Rails Across America, Part 6
The sixth installment in a series of Dispatches chronicling Ryan Kim’s journey by rail to small towns across America.
Fort Madison, Iowa
Situated exactly 235 miles from Chicago by rail and stretched out alongside one of the few east-west sections of the Mississippi River lies the pleasant town of Fort Madison, Iowa, established in 1808 when Thomas Jefferson ordered thirty-six soldiers to build a fort there to serve as a “trading factory.”
The director of the Fort Museum, describes the structure as a “Wal-Mart of the frontier” where Americans could trade with the local Indians, providing high quality manufactured goods at cheap prices. The outpost served as a lever for “economic imperialism”: the Americans used trade deficits to put the Indians into debt, which they would then be freed of only by relinquishing land rights. Yet the fort, named after President James Madison, was burned and abandoned by its occupants during the War of 1812 when the British and their own Indian allies attacked it in the summer of 1813. The site remained untouched until its excavation in 1965.
Fort Madison was eventually reestablished as an industrial town when Wisconsin built its territorial prison here in 1838 and employed the prisoners to manufacture export goods. (Later, when Iowa attained statehood in 1842, the town had to purchase the prison from Wisconsin for $125,000.) Beyond this, Historical Museum Director Andy Andrews informs me that Fort Madison has enjoyed a diversity of industry that developed beginning the 1850’s, peaked in the 1950’s when the town had nearly 16,000 residents, and still continues in strength today. The variety of industry Fort Madison has hosted include lumbering, a hospital, agriculture, Sheaffer Pen, DuPont, Chevron Chemical Company, and an eclectic assortment of manufacturing (trailers, “beanie weenie” sausages, airplane de-icer, 151-foot wind blades for turbines, etc.). Andy and his co-workers claim that many of these companies are hiring but have had difficulty filling their industrial positions because welfare dependency, drug testing at companies, and a “brain drain” of talented youth to the big Midwestern cities.
Fort Madison’s condition is captured well by the similar states of its downtown and its local government: getting by but with room for improvement. The main street, Avenue G, hosts many quaint boutique stores (because Wal-Mart has sandwiched the town twenty miles to the north and south in neighboring cities), but seems perpetually deserted of shoppers. In an effort to enliven Avenue G, a longtime business owner and active Main Street program organizer has helped initiate the “First Friday” program, where merchants extend their hours on the first Friday of each month. It hasn’t caught on yet, but is only two months old and needs time to be cultivated. In Town Hall, there is a dearth of candidates for government positions. Point in case: the current mayor is a full-time dentist twenty miles away in Burlington. Despite the meager interest in public service, this solidly democratic Iowan town persists as a healthy community. The public library is in a new and clean facility, residents take weekend refuge from the summer heat at the community pool, and business owners I talked to feel the local schools are good enough to send their kids to without worry. If and when the new Amtrak station is finally built, its citizens take more ownership of their government, and foot-traffic downtown picks up a bit, Fort Madison will be a happening place.