Oelwein, Iowa

Update: New historic photo and Sanborn maps added in July of 2021 along with new commentary about the town. I also went back and revisited the old railroad machine shops, which can be seen towards the end of this post in July of 2021.

Oelwein still bustles because of a heavy railroad presence, and its location at the intersection of two highways.

A photographer, who took panoramic photos of many of the towns in northeastern Iowa at the beginning of the Twentieth Century, also visited Oelwein. Some of the buildings are still recognizable from the panorama.

Frederick J. Bandholtz, Panoramic View of Downtown Oelwein, Iowa, c. 1907, Library of Congress, 2007660879

Its downtown is perhaps a bit smaller than others, as there are extensive suburban-style businesses located over on Highway 150. Still, there is life downtown.

The Sanborn map reveals that it was a thriving downtown one hundred years ago, as well.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Oelwein, Fayette County, Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, February 1914, Plate 8

There is a large church that anchors the north end of the downtown main street strip.

There are also some nice quiet residential neighborhoods.

Update: I was able to identify the buildings below as part of a giant complex of railroad car repair and assembly buildings. I revisited them in July of 2021, though admittedly the underbrush was very overgrown at the time! We made it up much closer to the machine shops in July of 2022.

But what got me really excited were the remnants of what was clearly a large railroad and industrial presence in the past. This large factory in the bushes did not have any signage to explain its former use, but it sits along the massive rail lines that run north and south through town.

The city has preserved some of its railroad legacy, such as this switching tower.

And this locomotive, which I believe was restored with donated labor from the nearby rail yards.

The number of train tracks necessitated the construction of this viaduct, which is a pretty tight squeeze nowadays! It is about fifty feet wide.

What is most fascinating is that there is a fully intact and operating roundhouse, which is where railcars are still repaired as part of the local railroad operations.

The roundhouse was once much larger a century ago, as can be seen in this Sanborn map.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map from Oelwein, Fayette County, Library of Congress Geography and Map Division, February 1914, Plate 1

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