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).
This ad, obviously a spoof, was written by Arch Crawford while a student at Iowa State College, and appeared in the 1906 yearbook, the “Bomb.” Archibald was the son of Ames schoolteacher Louise Crawford, for whom the 4th Ward schoolhouse was named.
1905 timetable for the Ames & College Railway