That stood out in the weather;
Where fate and time and two railroads
Just chanced to come together.
A place of mud and board sidewalks,
And slush, oh, what a pity.
That anyone should ever think
It might become a city!
— Dudley Reid, 1950
From the early Native Americans and pioneer settlers, to the railroad workers, to the businesses, schools, houses and churches, the history of Valley Junction marks the beginning of West Des Moines. Yet for longtime resident and historian Penny Schiltz, it serves as a powerful reminder that people or a city do not make history, but that they are made by history.
“Valley Junction is the roots of West Des Moines; this is where we started,” she says from her office inside the Historic Jordan House where she serves as director of the landmark and volunteers for the West Des Moines Historical Society. “There is a lot of history down here. We started as a junction in the valley with two railroads, which grew into a city.”
Schiltz’s mission is to educate, to preserve and to promote the heritage and history of West Des Moines. And you can’t talk about Valley Junction or West Des Moines without talking about James Jordan, or visa versa.
A cattle farmer from Virginia, Jordan became the first pioneer to settle in what was known as Walnut Township. He was one of Iowa’s most influential early settlers, who with help from his wife and their six children, began building his permanent home in 1850, four years after moving to the area now known as Valley Junction.
During the antebellum period, fugitive slaves were hidden in the house, says Schiltz, as it was a designated stopover on the secret Underground Railroad. A staunch abolitionist, Jordan was regarded as the “chief conductor” for Polk County and none other than the legendary John Brown stayed at least twice at the house while leading groups of slaves to freedom.
The house, according to the landmark’s website, also served as a haven for weary travelers on their westward journey. Jordan would become an influential business and civic leader, organizing the State Bank of Des Moines, being elected to both the Iowa Senate and the House of Representatives and helping to facilitate the state’s capitol move from Iowa City to Des Moines. During his tenure in the legislature, Jordan also was instrumental in bringing the railroad to the Des Moines area and platting out Valley Junction, thereby founding what is today West Des Moines.
The Jordan House remained in the family for almost a century. In 1947, it was sold to the Church of the Nazarene and became part of its campgrounds. In 1978, the West Des Moines Historical Society purchased the home and began renovating it to create a museum that not only serves as an important reminder of the history of Valley Junction and West Des Moines but the history of the country, says Schiltz.
“Its story is on a bigger scale because it’s about the progression of the country, how the West was developed and religious freedoms and freedom not only for slaves, but for Chinese-Americans and women. James believed that whoever you are, you needed freedom to grow. That is his legacy,” she says.
Two trains running
By the 1850s, the railroads were pushing west in Iowa, bringing prosperity with them. The first train arrived in Des Moines on Aug. 29, 1866. Between 1867 and 1869, according to the book “West Des Moines: From Railroads to Crossroads,” “A junction of the Rock Island and Milwaukee lines was created in the valley of the Raccoon River. That ‘junction in the valley’ became a shipping station where Walnut Township farmers could bring their livestock and produce.”
In 1868, the Des Moines Valley Railway Company built the grade through Valley Junction. It then laid tracks that crossed the Rock Island road in front of a depot, forming the junction of the two roads from which the area would later get its name.
A small community sprang up, and in 1887 the first post office was established on the west side of the 200 block of Fifth Street in what is known today as West Des Moines. Jordan and a group of investors decided to re-establish the rail junction shortly after it moved further west to Waukee, platting the town in 1891. It included the area from the railroad tracks on the south to Vine Street north, Eighth Street west to 63rd Street east, according to “West Des Moines: From Railroads to Crossroads.” “The name Junction was suggested because of the railroad, then the name Valley Junction was selected to describe a junction town located in the valley of the Raccoon River.”
Jordan’s plan worked because soon after, the Rock Island moved its railroad shops and roundhouse to new community that year. It was home to about 300 people, and Jordan’s investment group, Hawkeye Investment Company, began building houses in the area to set the stage for continued growth.
“The city grew when the roundhouse came here and the men came here,” says Schiltz.
The Rock Island railroad plant at Valley Junction employed 200 men, including machinists, boilermakers, tinsmiths, pipe-fitters, blacksmiths, welders and carpenters, all of whom kept the trains moving. The first switch and division crews were moved from East Des Moines to Valley Junction in 1893, followed by engine and train crews. In 1896, additional railroad businesses moved to the area. In five years, Valley Junction had transformed from a quiet spot by the river, to a crowded community with a population of 1,000 people.
“We’re a railroad community, like hundreds of towns across Iowa,” says Jim Miller, executive director of the Valley Junction Foundation. “If the railroads weren’t here, we wouldn’t be here.”
The Rock Island drew workers from as far away as California, including many Mexican railroad workers. In “West Des Moines: From Railroads to Crossroads,” it was written, “It has been generally assumed that the Mexican population in West Des Moines came about because Superintendent R.C. Hyde, a master mechanic from Oklahoma, brought Mexican and African-American laborers to work as scabs during a 22-month strike. They lived in box cars and tiny houses in an area south of Railroad Avenue and west of the rail yards, which local residents called Hyde Park. It closed in 1930.
“In 1922 and 1923, a lengthy strike changed forever the face of Valley Junction, which was described as a ‘swaggering little railroad town — a rough and tumble community,’ and the future of the railroads. By 1936, when the railroads moved their shops out of Valley Junction and returned east to Des Moines, many residents were not sorry to see the railroads go.”
From railroads to commerce
While the railroads were key to establishing Valley Junction, the departure of the roundhouse and railroad terminal is credited for its growth. During the first half of the 20th century, grocery stores, meat markets, clothing and department shops, doctors, newspapers, bakeries, banks, saloons and other specialty shops, including a hotel and theater, could be found up and down Fifth Street.
“You could walk to town and get anything you needed,” says Schiltz.
Other notable construction included the former Valley High School Stadium in 1938 and the Val Air Ballroom, a legendary venue that still hosts concerts today, in 1939.
During the 1950s, Fifth Street began to transform into a retail district known for its antique shops, boutiques, tea rooms, pubs, curio stores, art galleries and more. Some businesses moved to new construction areas like the Gateway Shopping Center near Fourth Street and Grand Avenue. In 1968, most of the retail outlets were close to Fifth Street and along Grand Avenue.
Since the 1970s and 1980s, the area also became a hub for many social events like the weekly farmer’s market, antique and art jamborees and concerts.
“It changed from being a self-contained city to an area of specialty shops during the 1980s,” says Schiltz. “It didn’t change overnight; it was a slow process, and it was kind of sad to see it go.”
Schiltz and Miller agree that the next biggest change to Valley Junction occurred when businesses and home owners re-built following the floods of 1993.
“I credit Bob Parks. He said that if the flood never happened, Valley Junction would not be as successful as it is today. Was it devastating? Yes, but look how it bounced back. It changed how everyone here looked at things. It changed their attitude,” Miller says.
Schiltz, Miller and others are working together to preserve the history of Valley Junction in the new offices of the Valley Junction Foundation, 137 Fifth St. A number of photos and artifacts are currently on display at the Jordan House, but officials would like to see those items moved to a permanent at the Foundation’s offices for everyone to enjoy. They also encourage residents to donate historical items to help tell the city’s story.
“It’s important that we tell people how we got to be the most prominent suburb in Iowa from our days of being a cross section of two railroads,” Schiltz says.
Those who visit the Foundation’s offices can view hundreds of photos and new videos documenting the history of the area that play on a continuous loop on a TV.
“I’m amazed at how many people come in here to watch them,” Miller says. “I’ve always been pleasantly surprised how people are so fiercely loyal to Valley Junction.”