The founding of Stuart started with a small Quaker community named Summit Grove. The first settlers arrived about 1850, and were made up of Quakers from Indiana and Ohio. They founded their town on a high point where the prairie and timberlands meet.
During this time, Charles Stuart, a young man from Vermont, as part of his employment as an agent for a scales company, visited this area.
Later Captain Charles Stuart, a veteran of the Civil War, purchased land near the present day Stuart. In 1868, Capt. Stuart purchased additional land that eventually was the original town of Stuart lying in Guthrie and Adair Counties. At the same time, the Rock Island Railroad was completed, with Captain Stuart and the railroad officials working closely to lay out the town and ensure that Stuart would be the site of the division station and machine shops. Captain Stuart was the manager and leader of the project. The plat of the town was filed for record on September 29, 1870. During these early years, prominent businessmen of the community invested money and land to ensure that the Rock Island Railroad would establish division headquarters in Stuart. The railroad wrote a contract the Stuart would be the division headquarters forever.
The 1870s saw a growth of the town of Stuart. Wood frame buildings were first on the scene for different businesses. In 1873, there was a fire, a hazard inherent to the times. In 1874 and 1875 many brick buildings were planned and built, some of which are still in the central business district. A newspaper was established in 1871 and named the STUART LOCOMOTIVE.
The building of the railroad shops began. The shops and terminal buildings which were originally wood frame, were replaced by brick and stone. The engine house was increased through the years to accommodate 38 engines. There were also large machine, blacksmith and boiler shops. By 1875, a workforce of 94 machinist and shop helpers, 45 engineers and 45 firemen were working in the shops. The famous silver engine “America” which was purchased in Paris at the World Exposition in 1867 was housed in the shops at Stuart. This was the only large shop on the Rock Island Line between Silvis, Illinois and Omaha, Nebraska.
The brick train depot, which is still standing today, was built in 1879 with material from a demolished depot at Rock Island, Illinois. It contained a “ladies’ and a gentleman’s’ waiting room, the station or ticket office, and a spacious baggage room.” Prosperity and growth continued through the years. There were continued rumors that the shops might move somewhere else, but these rumors were discounted. New buildings continued being built with new businesses being started. “No longer was it necessary for a Stuart resident to go to Des Moines for a commodity. Most everything was available in Stuart.” Some of the businesses were banks, hotels, boarding houses, coal dealers, jewelers, surrey factory, cigar factory, saloons, a brewery, feed, dry goods, drug grocery, shoes, clothing and hardware stores, elevators, flouring mill, livery stables, churches, 2 telegraph offices, attorneys, an opera house, restaurants and many more.
By 1893, the population reached 2,500 and improvements were being made continually to the railroad shops. The United States faced the panic of 1893, which caused banks to close and 56 railroads went into receivership. It wasn’t until 1896 that prosperity returned to the country and to Stuart. During these years of depression, the Rock Island Railroad made decisions affecting the town of Stuart. The economy slumped and men were discharged form the shops. During the depression, there was dissatisfaction with the Stuart location. The Rock Island had built a north-south line from Kansas City to Minneapolis, which passed through Des Moines. When an engine needed repair, the railroad had to tow it 40 miles from Des Moines. In 1896, the official word went out that a decision had been made to move the division station to Valley Junction. Stuart rallied and formed an Improvement Club. The club looked into other large business opportunities, to develop local resources and attract those businesses to Stuart.
The railroad did not move out of Stuart on the projected date. However, on September 24, 1897, the Rock Island declared that the “railroad shops at Stuart will be cleaned out by Saturday night.” A total of 400 people left Stuart during the next week. Removal of all of the machinery and buildings followed. The local newspaper changed their name to THE STUART HERALD. (Still in operation)
Many of the houses of workers were left empty and eventually were demolished. The nucleus of town had been on the south side of town, but as more vacant lots were on this side of town, the center shifted to the north side of town. The town economy reoriented itself to become a center for the surrounding agricultural territory.
The population decreased through the years until 1925 when it reached 1,531. In 1970 it had decreased to less than 1,500.
One of the more exciting happenings to occur in Stuart, was the robbing of the First National Bank by the infamous Bonnie and Clyde in the 1930s. That building is now the Stuart Police Department.
The building of the Interstate 80 through Iowa in the 1960s brought it to the south side of Stuart. It became the largest town between West Des Moines and Council Bluffs on Interstate 80. (The other larger towns are a mile or two from the Interstate.) The Interstate allowed increased commuting to Des Moines for workers and opened up access to jobs that had not been available until then.
Restaurants and gasoline stations opened and closed at the Stuart interchange. In the 1990s another spurt of development occurred at the interchange. Three fast food establishments joined the two restaurants already located there. Two new motels were added and a total of four motels are now available. Population has increased during the last two decades to 1,712, the “fastest growing” town in Adair and Guthrie Counties.
The original downtown district still retains many historic buildings and is a proposed historic district. Other historic buildings near the business district are the small Carnegie Library dedicated in 1908; the Stuart Hotel, the telephone building (Art Deco) and City Hall.
The Stuart Centennial Book is the reference for the above article.
Three Stuart buildings are on the Historic Register of Historic Places:
The Rock Island Depot is scheduled for restoration beginning the summer of 2002. This depot, which has stood empty for almost 30 years, was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1980.
The Historic All Saints Catholic Church, destroyed by fire, was placed on the Register after the fire. The chapel has been restored and is open to the public for viewing or use by appointment. Contact Richard Doherty at 515-523-2921 or Patricia Purviance at 515-523-1312.
The Masonic Temple, which contains the town clock was named to the National Register in 1996. It was completed in 1894. Jacob Bates donated and paid for the installation of the clock. Public funds were raised to build the tower above the Masonic Temple where it could be seen from all parts of the city. The exterior has been restored and the interior has been renovated to contain apartments, offices and retail outlets.
The history of Stuart goes on. Economic Development and Historic Preservation are the main focus of community groups. With the good work of Stuart citizens and the City of Stuart government, these plans will see implementation in the near future.