Ames & College Railway (The Dinkey)

From the 1860s until 1890, the main means of travel between the town of Ames and the campus of Iowa Agricultural College was by foot or horse-drawn vehicle along often muddy, dirt roads.  The Nichols and Maxwell Livery operated an omnibus known as the “college bus” to carry passengers, baggage and mail to campus.  With the Ames population increasing ten-fold in its first 25 years and the campus population growing steadily, it became obvious that a more rapid means of travel between the two entities would be needed.  Particularly important was a faster connection between the Chicago and Northwestern Depot and campus.

In September of 1890, a small group of Ames backers formed a corporation to satisfy that need.  Original incorporators and directors were Judge J.L. Stevens, R.J. Jordan, R.J. Hopkins and J.R. Whitacker.  Perennial mayor, Parley Sheldon; his son, B.J. Sheldon; Prof. Joseph Budd, Dean Edgar W. Stanton, Dr. D.S. Fairchild; Capt. Wallace M. Greeley and M.K. Smith joined the original incorporators in promoting and operating the rail line.

The corporation submitted a proposition to Ames involving the formation of the Ames Street Railway Company, operating under the name of the Ames and College Railway, “to construct a horse car railway between Ames and the college.”  In mid-October, the Town Council granted a franchise to Ames & College Railway to operate on Ames streets.  A special town committee formed to report on the proposition concluded that a horse-car railway would not meet the demands for rapid transit.   The report, dated November 12, 1890, went on to state that “some means of rapid transit by electric or other railway would greatly benefit the college in various ways.”

In the final agreement, the “Said Ames Street Railway Company hereby agrees to construct and have in operation a standard gauge railway to be operated by steam motor or other improved motive power as may be determined.  Animal power is hereby expressly prohibited.  Said railway is to be completed and in operation on or before Nov. 1, 1892.” The Trustees of Iowa Agricultural College granted the new company right of way across campus in January of 1891.  An agreement was also made authorizing the company to pick up college mail at the Ames Post Office and make delivery on campus. On the Fourth of July, the Dinkey made its first run between downtown Ames and campus, well in advance of the November 1892 target date.

At first called the “Motor Line,” the train soon became affectionately known as the “Dinkey,” sometimes also spelled Dinky.  The name may have arisen from the insignificant size of the engine, or a corruption of the term “donkey” engine, a type of locomotive used for hauling and shunting rail cars. The Dinkey was housed downtown in a rail barn at the east end of Onondaga (Main Street) just east of Duff Avenue and a stone’s throw from the Chicago and Northwestern Depot.  A turnaround may have been provided at each end.  At the west end of Onondaga where the Dinkey crossed the C&NW line, tracks were laid so that mainline freight cars could be switched onto the Dinkey rails and pushed out to campus.


Every hour the Dinkey made its route, starting at 8 a.m. and ending at 9 p.m. Three blasts from the engine’s whistle announced that departure was in five minutes.  The engine eased out of the terminal with two quick whistle toots.  Starting on its almost two-mile route, the train crossed from its barn on Onondaga to Story (Fifth) Street and traveled west, picking up passengers along the way.  The line crossed over the Squaw Creek bridge and floodplain to campus, going back of Farm House, in front of Agriculture (Catt) Hall, and in front of Morrill Hall, terminating at the terminal between Old Main and Morrill.  After 1907, electric trolley rails were laid from the east end of Onondaga to encircle campus.  The first stop was just north of the Farm House.  Then the line went north past the gardens, west to the Armory and West Gate and then back to town again.  In 1916, the track that crossed central campus was rerouted around campus to join the interurban line from Des Moines, thus forming a complete loop of the campus. Amazingly, the fare was never more than a nickel from 1891 until 1926 when it was raised to seven cents.


In 1892, a terminal (later to be known as the Hub) was built between Old Main and Morrill Hall. Central Station was added in 1907 for the electric trolley line just in front of the Chemistry Building.  By 1929 bus service had replaced the trolley, so Central Station was razed in 1933.  The old Dinkey station was moved in 1920 to a spot just west of Morrill Hall, thus creating an open space between Morrill and Beardshear.  It continued in use as a postal substation with a book store added.  Additions were made to the structure in 1946 and 1952 to create more space.  Automated snack service was begun in 1958 by utilizing space vacated by the removal of the book store to the Memorial Union.  The following year it acquired the name we all know it by now, the Hub.  In 1963, Hub snack service was expanded and a box office added for selling tickets to campus events.


Two different “donkey” steam locomotives may be seen in old photographs of the Dinkey.  In at least one photo, both locomotives are shown pushing passenger cars.  The engines shared several features in common: each had cow catchers, and each bore the numerals “two” and “Rapid Transit” lettered on the sides.  They may be instantly distinguished by their contrasting rooflines and side panels.  The more Victorian and elaborate of the two engines had a flattened roof, with “Rapid Transit” lettered within a flourished panel on each side.  The plainer locomotive had a curved roof and more mundane side panels.  At least one of the engines supposedly came to Ames as a recycled one from Waterloo, Iowa.  The Ames & College steam engines were small 0-4-0 locomotives (no leading wheels, 4 drive wheels, no trailing wheels) running on standard gauge track. A tender never appeared in any known photos of the engines, which could certainly burn coal or wood, and were likely refueled at either end of the line.  Three passenger cars were purchased used from the city of Des Moines.  During the busiest times of the day all three cars were put into use.  Each car had a stove that was fired in winter by conductor Hank Wilkinson.  A very useful flat car was also included in the inventory of rolling stock. It is interesting to note the small scale of the Dinkey rails: 30 pounds versus today’s 136 pound track (based on the weight per yard of rail).


Students, faculty, school children, and townspeople were the bread and butter of the Dinkey’s passenger operation.  With only three passenger cars, overflow riders often had to cling to platform and steps.  Besides carrying passengers, the Dinkey carried mail from the downtown post office to campus for sorting into pigeon holes at the campus terminal.  A major contribution during the Dinkey’s reign was the transporting of a considerable quantity of building materials and equipment during the building boom on campus.  New construction of the era included: Campanile (1897-1898), Marston Hall (1903), Alumni Hall (1904-1907), East Hall (1905), and Beardshear Hall (1906).  The electric trolley that succeeded the Dinkey carried materials for Mechanical Engineering Building (1908), Curtiss Hall (1909), Engineering Annex (1910), MacKay Hall West (1911), and Veterinary Quadrangle (1912).  A less serious contribution was the transport by flat car of empty boxes, crates and waste wood to the athletic field for a victory bonfire when an important home game was won.

One of the most challenging jobs for the Dinkey involved carrying visitors to the College during Excursion Day.  This early public relations effort to showcase the college eventually evolved into Veishea, and was the brainchild of Pres. Beardshear.  People from around the state took trains into Ames and rode the Dinkey to campus to tour the buildings, watch a parade and athletic events, and enter contests.  Home-packed lunches were brought and enjoyed in a picnic setting on the ever-beautiful central campus.  Records show that as many as 15,000 visitors swarmed over the campus.  The flat car, normally reserved for hauling freight, was even pressed into service to carry passengers, whose legs dangled over the sides as they rode.  OSHA would be horrified today at such a practice.  Many visitors simply walked the tracks to campus, or hitched a ride on an enterprising farmer’s wagon.

Frank Lange, the engineer, has a story related by Gladys Meads in her book At the Squaw and the Skunk.  “One of the things that made Frank’s life hard was young Seaman Knapp, son of Registrar Herman Knapp.  Seaman had a deep and unsurpassed longing to ride in the cab of the engine, and while it was so filled with passengers and making so many extra stops was Seaman’s opportunity to sneak on the forbidden spot on the Dinkey.  So at the start of every trip, the engineer would have to snoop out the boy from whatever spot he had chosen to hide till the train was in motion.  It became a game of wits with sometimes Frank and sometimes Seaman winning.”

Functioning as a “school bus,” the Dinkey carried 4th Ward children to downtown school, placing the boys in one car and girls in another.  Still, the children bedeviled the train personnel.  One large boy in particular, Morrill Marston, son of Dean Anson Marston, was a menace.  Quoting again from Gladys Meads book: “The trainmen tried to discipline him by pulling out ahead of time so as to make him hike to town, but he only came earlier and efforts not to stop for him brought his worst stunt.  He simply laid down on the track, much to everyone’s horror.”

An accident involving another boy on the track did not have a positive outcome.  One time the Dinkey ran over a young boy and severed his leg. The railway was sued and financial backers were nearly ruined.

One last story from Dinkey engineer Frank Lange involves transporting a forbidden keg of beer for a student celebration.  “The Dinkey engine had two water tanks, one on either side.  The keg was to be carried here and when the Dinkey pulled up past the depot to turn the engine around the keg was to be eased off into some trees that were there in a kind of grove.  All went according to plan, except someone else besides the assigned student got the keg.”  It was entirely possible that Pres. Beardshear, known for his uncanny way of knowing everything that went on, had confiscated the keg.  He believed that, where alcohol was concerned, an ounce of prevention was worth a pound of punishment.  Apparently nothing ever came of the affair.

Dinkey related Timeline

1858 - Iowa Agricultural College and Model Farm established

1864 - Town of Ames platted.

1865 - First Ames Depot built near Duff Avenue.

First scheduled passenger train passes through Ames in June.

1866 - Ames population: about 100.

1868 Oct. 21 - First students attend special preparatory sessions at I.A.C.

1869 Mar. 17 - I.A.C. classes start.  College enrollment: 93.

1872 Nov. 13 - First I.A.C. graduation held.

1874 - Narrow gauge Des Moines & Minnesota Railroad built its line from Des Moines to Ames.

1875 - Ames population: 820.

1880 - Ames population: 1,153; College enrollment: 281.

1890 - Ames population: 1,276; College enrollment: 297.

1890 Sept. 20 - Ames Street Railway Company, known as the Ames & College Railway, was incorporated.  The line was more commonly known as the Motor Line or the Dinkey.

1890 Oct. 15 - Town Council granted a franchise to Ames & College Railway to operate on Ames streets.

1890 Nov. 12 - A special committee of Ames reported that a proposition by Ames Street Railway Company to provide a horse-car railway “would not meet the demands for rapid transit.”  A “steam motor or other improved motive power” was preferred.

1891 January - Trustees of the College granted right of way across the I.A.C. campus to the Ames Street Railway Company, their successor or assigns.  An agreement was also entered into between the College and the Railway for the rail company to pick up college mail at the Ames Post Office and make delivery to the College.

1891 July 4 - Ames & College Railway made its first run between downtown Ames and the campus via tracks on 5th Street.

1891 - H.L. Munn established Munn Lumber Company.

William M. Beardshear appointed president of ISC and serves until 1902.

1892 - Campus terminal for Dinkey built between Old Main and Morrill Hall (known later as the Hub).

1900 - Chicago & Northwestern Depot built.

1900 Dec. 10 - North wing of Old Main destroyed by fire.

1902 Sept. 14 - South wing of Old Main destroyed by fire.

1903 - Albert B. Storms appointed president of ISC and serves until 1910.

College enrollment: 1,334.

1906 - Beardshear Hall completed.

1907 - Ames & College Railway sold to Ft. Dodge, Des Moines & Southern Railroad in September.

Dinkey tracks on 5th Street torn up and new tracks laid down Main Street.

Line built from Kelley north into Ames. Interurban made its first run down Ames’ Main Street in July.

Central Station built for electric trolley opposite Chemistry Building; tracks running on south side of Morrill Hall moved. Cinder path constructed between downtown Ames and campus. Scenic Theater, Ames’ first movie house, opened at 121 Main St.; Name changed to Twin Star in 1913 when acquired by Joe Gerbracht.

1908 - Dinkey depot relocated just west of Morrill Hall.  Railroad built a second foot bridge over Squaw Creek and north of the railroad bridge to prevent students from climbing the railroad company’s fences east of Squaw Creek.

1909 - Newton and Northwestern Railroad was sold and merged with the Ft. Dodge, Des Moines & Southern line.  Connected with the Fort Dodge Line at Midvale south of Ames.  Line was then electrified, extended to Des Moines from Midvale.  Newton connection discontinued.

1913 - Street car carried 133 people per hour.

1916 - Dinkey track crossing central campus rerouted to encircle campus

1920 - Addition made to Dinkey station.

1929 - Bus service replaced trolley.

1933 - Central Station razed, but Dinkey station continued in use as a postal substation and book store.  Additions made in 1946, 1952.

1958 - Automated snack service begun in station by utilizing space vacated by removal of book store to Memorial Union.

1959 - Station named the Hub.

1963 - Snack service expanded and ticket box office added in Hub by removal of postal substation to new off-campus building.

From the August 16, 1906, issue of the Ames Times:

In 1868 when the Iowa Agricultural College was formally opened, the matter of transportation between the railway station and the institution, a distance of two miles, was a problem that confronted the town people and the college people, which were separate and distinct populations at that time, and this being a time when electric cars were still a dream and automobiles had not even been dreamed of, all the primitive laws of locomotion and transportation were resorted to in keeping up with the demand of the college and the town.

Finally a horse-draw bus line was established, and it did a thriving business for years, being the only conveyance running regularly between the town and the college, conveying passengers, express and mail -- the bus driver peddling the mail around from house to house, and the bus making regular trips -- when the wagon roads would permit of it, and when they wouldn't they made irregular trips.

Billy Childs was perhaps the best known driver of the bus, to the present generation.  He was engineer, conductor, brakeman, mail messenger, expressman, and the whole works, as well as being errand boy for the people at both ends of the line and in the middle.

This state of affairs continued until a few enterprising citizens of downtown and the college saw the inadequacy of the service and the growing demand for something faster and better, and in 1890 a company was organized for the building of a steam road between the city and the college, the organization including Professors Stanton, Budd and Stalker, Judge Stevens, Parley Sheldon, and others of Ames and a few from outside towns, among them Messrs Joe Whitaker of Boone and Hopkins of Madrid.

Judge Stevens was made president, Prof. Budd secretary and B.J. Shelden treasurer.

Work on the line was pushed to completion and the first cars were run over the line on the 4th of July, 1891, when the road was finally opened for traffic.

This was a great step forward towards the bringing of the college and town together and the opening of the line was kept a gala day by the people of the town and college.

Bill Cummins of Boone was the first engineer to pull a throttle on the Ames and College Railway, and Harley Stuckslager was the first ticket puncher on the line which was equipped with the present style of steam motor and cars, they having been bought from a Des Moines Street company and put into service on the A. & C., during which service they pulled many distinguished and plebian guests to the college, and all the mail, freight, and express, most of the time since between the town and the college.

The road and equipment cost twenty-seven thousand dollars and has been a paying investment.  On more than one occasion the receipts have been as high as seven hundred dollars on a single day, and would have been more had the equipment been sufficient to accommodate those who wanted to ride.

Parley Sheldon was the first superintendent, in which capacity he acted for three years, when a new set of officers were elected, with W.M. Greeley and M.K. Smith as superintendent and manager.

Last fall negotiations were opened with two different companies for the sale of the road and the deal was consummated early this spring when the Newton and Northwestern Railway Company purchased the road, paying for it practically two dollars for every one the A. & C. had invested.

The company took charge of the line and is now operating it under the same system and will continue to do so until the new interurban is built into the college grounds, when it will be electrified and made a part of the Frt. Dodge, Des Moines and Southern Interurban line, but will still retain its present name, Ames and College Railway.

The new electric cars, it is expected, will be running into Ames by the first of next January.  The contract calls for a regular twenty minute service between college and town.


The Dinkey

  • made it possible for faculty to live downtown and commute to the College;
  • carried school children from 4th Ward to downtown school;
  • facilitated the transport of construction materials to campus during a period of great growth;
  • was integral to town and campus life for 16 years, bonded the two communities, and furnished many memories of the good old days.

In 1907, the Ames & College Railway was sold to the Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Southern Railroad, the Dinkey tracks on 5th Street were torn up and steam power vanished for good.  New tracks were laid for an electric trolley line running from Main Street to campus, and the line was extended from Kelley to Ames.  The interurban made its first run down Ames’ Main Street in July.  A new station called Central Station was built opposite Chemistry Building.

Sometime during the WWI years, Seaman Knapp and Frank Lange made an unsuccessful attempt to locate and reclaim the Dinkey as a museum piece.  The Fort Dodge, Des Moines and Southern Company had previously retired the Dinkey to its Boone yards, and when Knapp and Lange inquired about it, they were told it had just been donated to the wartime scrap iron drive.  Back in Ames they spread the word that the Dinkey had been “thrown at the Germans.”  Even without the physical artifact, the Dinkey has provided its own legacy.


Brown, Farwell T.  Interview, 10-2-04.

Brown, Farwell T.   Ames, the early years in word and picture.  Ames, Iowa : Heuss Printing, c1993.  vi, 230 p. : ill. ; 26 cm.  pp. 39-43.

Meads, Gladys H.  At the Squaw and the Skunk.  Ames, Iowa : Greenwood Printing Co., 1955.  181 p. : ill., ports. ; 26 cm.  pp. 36-37, 86, 104, 140-144, 151.

Photographs in Dept. of Special Collections, Parks Library, Iowa State University; and Ames Historical Society.