Target Grade Level / Age Range: 

Sixth Grade


60 minutes

Virtual Learning:

Use this document to convert the lesson into a virtual learning module for your students. Use the steps outlined to create the different elements of a Google Classroom or other online learning platform. You can also send the steps directly to students in a PDF, present them in a virtual meeting, or plug them into any other virtual learning module system.


Students will understand the impact railroads had on the settlement and agricultural practices of Iowa.


  • U.S. Map projected on board
  • Copies of Railroads in Iowa Pt. 1 Images printed double-sided with description on back. (One set of cards per group)
  • Copies of Railroads in Iowa Pt. 2 Images printed double-sided with description on back. (One set of cards per group)
  • Copies of Railroads in Iowa Question Worksheet printed for each student.
  • Historical Society of Iowa’s Teaching with Primary Sources, Geography with Iowa Connections Part 1 and Part 2, available online
  • Computer and projector

Suggested Companion Resources (books and websites)

Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Vocabulary (with definitions)

  • Commodity: A raw material or primary agricultural product that can be bought and sold
  • Freight car: A large wheeled container for transporting goods, that is pulled by a train
  • Perishable: (especially food) likely to decay or go bad quickly.
  • Livestock: Farm animals regarded as an asset.
  • Hopper car: A container for bulk material such as grain, rock, or trash, typically one that tapers downward and can discharge its contents at the bottom. A railroad car would to discharge coal or other bulk material through its floor.

Background – Agricultural Connections (what would a teacher need to know to be able to teach this content)

Before the introduction of railroads, people relied on rivers to use steamboats as their main mode of transportation. The Mississippi River was vital to the trade systems in the Midwest. As people moved westward they needed to develop a mode of transportation to connect the Mississippi River on the east side of the state to the Missouri River on the west.

In 1851- the first railroad connected the eastern and western part of the state. The federal government gave substantial grants of land to four railroad companies to build railroad lines to connect the Mississippi and Missouri rivers. After the railroad was made, Iowa farm goods were transported by train to Chicago instead of by riverboat to New Orleans.

With the development of the railway system, came economic growth and development for many new Iowa settlements. Towns popped up along the railroad. Towns built depots and filling stations. Small settlements were often seven to eight miles apart along the train tracks. In the 1870s and 1880s, railroad construction was at its peak and most Iowans lived less than 10 miles away from a rail line.

Railways promoted economic growth for farmers as well. With the introduction of the railway, farmers could now move their products to market by rail much cheaper than by ship. Hopper cars transported grain much faster than by ship.

Until refrigerator cars in the 1880’s, live cattle were transported to Chicago Union Stock Yards, by train where they would then be processed then transported to locations closer to consumers.  The refrigerated rail cars allowed the livestock to be processed closer to where they were raised. The meat could then travel by refrigerated rail car to markets out east.  In 1883, a cattle baron traveling from his home in Wyoming to Chicago realized that it would be easier to transport cattle to Omaha.  He soon convinced local businessmen that a livestock market would be a good idea and the Omaha Stockyards were created.  

Today, railroads in Iowa carry about every product you can imagine from food products, chemicals, and farm products. Farm, food, chemicals, and ethanol products account for 90 percent by weight of rail shipments originating from Iowa.

Interest Approach or Motivator

Announce to the class that they will be learning about transportation today. Introduce the idea by asking the class to list of examples of transportation. Create a list of all types of transportation that students compile on the board. Talk about why transportation is important to Iowans and industries like agriculture.


Turn the discussion towards trains. Ask students what they know about trains. What are trains transporting? When were railroads made in Iowa? Do trains help farmers?

Class Activity

  1. Pass out one copy of Railroads in Iowa Questions. Instruct students to turn to the last page with an image of an Iowa map. At the same time, project an image of a U.S. map onto the board.
  2. Instruct students to make a legend at the bottom of the Iowa map. They will draw on their map to represent what is transported from each city. The key should include the type of goods transported on the rail line (students will be able to add to their key/ map as you read the prompt. 
  3. Read the handout How did the Railroad Shape the Landscape of Iowa? (Railroads in Iowa Pt. 1) aloud. Pause for students to mark on their maps to note locations mentioned, as well as location significance.  Students may need to add to their map legends at this time.
  4. Project onto the screen Routes of Proposed Railroads in Iowa, 1851 Ask, “What parts of the state of Iowa did the railroads have plans for in 1851? Why would they have planned these areas? Based on this map, what were the railroads trying to connect?”

Small Group Activity

  1. Divide the class into groups of 3-4 students.
  2. Pass out one set of images to each group. Give each group 30 seconds to look at the image, instruct the students not to talk to their group members. They should focus on context clues of what is featured in the image. Take the next 60 seconds to think and share with the group what is occurring in the image. Read the image description and answer the compelling question on the back page. Each student in the group should answer the question on the Railroads in Iowa Worksheet . Promote students to write questions or any notes that they have about the image on the paper as well. Allow 2-4 minutes for each picture for discussion and time to answer the compelling questions. Repeat the process for all six images. *(If time is limited, you can pass one photo out to each group and review the set of photos and questions as a class after students have had time to review one photo.)
  3. After students had a chance to review each image as a group, project each image on the board. Go over the images as a class. Have students share their answers to the compelling question and ask any questions they had on this section.
  4. Pass out the Railroads in Iowa Pt. 2 images (one copy for each group). Give students time to analyze the images and text. Repeat the process from Railroads in Iowa Pt. 1 where students observe the image then read the image description and answer the compelling questions.
  5. Come back as a class to discuss Railroads in Iowa Pt. 2 image set. Facilitate a class discussion on how the use of railroads has impacted Iowa agriculture. Why was it so important to build the rail roads in Iowa in the 1850s? Are the railroads continued to be used for their original purpose?

As time allows, instruct students to further investigate the use of railroads for transporting agricultural goods in Iowa using their smart devices or computers. Have them share one new, interesting fact about agricultural rail transportation with the class.

Did you know? (Ag facts)

  • The first railroad in Iowa was completed in 1855. The line extended west from Davenport to Iowa City.
  • There are 3,818 miles of freight railroad in Iowa.
  • Commodities transported by rail in that originate in Iowa include: food products, chemicals, grain, and minerals.
  • One rail car can hold
    • Enough framing lumber for 5 and a half homes
    • Enough corn to feed 37,000 chickens for life
    • Enough grain to make 258,000 loaves of bread
    • Enough crude oil to make 13,500 gallons of gasoline

Extension Activities (how students can carry this beyond the classroom)

  • Research current modes of transportation for agricultural products. Are railcars still used?
  • Invite a guest speaker about railroads today and in the past.
  • Research how cattle were transported to the Chicago Union Stock Yards in in the late 1800s. Learn how the refrigerated rail cars impacted the stock yard business.



Laura Mincks

Ann Prichard     

Organization Affiliation

Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation

Charles City Middle School          

Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • T4.6-8.d. Discuss how technology has changed over time to help farmers/ranchers provide more food to more people.
  • T5.6-8.f. Highlight the interaction and significance of state historical and current agricultural events on governmental and economic developments (e.g., the building of railroads, the taxation of goods, etc.)

Iowa Core Standards

  • Social Studies
    • SS.6.18. Explain how changes in transportation, communication, and technology influence the movement of people goods, and ideas in various countries.
    • SS.6.20. Analyze connections among historical events and developments in various geographic and cultural contexts.
    • SS.6.22. Explain multiple causes and effects of events and developments in the past.
  • English Language Arts
    • RI.6.1. Cite textual evidence to support analysis of what the text says explicitly as well as inferences drawn from the text.
    • RI.6.4. Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including figurative, connotative, and technical meanings.
    • RI.6.7. Integrate information presented in a different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue.

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