CECIL COOK was born and raised in the Waukon area. As a youthful railfan, he rode the branch train regularly during those last days of steam. Happily, he has preserved this era in photographs… fascinating pictures of the branch as well as Milwaukee steam on the mainlines of northeast Iowa. Cook has been an avid railfan for twenty-five years, and is a charter member of the Iowa chapter of the National Railway Historical Society. In addition to his Milwaukee Road interests, he has built a collection of shortli9ne photographs from across the nation.

Both men live in Des Moines, and are partners in their own publishing house, The Waukon & Mississippi Press. Other books covering the Milwaukee Road and midwest railroad history are being researched.

The book is a rich collection of old photos, maps, and document copies, as well as a very well written series of essays about the Waukon railroad. I can not recommend it more highly.

This entry was posted in 1860s, 1870s, 1880s, 1890s, 1900s, 1910s, 1920s, 1930s and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Book Review: Grass Between The Rails by Rehder and Cook

  1. admin says:

    Update: I have found Denny Rehder. I emailed him and he wrote back: “For the past 15 years I have been performing under the auspices of Humanities Iowa and NEH a program of original music telling the history of railroads in Iowa.” He’s also one of the leaders of theMid-Iowa Cactus & Succulent Society.

  2. Pingback: Train Tracks In Modern Waukon | Allamakee County, Iowa

Leave a Reply