No. 29: The IC Connection at Ackley, Iowa

My buddy Mike Clements, from Wakefield, Mass., recently sent me a very thoughtful e-mail on my Ackley track plan and how he would change the Illinois Central connection to add more operating potential. Here is his note.

Hi John,

Nice change-up with the staging. I think you will be happier with that. Good compromise.

I agree with the need to keep the IC crossing on the layout. Particularly if you are going to use your layout to model other generic locations, it will come in very handy. In that case it matters less that you won’t have the capacity, I was just curious how much the IC fit in with your original choice of Ackley. Again, the town scales out well in 16′. It looks like less than 2:1 compression so it should look very natural. I’m still looking forward to your progress photos. 

I don’t know what your space is like (other than your basic description) or how the layout has to share the room with everything else, but would something like the attached work?  (Mike’s layout plan is included below).  It adds some complexity to the layout and changes the operating procedure and the track arrangement. For example, M&StL southbounds would have to pull cuts over to the IC, BUT it doesn’t take up much more real estate, keeps a high capacity interchange and screens the Peoria staging yard. 


I eventually plant to model some of the meat warehouses in Massachusetts and am always trying to learn more about that traffic. NYC was the dominant carrier for meat in the northeast; I think their ownership of the Chicago Junction/Chicago River & Indiana in the Chicago packing district gave them considerable leverage with shippers. It seems like IC was the main meat carrier between Omaha and Chicago, but both obviously had a lot of competition.  – Mike

Mike and I had chatted online earlier about meat traffic from Mascon City and Chicago to the northeastern markets he models. I told him that the M&StL-IC transfer was set up to deliver meat cars to the IC, which hauled most of them to Chicago and perhaps further east on the NYC.

Mike’s layout plan is interesting. I wish I would’ve thought about it. He put the IC transfer on the opposite side of the crossing from the prototype arrangement, but in the space available it really opens up a world of possibilities.

I have the Ackley town site compressed as much as I want to into 16 feet, but if I had two more feet I would definitely consider this option. The IC track he depicts is actually the IC station site and transfer track, which included a neat brick depot, a grain elevator, a team track, and a few more spots for customers. It would be very cool to model the IC line, or at least 10-12 feet of it. Live interchanges are much better than dead ones.


Here’s a photo from the original Ackley layout showing the IC crossing.  Per the prototype, the transfer is leading off the layout benchwork on the left, behind the tower.  On Mike’s plan, the transfer would be in the foreground on the left.

A couple of years ago I was fortunate to correspond with a few fellow modelers and at least one former railroader about IC operations and the connection at Ackley.  I’m not an IC modeler but I the detail on IC’s Iowa meat operations is very interesting.  The first message here is from Don Vaughn, a former M&StL man:

Don Vaughn: I was on the phone with a friend the other day, he asked if I knew of any photos of the IC’s Ackley turn in steam days. The IC had a daily train to meet the M&StL at Ackley to receive meat for Chicago from Deckers in Mason City. It was a pretty interesting conversation.

Here is the way it worked. The IC would bring trains from the west (both Omaha and Sioux City) to Waterloo, where traffic for Ackley, Austinville, Aplington, Parkersburg, and New Hartford would be cut out and blocked in reverse. The cars would be set up for east to west stations; reverse from how I listed them. The Ackley Turn would go on duty in the early afternoon so that the set-outs and pick-ups would be made in time for the turn to be in Ackley awaiting the M&StL meat train from Mason City.

The IC crew would grab beans at Ackley, and once the M&StL meat train came to town the IC locomotive would reach in and grab the cars for the IC, pull back from the transfer, hook up the caboose, make the brake test, and then non-stop to Waterloo. This train would then have no meets back to Waterloo since they were moving high priority traffic. They ran non stop, arriving back in Waterloo by 9 pm.

Now here is where it gets interesting. The ICRR had one, possibly two, steam locomotives, unknown numbers and wheel arrangement for this Ackley train. What was unique is that these locomotives were set up with pilots on the tender, a standard headlight (not a back-up light) on the rear tender deck, and hard-wired marker lamps on the tender – they were permanent fixtures on the tenders. This arrangement was so the locomotive could run in reverse from Waterloo since there are no turning facilities at Ackley.

My friend’s grandfather was the General Yardmaster for the ICRR in Waterloo from 1935 to 1952, when he retired from the railroad. That’s the source of this information. Any additional insight or leads would be appreciated.

Doug Harding followed up, writing:

When I was doing some research on meat trains, here is what I got from Carl Storey, a retired IC dispatcher who worked the Iowa line, regarding IC meat traffic in the early 1950s:

Carl Storey: PHP (Packing House Products) from Storm Lake Iowa were picked up by a Cherokee to Fort Dodge local and taken to Fort Dodge where they were added to either SCF-6 (Sioux City to Chicago meat train) or CC-6 (Council Bluffs to Chicago meat train), usually SCF6.

Late in the afternoon Monday thru Saturday we ran a turn-around local from Waterloo to Iowa Falls (50 miles) and return. On its eastward trip this was the train which picked up the Decker PHP off the M&StL at Ackley and took it to Waterloo to be added to one of the meat trains there.

One of our Iowa Division superintendents and later a high ranking transportation department officer in Chicago was once said we ran as many as 13 meat trains out of Waterloo, but I don’t recall running more than 7 in one day.

The most PHP we ever received from Rath in Waterloo in a single day was 126 cars.  Now Rath doesn’t even exist. Some of these cars which were received in the late afternoon were added to AC-2 (Albert Lea – Chicago) unless AC-2 was late in which case we would run the Rath PHP ahead, filling the train out with general merchandise.

Meat trains were the hottest trains on the division. Even passenger trains took sidings for the meat trains. If a train dispatcher delayed a meat train, even by just giving them a yellow block, the chief train dispatcher would send you a torpedo asking why you delayed the meat train. In those days the speed limit for freight trains between Fort Dodge and Broadview, IL was 60 mph and in some places the meat trains were known to exceed that.

The reason the meat trains were so hot was that we had a 1:00PM cut off for delivery to the IHB at Broadview, IL. The IHB would take delivery as late as 1:30PM. Any later and the IHB could not make connections with eastern lines such as the Pennsylvania and New York Central. Meat trains were generally limited to 70 or 80 cars east of Waterloo and after 1953 were generally powered by four diesel units.

Before mechanical refrigerator cars came into being, any necessary icing was done in Waterloo. It generally took 2-3 minutes to ice a car depending how close in the train the icers were together. In hot summer days, icing took a bit longer. The advent of mechanical refrigerators was great in many ways and much better for train dispatchers trying to figure how long the train would be delayed in Waterloo.

In steam engine days, the meat trains were operated between Waterloo and Freeport, Illinois with one 2800 Central-type locomotives, the most powerful on the IC. This was to provide plenty of power to negotiate the hill from Galena to Scales Mound, the eastward ruling grade of the Dubuque District.

We had 4 train dispatchers on each 8 hour shift in Waterloo, two of which handled the Dubuque District (Waterloo to Freeport, IL) . One handled the 90 miles Waterloo to Dubuque and the other the 71 miles Dubuque to Freeport. Those were very busy jobs.

Don Vaughn added:

There were no turnaround facilities on the IC at Iowa Falls, and the possibility of the IC going there from Ackley is plausible as it is only about seven miles from Ackley.  So, if the IC had the time, before needing to meet the M&StL train, it is possible they could’ve worked around Iowa Falls. 

I won’t get off the M&StL topic here, so I am figuring any Iowa Falls work was done to make the IC crew’s time useful—and also scheduled to make the M&StL connection at Ackley.  Obviously, the meat coming from Deckers in off the M&StL in Mason City was hot priority.  That would have been very interesting to watch; the IC waiting, the M&StL pulls past the diamond, the IC pulls the meat cars off and pulls away from the M&StL.  Then the IC grabs their caboose as the M&StL does the same, and in a few minutes, both trains depart Ackley.  Probably took 15 minutes.

Sometime after these e-mails were traded, I found online a photo of an IC engine, 1291, which appears to be a 4-8-2. I do not have permission to include it here but the photo shows the engine running backwards with a full rear-tender view.  The engine has a small pilot below the tender coupler and a large headlight on the rear tender deck.

Yesterday, after reading this post, Ted Richardson sent a photo of IC 1647 (below) which clearly shows all the reverse-running equipment.  Ted writes, “The photo of IC 1647 below was taken in Waterloo, Iowa.  Bill Kuba took the photo in 1947 and gave me permission to use it when I met with him in Cedar Rapids in 1980.  If you notice the rear end of the tender is set up for running in reverse, one of a handful used for that purpose.”

Indeed, the photo looks like it includes an entire IC train–engine, albeit backwards, plus two cars and a caboose.


IC 2-8-2 1647 and M&StL F-7 350, Waterloo, Iowa, 1950.  Photo by Bill Kuba, Ted Richardson collection.

This is priceless information for the IC modeler.  For my purposes, it corroborates info we know on the M&StL—that Decker meat was a hot commodity, and that the M&StL-IC Connection at Ackley was big business for both carriers.


Many thanks to Don Vaughn, Doug Harding, Carl Storey, Bill Kuba and Ted Richardson for the memories.  – John

2 thoughts on “No. 29: The IC Connection at Ackley, Iowa

  1. John it took me a moment to understand your friend’s suggestion. Then it dawned upon me that he was proposing adding several tracks in front of your “Peoria Staging” tracks, not replacing the staging. These new tracks would represent the IC trackage in Ackley. I can see where this would enhance operations in Ackley, adding the IC depot and industries. However it does mean moving the interchange north of the diamond. This change would mean the Decker/Armour meat would be left on the track in front of the MSTL depot so the IC could pop in and pick it up. That would work for the meat as the loaded reefers would not be there very long. But what happens to the empty reefers being returned to the MSTL? I don’t know the schedule, but I assumed these were dropped by an IC westbound, sometime during the night, and then the morning northbound MSTL train out of Marshalltown would pick them up to take to the URTC cleanout/repair facility in Mason City. Empties did not run in dedicated trains, but instead were included in general freights, as empties were not the priority that loads were. Thus the empties could be sitting on that interchange track for some time. If in front of the depot this could impede MSTL operations.

    The interchange tracks at Ackley were designed for fast transfer of the EB meat. But the operation was far more awkward for the WB returning empties. It would require a runaround for the IC on their tracks.

    There was a meat packing plant in Iowa Falls, which I understand the IC turn worked before picking up the Decker meat in Ackley.
    Doug Harding


  2. John – Fascinating post and an interesting alternative for the IC interchange. It’s funny how we end up becoming inadvertant students/modelers of connecting roads, even if that wasn’t the intention at the outset. Love the blog. Keep it up!!
    -Todd Hermann


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