The University of Iowa

History Rolls on at the Gilbertville Depot

Friday, June 18, 2021

By Diane DeBok, LAWINRC Editor & Content Manager

Establishing a nonprofit can be a challenge under any circumstances, but when the right combination of people, resources, and circumstances finally converge, the effort can be a rewarding success. That has been the case for the Friends of the Gilbertville Depot who made their mission to save the depot a reality in 2012. Since then, they have been at work preserving and improving the depot, once a stop on the Waterloo Cedar Falls & Northern Railway (WCF&N), and enhancing the area which is now part of the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, one of the oldest recreational trails in Iowa.

“Actually, we are telling two stories, the story of the WCF&N and the Cedar Valley Nature Trail,” said Dick Dewater in a recent interview. Dewater is president of the Friends of the Gilbertville Depot. The depot, now in its role as a museum, tells stories that encompass “a pioneering railroad to a pioneering bike trail,” he added.

The depot represents a significant chapter not just in Black Hawk County history, but in Eastern Iowa history as well. The Waterloo & Cedar Falls Rapid Transit Company began operating in 1897. As it expanded, the Gilbertville depot was built between 1912 and 1915 as part of the interurban service that connected Cedar Falls and Waterloo. Over the years, the line expanded, and in 1903 it was able to connect with the Chicago Great Western Railway, combining the moving of freight with passenger service, an interchange most standard-line railroads were unwilling to make with interurban systems. In 1904, the line became known as the Waterloo Cedar Falls & Northern Railway. In 1914, service reached Cedar Rapids and Iowa City—the Crandic Route. 

The WCF&N was an electric system. “It was green before that was a term,” Dewater said. 

At the height of their existence, most interurban railroads were in the eastern part of the country, but west of the Mississippi, only Texas and California had more miles of interurban rail than Iowa. While most such routes were only a few miles long, the WCF&N had a 100-mile route.

Passenger service between Waterloo and Cedar Rapids ended in 1956. Service to Cedar Falls ended in 1958. In 1958 the WCF&N was shut down for good and the Gilbertville depot closed. The railway’s interchange with the CGWR & freight service combined with passenger service helped it survive longer than many other interurban lines. The Black Hawk County Conservation Board now owns the building. In the early 1980s it became a rest stop on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail, one of the first bike trails in Iowa as well as one of the first rail bed conversions in the Rails to Trails system that was formed in the mid-80s.

“The intention had always been to make the site profitable,” Dewater said. Businesses came and went. About five restaurants opened, and closed, over the next few years. The location wasn’t good for a restaurant, Dewater added. Then the rains of 2008 came. The depot had water in the crawl space. An estimate to bring the building up to code was around $500,000. Some said the building wasn’t salvageable, and discussion turned to demolition, but Dewater, a bricklayer for 40 years, believed the all-masonry structure was sound. He had been speaking up at conservation board meetings, firm in his commitment to save the depot building. He obtained a small grant from the State Historical Society of Iowa Technical Advisory Network which covered the cost of having a historic preservation architect evaluate the building. The inspector concurred with Dewater’s assessment.

Vern Fish, director of the conservation board at the time, asked Dewater the question every nonprofit organizer must answer, “How will you do this?”

At a subsequent board meeting, Dewater made the fortunate discovery that, as he put it, “There were supporters in the background I didn’t know I had.”

In early 2012, the conservation board agreed to lease the building if a supporting organization was established and if they maintained the building and kept it open to the public, commitments the Friends organization has fulfilled ever since.

Dewater had served on other nonprofit boards, specifically the Jesse Cosby Neighborhood Center in Waterloo, Friends of KUNI, and the Cedar River Festival. When it came to completing the steps to obtain 501c3, tax-exempt status, he said, “I knew it was not beyond what we could do.” Dewater, who is also mayor of Evansdale, and friend Pat Morrissey from the Waterloo City Council, worked together to complete the initial requirements. The Friends group was officially formed and now has 100 dues-paying members.

In the last five years the group has been able to complete most of the big projects on its to-do list. Among the supporters are two or three skilled craftsmen who have volunteered their time and skills to the restoration work, a factor that contributes to significant cost savings. Projects have included a new roof, landscaping, and a brick walkway similar to the original one at the site. A more recent structural project was exposing the original ceiling which had been covered by a false ceiling made of plywood. Dewater says the original ceiling proved to be in remarkably good shape. “Railroads were known for building great structures,” he added.

Enlarged photos of the WCF&N’s days as a working depot are on display along with a collection of artifacts that includes tracks from the Illinois Central from 1912, a signal display, semaphores, and track switches. Dewater said it has been difficult getting artifacts, and the group is interested in donations of railroad artifacts even if they aren’t specific to the WCF&N. Recently, the group received an unexpected local donation, however. One day the director of the Cedar Falls Municipal Band contacted Dewater and offered shipping containers from the days when the band traveled the state to give performances. The containers, which Dewater described as similar to steamer trunks, were used to transport the band’s instruments and had been in storage for years. He said they vary from 80 to 100 years old. He and some other volunteers went to have a look and were thrilled at what they saw. “We had to hold ourselves back,” he laughed.

Now the site is also a rest stop on the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. “It’s a clean, friendly place to stop. People like to look at the photos and get a sense of the history and to see the connection to the trail,” Dewater added.

Conversion of the rail corridor to the nature trail adds another layer of history to the depot site. The trail, which follows the original corridor of the WCF&N Railway, was also one of the first Iowa trails to join the Rails to Trails Conservancy which works with communities across the country to convert unused rail corridors to trails. As ownership changed within the railroad industry and lines were changed and abandoned, the WCF&N Railway was acquired by the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad. Ultimately, that railroad went bankrupt in the early 1980s which led to the rail bed’s conversion to a recreational trail.

Each July, Friends of the Gilbertville Depot have had a birthday party at the site with free music and refreshments for the public. Last year, due to the pandemic, the event had to be canceled. A scaled back celebration could take place this year, the 109th birthday of the depot, but the group is remaining flexible on plans. The depot is also on an alternate route for RAGBRAI this summer, so some cleanup work is underway in anticipation of possible RAGBRAI visitors.

Dewater welcomes any opportunity to tell the dual stories of the WCF&N Railroad and the Cedar Valley Nature Trail. The preservation work done at the depot along with its role as a stop on the nature trail is a way of sharing those stories with all who pass by. Learn more about the depot at http://gilbertvilledepot.org/


Dick Dewater

Dick Dewater is President of Friends of the Gilbertville Depot and mayor of Evansdale.


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