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History of Stuart


Stuart began as a small Quaker community by the name of Summit Grove. The first settlers arrived around 1850. The group was made up of Quakers from the states of Indiana and Ohio. The location for the town was chosen because it was the high point where the prairie and timberlands met.

Charles Stuart

Around the time of Summit Grove, a young man named Charles Stuart visited. The Vermont man was an agent for a scales company visiting the area.

Later, after serving time in the Civil War, Captain Charles Stuart made the decision to purchase land near present-day Stuart. In 1868, Captain Stuart purchased additional land in the area that became the original town of Stuart. The land set between Guthrie and Adair Counties. Around that time, the Rock Island Railroad was completed. Captain Stuart worked with railroad officials to ensure the city of Stuart would be the site of the division station as well as machine shops. Captain Stuart worked as manager and leader of the project. This plat of the town was filed on record September 29, 1870.

Throughout the early years, prominent business owners in the community invested money and land to ensure that the Rock Island Railroad would establish headquarters in Stuart. The railroad ended up writing a contract making Stuart the division headquarters forever.

Railroad Influence, Late 1800s

Through the 1870s, Stuart experienced quite a bit of growth. Various businesses started building wood framed buildings. In 1873 there was a fire causing some damage. In 1874 and 1875, planning and construction of several brick buildings began, some of which still exist. A newspaper was established in 1871, named the Stuart Locomotive.

Construction began on railroad shops. These buildings started as wood frame, but were replaced with brick and stone over time. The engine house was continually increased over the years to eventually accommodate 38 engines. Part of the region also consisted of blacksmith, boiler, and machine shops. By 1875 there was a workforce consisting of 94 machinists/shop helpers, 45 engineers, and 45 firemen. The infamous silver engine “America” was housed for some time in the shops in Stuart. This engine was purchased at the World Exposition in Paris in 1867. This shop was the only large one on the Rock Island Line between Silvis, Illinois and Omaha, Nebraska.

The brick train depot was constructed in 1879 with material leftover from a demolished depot in Rock Island, Illinois. This building is still standing in Stuart and can be found right on Front Street, near City Hall. This depot contained a “ladies’ and gentleman’s waiting room, station or ticket office, and a spacious baggage room.”

Growth in Stuart continued over the years. There were rumors that the shops may move elsewhere, but they were quickly put to rest. New construction took place for incoming businesses. The people of Stuart no longer had to travel to Des Moines for their commodities, along people to stay and grow the community. Various new businesses started: banks, hotels, boarding houses, coal dealers, jewelers, cigar factory, saloons, a brewery, drug stores, hardware stores, etc.

By 1893 the population of Stuart had grown to 2,500 people. Improvements were constantly being made to the railroad shops. Unfortunately, the the United States panic of 1893 led to the closing of banks and led to 56 railroads going into receivership. It wasn’t until 1896 that prosperity was returned. In that period of depression, the Rock Island Railroad made decisions that had an impact on Stuart. Men were discharged from shops and the Rock Island Railroad was dissatisfied with the Stuart location. At this time, the railroad had built a north-south line from Kansas City to Minneapolis, passing through Des Moines. If that railroad had any engine troubles, they had to tow the engines 40 miles to be repaired.

In 1896, the decision was made to move the division station from Stuart to Valley Junction. This decision led to the formation of the Improvement Club. The club worked to try to attract other business opportunities to develop local resources and bring new business to Stuart.

The railroad didn’t leave Stuart on the date that was projected. However, on September 24, 1897, the Rock Island Railroad declared that “railroad shops at Stuart will be cleaned out by Sturday night.” A total of 400 people left Stuart within a week, followed by removal of all machinery and railroad buildings. The local newspaper renamed itself to The Stuart Herald, still in operation to this day.

Bonnie and Clyde

On April 16, 1934, the First National Bank in Stuart fell victim to infamous outlaws Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. The bank lost about $1,500 (approximately $30,000 today). Bonnie & Clyde were chased out of Stuart by a local posse and killed in a police ambush in Louisiana approximately one month later.  Although there were fortunately no fatalities in the Stuart robbery, the Barrow gang is believed to have murdered at least nine police officers and four civilians during their crime sprees.  First National Bank in Stuart ceased operations in 1944, and the building now houses a hair salon. It is located at the intersection of North 2nd Street and Division Street in the heart of downtown Stuart.  Historical markers have been erected at this popular tourist attraction.

1960s to Today

During the 1960s Interstate 80 was built across Iowa, going right past Stuart. This led to Stuart becoming the largest town between West Des Moines and Council Bluffs along the Interstate. This led to a greater ability for Stuart residents to commute to work in Des Moines, opening access to jobs that had previously been more difficult to commute to.

Throughout the time from the 60s to the 90s the area near the Interstate expanded. Restaurants and gasoline stations were constructed. In the 1990s there was an increase in new construction. In this time Stuart saw three new fast food establishments, joining the two already there. Two new motels were added (bringing the Stuart total to four).

Stuart has seen quite a bit of development in recent years. A new City Hall and Library was constructed at 119 E Front Street. Work was done to renovate the exteriors of many buildings in the downtown area. This facade project brought a historic, yet still fresh, appearance to many local businesses. Division and 2nd Streets have been replaced in the downtown area to bring a fresh street and sidewalk area to the downtown. Three housing developments have been put together on the east edge of town, bringing many new homes to the area. Karl Chevrolet has built an extensive expansion to their business over by the interstate. Stuart has put in a lot of work to constantly improve, and there are surely many good things to come.

For more about current and future development projects, view the SEED page (Stuart Enterprise for Economic Development).