It was possible, when my mother was growing up on a farm two miles northeast of Williamson, to drive into that coal mining boom town and catch a train to anywhere --- north to Des Moines, then Minneapolis-St. Paul. The first stop southbound was here, at Chariton's Rock Island Depot.
Continuing south on the Rock, the end of the line was Kansas City. At the C.B.&Q. Depot across town, four blocks or so northwest of the square, connections were offered to the east and west, southwest or northwest, on the Burlington's main line and its two lesser branches.
Miners who lived in Chariton could board special trains at the Rock Island depot and commute to and from the coal fields of northeast Lucas County.
Today, although the Rock has long since turned to dust, Union Pacific freights still rumble by every day, but none stop here any more. The fine vaguely Spanish revival depot, constructed of pressed brick, stone and terra cotta, sits largely unaltered along the tracks, windows boarded against vandals, gently crumbling, used as a maintenance shop.
Many newer Chariton residents may not even realize the depot is here. Although located just a little more than three blocks east of the square beyond Court Avenue's dead end, it's off the beaten path.
During the late 1990s, the Chariton Historic Preservation Commission and others attempted to work out a long-term lease agreement with the Union Pacific that would have returned the depot to public use, but they were unsuccessful and attention turned to the Freight House, now beautifully restored. The depot settled into obscurity again, its future uncertain.
The Rock Island was the final piece of the rail puzzle that turned Chariton for a time into a major railroading center. Construction commenced during the summer of 1911 on more than 60 miles of track to connect railheads at Carlisle to the north and Allerton to the south. The tracks were completed, behind schedule, during early summer 1913. The first regular train on the line rumbled through during early July of the latter year.
The main line of what now is the east-west Burlington Northern & Santa Fe had reached Chariton during 1867 and branch lines headed to Indianola with connections into Des Moines and to Leon with connections to St. Joe had been completed prior to 1900.
The Rock Island was built for two reasons. First, to provide a direct route from the Twin Cities to Kansas City, thus giving the Rock an advantage over the Great Western, then dominant. And second, to access the vast coal fields of northeast Lucas County and Marion County.
The legendary Central Iowa Fuel Co. mines beginning just northeast of Chariton and continuing to Tipperary and Olmitz were able to develop only after the Rock and its spur lines to the mines were completed. In Marion County, Melcher-Dallas also developed into a coal mining center after the Rock Island was completed.
Construction also changed Chariton's landscape substantially. More than 60 houses on or alongside what became railroad right-of-way in east Chariton were moved or demolished. About 1900, William B. and Kate Penick, who developed the Spring Lake residential addition in south Chariton, donated a tract of undeveloped land now south of Highway 34 to the city for a substantial park, also to be called Spring Lake. The new Rock Island line cut directly through it, ruining the area's park potential.
The depth of the cuts needed to take the rail line through Chariton also was a challenge, especially the cut need to take Rock Island trains under the east-west C.B.& Q. main line.
The depot was completed during June of 1913, just in time to serve the first trains arriving in July. Here's a portion of an article from the Chariton Herald Patriot of June 5, 1913, describing it:
ROCK ISLAND DEPOT ALMOST FINISHED
Work on the new Rock Island Depot
is Almost Finished and it is a
Very Handsome Structure
The Rock Island station is receiving its finishing touches and presents an appearance in which the people of Chariton can well take pride. Those who have visited the station and wondered how or why workmen can be so careless in the handling of material will note a vast difference now. Experts have been employed for several days in removing all traces of mortar and other disfiguring stuff and now the hard pressed brick of which the building is constructed is as clean as when first taken from the kiln.
Inside the building the rooms are finished with red brick of very handsome appearance, oiled and dressed to bring out the full beauty of the material. Tiled floors are finished in the waiting rooms, the ticket office is being prepared for business at an early date and indications are that the road will be ready for traffic by July 1st.
The station is more nearly fire proof than any structure in Chariton, the base board consists of stone, while window trimmings are constructed of stone also. All these materials go to make a handsome, sanitary and practically fire proof building, while a terra cotta roof adds greatly to the outside appearance.
The Rock Island has certainly treated Chariton to an excellent station and one which will impress people going through our city very favorably.
Chariton already was a prosperous town when the Rock Island came through. Commercial space on the square was so scarce that those in charge of developing a construction headquarters for the project could not find offices to rent and so leased a house instead. The new rail line was a cause for even more optimism.
As the mines northeast of Chariton developed, dozens of houses for miners were built in town --- the most accessible remaining examples are in a row along the east side of North 7th Street just north of Yocom Park. The area still known by some as White City in southeast Chariton was developed for miners.
And it is unlikely that the Hotel Charitone, which opened its doors with considerable fanfare during 1923, would have been built on the scale it was had the Rock Island not come to town. A major theme of its advertising, at a time when what became Highway 34 still was gravel at best, was the convenient location midway between the Burlington and Rock Island depots.