History of Runnells

From Lafayette to Runnells
The beginning of Runnells can be traced to the demise of Lafayette, a town that was laid out by Dr. Andrew Y. Hull in 1849 at the approximate location of Freel on the north bank of the river just south of what is now Runnells. Lafayette was initiated by Dr. Hull because he thought that property in Des Moines, selling for $25 to $30, was too expensive.
In 1850, the county's largest celebration ever, took place at Lafayette. There were toasts, speeches, and a hint that 'The Fort' Des Moines (population 275), was about to be overtaken by Lafayette (population 175). All the towns along the river were in competition with The Fort to become the trade center for Central Iowa and the state capital.
Runnells Main Street
Unfortunately, In May of 1851 heavy rains caused the river to raise 22 feet above the low water mark. (The annals of Iowa vol. 5, page 410 state there were 74.5 inches of rain that summer, more than 6 feet in less than 5 months.) This caused a heavy loss of houses, cattle, horses, hogs, and sheep. Houses were either covered with water or completely swept away. The river, at flood stage, was 3 miles wide and steamboats sailed over the town. When the water subsided, the promising town of Lafayette was gone. The only thing left standing was the public well.

Many of the former residents of Lafayette moved uphill and located in the area that is now within Runnells city limits. At about this same time, other people were also moving into the area from Vandalia in Jasper County and Percy to the east, another river town.
Establishment of Runnells
The Town of Runnells was platted on November 17, 1881 by the Union Land Company, of which John Sumner Runnells, the city's namesake, was an officer. It soon grew into a prosperous town with several businesses located on Main Street (now called Brown). In 1884 the business directory included the Wabash and St. Louis Pacific Railroad, a Constable, a general store, a livery, 2 saloons, a flour mill, a restaurant, Justice of the Peace, a carpenter, a hotel, grain elevator, coal company, meat market, saw mill, and a blacksmith.
John S. Runnells
Fire of 1892
By 1892, it had added a hardware store, 2 grocers, a drugstore, another hotel, a stone quarry, a weekly newspaper called the Runnells' Telegram, a post office, billiard hall, a physician, and real estate offices. Unfortunately, in September, 1892 disaster struck. Runnells was swept by a devastating fire that destroyed the entire business district, leaving only 1 building left standing. Eighteen buildings burned after a fire started about 1 o'clock in the rear of McKinney & Sons' Store.
The resilient local business leaders and merchants rebuilt the business district and the town continued to flourish. This would not be the only fire to ravage the city. However, the business district continued to grow into the early 1900s and by 1910 the town was also home to 2 churches, 2 banks, masons, plasterers, livestock and cattle companies, a lumber company, a barbershop, a shoemaker, a poultry company, and even had its own Runnells Brass Band. The Des Moines Valley Record also began publication during this time based out of Runnells.
Growth of the Railroad
The railroad was a big motivating factor for people to populate the town of Runnells. It was an essential link to the outside world. The St. Louis and Des Moines division of the Wabash, St. Louis and Pacific was the first railroad through town, connecting St. Louis to Des Moines through Runnells. In the late 1800s coal mines were booming and businessmen arrived daily to pursue their careers.
This helped the growth of the town and also created demand for additional homes and building materials. Saw mills were also doing big business in the area during this time. In those days gone by, the Runnells Wabash Railroad Station was the best producer between Albia and Des Moines. Runnells was shipping over a hundred cars of stock a year.

Telephone service was first connected to Runnells in 1905. In 1929, the closing down and abandoning of the Diamond Joe Coal Mine on the T.A. Erskin farm by flooding was a real calamity to Runnells. Many miners lost their jobs and were forced to move away. It also caused a shortage of coal to supply the local demand.

The train depot, which also housed the local telegraph office was closed in 1964 when the Red Rock Dam forced the railroad and part of the town to relocate. The new location of the railroad track and depot was moved above the flood plain. A new structure was built to replace the old depot, but that small structure has never been used. Freight trains still travel the rails daily.
Historical References
All historical information posted on this site has been taken from the following 2 books, Runnells 1881-1981 and Runnells 1981-2006, the 1981 - 2006 book is available for purchase at:

Runnells Historical Society
201 Brown Street
PO Box 126
Runnells, IA 50237

You may also visit the Runnells Historical Society, located at 201 Brown Street, they are open every third Sunday of each month from 2 to 4 or call for an appointment, 515-971-1936.