Established as a military post in 1808, the town became a major rail hub in the late 19th century when the Santa Fe Railway constructed a bridge over the Mississippi River.
Fort Madison, Iowa
1601 20th Street Fort Madison, IA 52627
- Annual Station Revenue (2015)
- Annual Station Ridership (2015)
|Facility Ownership||BNSF Railway|
|Parking Lot Ownership||BNSF Railway|
|Platform Ownership||BNSF Railway|
|Track Ownership||BNSF Railway|
|26 Long Term Parking Spaces||7 Short Term Parking Spaces||Accessible Payphones|
|Accessible Platform||Accessible Restrooms||Accessible Ticket Office|
|Accessible Waiting Room||Bike Boxes||Checked Baggage|
|Enclosed Waiting Area||Help With Luggage||Pay Phones|
- Southwest Chief
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The current Amtrak station, whose design incorporates red brick and metal siding, was built in 1968 by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railway—commonly referred to as the “Santa Fe.” Located at the east end of a Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway (BNSF—successor to the Santa Fe) freight yard, it replaced a downtown complex that included a depot, Railway Express Agency (REA) building, and freight office.
Situated between H Street and the shore of the Mississippi River, the three historic structures are stylistically similar, but were actually built over the span of 25 years. The combined freight and passenger depot opened in 1910 to replace an earlier wooden structure from 1888. By the dawn of the 20th century, Fort Madison was an important division and crew change point on Santa Fe routes headed to the Southwest and California, and the town also had a locomotive repair shop and other facilities. Therefore, the railroad decided to construct a more permanent brick building.
The Santa Fe had also become adept at using architecture and design to promote itself—many of the western routes were actively marketed to a new upper middle class with discretionary income to spend on travel. Western locales were cast in an exotic light to attract tourists, with advertisements highlighting ancient American Indian cultures in New Mexico and the Spanish colonial missions of California.
Reinforcing this association between the railroad and the West, the Santa Fe constructed depots whose designs referenced Spanish colonial and American Indian buildings. Common architectural elements included arcades, exposed rafters cut in decorative profiles, towers that resembled campaniles, and remates (curvilinear gables). Materials employed included stucco, concrete—which resembled adobe, tejas (red clay roof tiles), and fanciful metal and tile work.
Fort Madison was the only Santa Fe passenger stop in Iowa, so the $14,000 depot was meant to be a showpiece. Designed by Santa Fe Chief Engineer C.F. Morse, the dark red brick station was based on the railroad’s standardized design known as the “county seat” model, meant for a town of considerable size. Although the basic form and layout were predetermined, the detailing could be adjusted to provide a regional flavor. The Fort Madison depot features trim executed in local Appanoose stone, such as a water table, sills, lintels, and coping.
The building’s horizontal orientation—long and low to the ground—is contrasted by a soaring central tower that overlooks the main line tracks. At the base of the tower, which projects onto the platform, was the station master’s office. From its windows, he had an unobstructed view down the line to monitor traffic. Major door and window openings are set in archways that recall mission arcades, and their placement corresponds with the position of the gables along the double hipped clay tile roof. Each gable was fitted with the Santa Fe’s cross-within-a-circle emblem. Deep eaves circling the building sheltered passengers from inclement weather as they waited outside for the arrival of the train.
A general waiting room and another for women and children were situated in the center of the building. Sets of 8-over-1 windows allowed plenty of natural light to flood the interior. At the eastern end was an amenity quite common in early 20th century depot design: a covered, open-air waiting room framed by wide, dramatic arches. The far side of the depot was reserved for service areas such as offices and a baggage room. On the exterior, the placement of the latter is indicated by the wide, tall doors that allowed carts laden with trunks and suitcases to be wheeled between the train and the station.
Following a generation of service, the depot’s interior décor was modernized in 1945 to reflect a popular Art Deco streamlined aesthetic. The women’s waiting room was eliminated and the walls of the general waiting room were covered in a sleek wood veneer accented by horizontal metal bands that caught the light and added a bit of sparkle.
The Railway Express Agency—a shipping service that operated over the railroads—constructed a facility to the west of the depot between 1924 and 1926. REA architect J.M. Dunham designed the structure to be sympathetic with its neighbor; thus its scale, material palette, and massing is quite similar. Much like the depot’s baggage room, the REA building also had large doorways that could accommodate wagons loaded with crates and parcels that were then sorted and processed for distribution. Windows were small and placed high on the walls to deter theft and ensure the security of the goods stored within.
Between 1931 and 1934, the Santa Fe erected a freight office to the west of the REA building. It reflects the more utilitarian, streamlined style of the era, but incorporates decorative detailing along the roofline that includes the Santa Fe emblem in stone. Between shifts, railroad brakemen and conductors could go to the freight office to take a nap and wash up.
When the Santa Fe moved to the new depot a mile west of downtown in 1968, it sold the old station complex to the city for $1 and removed most of the furnishings. Fort Madison subsequently leased the buildings to the North Lee County Historical Society (NLCHS) in 1972, which installed a museum focused on regional history, including that of the railroads. Under the terms of the lease, the society was responsible for routine maintenance of the three buildings. Over more than four decades, it raised almost $400,000 to replace windows, repair the roofs, install furnaces, and fence the property to prevent visitors from straying onto the active BNSF tracks.
The city, in collaboration with BNSF, Amtrak, the Iowa Department of Transportation, the Southeast Iowa Regional Planning Commission, and the NLCHS, has worked since 2006 to restore the old Santa Fe station to accommodate an Amtrak waiting room and ticket office as well as exhibition and storage space for the NLCHS museum. City leaders believe that moving the Amtrak stop downtown will spur economic development and encourage tourism. BNSF supports the change since it needs additional office space in the existing depot.
In response to severe floods during the late 20th century, the Santa Fe and then the BNSF had raised the right-of-way more than three feet to lift it above flood level. Unfortunately, the depot remained susceptible to high water and was deluged several times. Original plans called for constructing berms and flood walls around the depot to protect it and the museum collections. But the city, with the advice of engineers, eventually decided upon a more permanent solution: lift the depot off of its foundation, construct a new five foot high concrete base, and lower the building back into place.
By doing so, the building—listed on the National Register of Historic Places—is now located above the projected high-water mark of a 500 year flood. The Iowa Historical Society, which is also the State Historic Preservation Office, agreed that the elevation of the buildings was the best solution to avoid repeated flooding that might threaten their structural integrity.
With the assistance of Metzger Johnson Architects, a division of Klinger and Associates, the depot rehabilitation project was divided into four phases: first, raise the buildings and attach them to the new foundations; second, raise, grade, and pave the adjacent parking lot; third, construct a concrete platform with tactile edging and a canopy; and fourth, renovate the buildings’ interiors to accommodate Amtrak and museum functions.
A groundbreaking ceremony attended by Mayor Steve Ireland, State Senator Gene Fraise, State Representative Jerry Kearns, and other local and regional officials took place in February 2011. Phase I was completed that spring, and thanks to a webcam, people around the world were able to follow the progress online. Phases II and IV were completed in 2012, but the platform has yet to be built.
The total cost for the project is estimated at $3.2 million, and the city obtained funds from a diverse array of grant programs. Over three years, Fort Madison won $1,457,773 through the Federal Highway Administration’s (FHWA) Transportation Enhancements program; the city provided a $753,227 local match. These funds were granted to support the elevation and renovation of the buildings. Other federal sources included $22,800 from the FHWA’s Scenic Byways program, with the intention that the restored depot will provide tourist information for people traveling the Great River Road. Fort Madison was also designated a Preserve America Community, which made it eligible for a $20,000 grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior to support planning and promotional efforts related to community heritage.
In 2009, the project won $1.13 million through I-Jobs, a state investment program designed to renew Iowa’s infrastructure, promote long-term economic growth, and help create and retain jobs. The award required a 25 percent match from the city. Another $100,000 was gained through the Fort Madison Southeast Iowa Regional Riverboat Commission, which is funded with revenue from local casinos. Finally, the city provided $173,000 and BNSF contributed $50,000.
Fort Madison was established as a military post along the Mississippi River in 1808. Named for President James Madison, it was occupied during the War of 1812 and was destroyed. A replica of the fort—located south of the depot—was rebuilt as a historical site in 1983 and features tours and historical interpretation.
The City of Fort Madison was settled in 1838 as a maritime trading post. The town eventually became reliant upon the railroads and manufacturing. In the late 1860s, a rail connection was made with Keokuk about 20 miles south along the Mississippi River; it became part of the Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy Railroad (CBQ) in 1869. An old brick CBQ depot stands north of the Santa Fe complex.
In the mid-1880s, the Santa Fe decided to extend eastward towards Chicago from its home base in Kansas. A major challenge was the bridging of the Mississippi River, which the company decided to do at Fort Madison since the settlement was on the short, direct “air-line” route between Kansas City and Chicago. The bridge opened to rail traffic in December 1887 and Fort Madison subsequently became a major rail center in southeastern Iowa. It was replaced in 1927 with the current Fort Madison Toll Bridge, considered the longest double-deck swing-span bridge in the world. Amtrak’s Southwest Chief crosses it on the way to and from the station two miles to the west.
In addition to the depot complex, the town’s railroad connections are represented by Santa Fe Caboose #235. Donated to the NLCHS, it has been restored and includes the brakemen seats, conductor’s desk, folding seat/beds, and a cast iron stove. Nearby, more than 100 freight trains a day still pass through Fort Madison.
Amtrak provides ticketing but not baggage services at this station, which is served by two daily trains.