Richard Warner, D.D.S. Family Dentistry in Council Bluffs, Iowa
(Story by Dr. Richard Warner)
Automobiles Have Long History on Council Bluffs Streets
It’s not clear how many people over the years have set their sights on Council Bluffs as a final destination, but certainly a great many have come here. Even if Council Bluffs wasn’t a traveler’s intent the city is right on the path of where many have wanted to go. Lewis and Clark passed through, as did steamboats, wagon trains, Mormon pilgrims, and the railroads. Council Bluffs was on the route of the first automobile to cross the nation, the first coast-to-coast road trip by a woman, and the first transcontinental highway.
Hard to imagine, but automobiles were initially dismissed as a passing fad. When Horatio Jackson accepted a fifty dollar bet to prove a car could be driven all the way across the United States he’d never even been behind the wheel. His trip in a 1903 Winton from Oakland, California took him through terrain so rough parts kept fallen from the vehicle. Arrival into Council Bluffs marked the end of major hardships; though there was no direct highway to the East at least there were roads and the navigation of the hodgepodge of local routes was easier than getting through the West. It took only two weeks to drive from Council Bluffs to New York City. Just six years later Alice Ramsey accompanied by three other women became the first woman to make the transcontinental trek, traveling from New York to San Francisco to prove “the feminine sex’s mastery over the motor car.” Her trip likewise brought her through Council Bluffs.
Council Bluffs had its first automobile by 1896, a do-it-yourself project by Bluffs jeweler Maurice Wollman. Wollman said he got bitten by the auto bug when in Chicago the previous year and witnessed an auto race-- vehicles traveling as fast as fifteen miles an hour. Using the back room of his 4th and Broadway jewelry store he fashioned his own spark plugs, coil, and carburetor for a single cylinder engine and attached the apparatus to the rear of a buggy. Mr. Wollman appears to have the distinction of being involved in the city’s first automobile accident when his vehicle hit a dog and tipped over, spilling him and his niece. Apparently his love for cars wasn’t dimmed, as he went on to become the first local citizen to own a factory-built auto, an 1899 Haynes-Apperson.
Automobiles were of limited value without roads on which to use them. Nationally there was talk of a transcontinental highway. The potential economic impact of such a project wasn’t lost on the city’s leadership; being a major railroad crossroads had done wonders for Council Bluffs and speculation was being on the route of the first transcontinental highway was likely to yield similar benefits. An aggressive campaign was undertaken to do just that. The efforts proved successful; Council Bluffs not only landed a spot along the much coveted Lincoln Highway, but claimed to be the first in the nation to host a dedication of its opening in the fall of 1913. Note completion of the highway didn’t mean it was all paved; in fact travelers had begun nicknaming Iowa “The Gumbo State” owing to the mud that rendered roads impassable for weeks at a time. Locally travelers found only gravel between Missouri Valley and Council Bluffs well into the 1920s. The White Pole Road and River to River Roads distilled into Highway Six giving Council Bluffs a second long distance route.
Acceptance of cars with not universal. Many news articles from the time reported problems relating to the “devil wagons,” typically their tendency to scare horses and start runaways.
Early autos required a great deal of frequent maintenance as well as fuel. Service stations sprang up along the major routes that passed through Council Bluffs; by the mid 1930s there were almost fifty service stations on Broadway alone. Most sold not just gasoline but also an array of replacement parts.
The long distance highways passing through town have yielded their traffic to the interstate highways and the mom and pop gas stations passed the baton to large travel centers, but Council Bluffs remains today a natural crossroads for the automobile traveler.
For the cross country motorist Mandarin Tourist Village at 3303 West Broadway had it all: gas, food, and place to spend the night.
Reitz Super Service Station at 2700 West Broadway sat amongst mostly residences when this photo was taken in 1947.
Ray Payne fueled the cars and handled the mechanic work while wife Emma sold groceries in the back of the station at Payne’s Service on Highway Six.
(Above 1970, below 1958)