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Waukee: Railroad, coal mines spur early growth; Metro sprawl keys population explosion

MAJ. GEN. L.A. GRANT
MAJ. GEN. L.A. GRANT
The old Waukee School, used both as a high school and later as an elementary school, stands majestically in downtown Waukee. The school is now vacant, but plans are to utilize the facility once again as Waukee’s growth continues. Note the open spaces around the downtown area. The spaces are now gone, replaced with homes.
The old Waukee School, used both as a high school and later as an elementary school, stands majestically in downtown Waukee. The school is now vacant, but plans are to utilize the facility once again as Waukee’s growth continues. Note the open spaces around the downtown area. The spaces are now gone, replaced with homes.
The Shuler Mine (below) was a prominent Waukee business for decades.
The Shuler Mine (below) was a prominent Waukee business for decades.

There are many tales regarding how Waukee chose the name for its fledgling community back in the mid-1800s.

Some say it’s a shortened version of “Milwaukee,” so named for the railroad that first ran through; some say that, because the original town was laid out in a low swampy area, Waukee was an Indian word meaning “wet spot.”

The most intriguing tale, however, was of an old prospector who was passing through when his mule got stuck in the mud in the center of town (where the Triangle Park is now located) and, as the mule stood there braying, it came out as “Waaauu-kee-e.”

Whatever the actual origin of the community, it remained a small village located west of Des Moines for more than a century.

Today, however, Waukee has grown in leaps and bounds as more and more Metro residents have sought a home in the Western suburbs. In fact, Waukee has been among the fastest-growing cities in all the Midwest, if not the nation.

Originally, Waukee was laid out on land owned by Major General Lewis A. Grant — L.A. Grant Parkway bears his name today — who built the first home in Waukee.

In May of 1869 the railroad inched its way West (the slogan was “one mile a day”) and workmen were housed in a coach car that followed the progress of the railroad. As the rail moved into Dallas County, it’s said, Waukee was

just a dream for Gen. Grant, who had gone into speculative real estate with Major William Ragan.

The two purchased land around the railroad from Cyrus W. Fisher and Waukee was built on that land. Waukee grew rapidly as the railroad offered merchants a venue for shipping their products.

Waukee was incorporated on Dec. 23, 1878 — years after community leaders had sought to have Waukee named the Dallas County Seat, a title that was given to Adel, about seven miles to the West.

The early elected officials moved quickly to ensure their community was a wholesome place in which to live. The first ordinance passed by the first city council sated that “the sale of spiritous or vinous liquors is prohibited within two miles of the corporate limits of Waukee.”

Even before then, however, Waukee had succeeded in ridding the community of its saloon. A news article prior to the incorporation, stated “Waukee breathes clear once more on account of the complete removal of the late saloon. After much protest from the residents the saloon keeper agreed to sell his stock and quit business. The amount was raised and the people emptied the contents of beer kegs and ale bottles in the streets.”

As rail traffic increased, Waukee was finally joined with Adel in 1878 when a narrow gauge railroad connected the two communities. Cost of a ride from Waukee was set as: Ortonville, 16 cents; Adel, 28 cents; and Redfield, 67 cents.

About the same time that Waukee began to grow, the community built its first school. The school was built in 1874 or 1875 and was a two-story building only about 26-by-40-feet. It had two classrooms and two recitation rooms.

By 1900, Waukee’s school was for grades 1-9 and the population had outgrown the building. A new school was built in 1901 and educated students through two years of high school.

Waukee Consolidated School was born in 1917.

A major industry in Waukee was coal mining. The Waukee coal mines were on 1500 acres of land first owned by Daniel Morrison, one of Waukee’s first settlers. Although the mines were named and a business meeting held in 1883, it wasn’t until 1920 that the mines opened.

That year, a mine, known as the “Radiant” mine opened 2-1/2 miles northeast of Waukee and about 100 families lived in adjacent camp south of the mine

A year after the first mine opened, the Shuler Company opened a mine a mile east of the other. The new mine employed 500 men and, it’s said they were assisted by 32 mules. The Shuler mine was the heaviest producer of any mine in the state, taking more than seven million tons of coal during its 28 years of operation.

The Shuler mine finally closed in May of 1949.

Like many Iowa communities, Waukee has had its share of disasters through the years.

The first major fire occurred on Dec. 20, 1893 and it consumed a number of downtown businesses, including one that housed the post office.

Another fire began in a livery stable hay loft in December of 1901 at the corner of what is now Fifth and Ashworth. The first also consumed a nearby lumber yard, an implement house and a row of frame buildings with a strong southerly wind whipping the flames.

It was more than a bucket brigade could handle.

The barn was full of horses and seven of them were burned. The north side of the triangle was a total loss.

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