Life

Burlington Iron Works Winding Stairs still functional after 126 years

Curt and Ginnie on the circular iron steps in Traer, built by the Burlington Iron Works in 1894. (Photo courtesy of Curt Swarm)
Curt and Ginnie on the circular iron steps in Traer, built by the Burlington Iron Works in 1894. (Photo courtesy of Curt Swarm)

It’s worth a road trip to see. Located in Traer, Iowa, north of Tama, the Winding Stairs is an Iowa Historic Site. Thousands of feet have worn the iron steps smooth. Not just any ordinary winding stairs, it boasts a catwalk at the summit leading to the second floor of what used to be the newspaper office for the Traer Star Clipper.

One of my readers sent me a story from the newspaper. It was written by Arlene Halupnik Fleming in May, 2017. Loving circular iron stairs and old fashioned news reporting, I couldn’t resist sharing some of Arlene Fleming’s journalism.

“The iron steps wind round and round up to a catwalk. Walk across this bridge-like structure and you enter the building’s upper story. It was here that the local newspaper, the Traer Star Clipper, was printed for 59 years, before moving to a ground level location.

“It was printed on Thursday and delivered into rural mailboxes on Friday. My parents usually couldn’t wait until Friday for the latest issue. So we quickly finished the Thursday evening farm chores, ate supper and traveled the three miles into Traer. By the time we arrived many locals were already in place lined across the overhead catwalk and down the winding steps. And the line continued onto the sidewalk, where I took up my space along with the others who couldn’t wait until Friday’s mail.

“Socializing took place along the waiting line. Talking about families, crops, gardens, the price of corn and of course, the weather.” (So people got their news two ways.)

“And then the line begins to move and I climb the steps. As I traveled across the catwalk I had the feeling of being suspended in air. I took a peek at the people lined and still waiting below and then I entered through the door. The large black printing presses were chugging and clanking. I could feel the floor vibrating and smell the printer’s ink.

“Long time employee, Lydia Otterman, was seated nearby at a small table. As I walked past she marked our family name off a long list and handed me, still warm from the press, our copy of the newspaper.”

What news was so important that it couldn’t wait until the next day’s mail?

“Wedding news shared names of everyone involved including the ladies in the kitchen. Credit was given to the person who baked and decorated the wedding cake. Also, not forgotten were the ladies who had sewn the lacy little aprons worn by the bride’s friends as they served the reception guests. News of family trips to the nearby grandparents home or vacations across the state line were given equal space in each issue. Holiday or Sunday dinner guests found their names listed in the Star Clipper. In hospital reports we learned who had entered the hospital and what affliction had sent them there. Obituaries told life stories and many times details of the death itself. Last Wills and Testaments were printed word for word for all eyes to see. ‘My son, John, is to receive 50 head of angus cattle’ … Divorce news was always good reading. He said — She said.--A $200 settlement and the case was closed.”

Sadly, the Traer Star Clipper, like many small newspapers, and some large, did not survive the economic downturn caused by the pandemic. Businesses stopped advertising. But the iron winding steps are still there, where people could walk across a catwalk and receive a hot-off-the-press newspaper, like a fresh loaf of bread, gossip and rumors better than peanut butter and jelly.