The North Lee County Historical Museum boasts a large number of important local and regional municipal, genealogical, agricultural and railroad artifacts, as well as extensive tourist information and maps. Located in the Old Santa Fe depot Complex in downtown Fort Madison, Iowa, the museum features guided tours by knowledgeable docents talking about everything from the original Native American inhabitants and their relationship to the early frontier Fort Madison and its role in the War of 1812, to railroad history and modern barge traffic. Staffed by dedicated volunteers and funded by memberships and donations, the museum is open 360 days a year.
The largest artifacts are our historic buildings housing the museum. The beautiful mission-style Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe depot was built in 1910 and in use as a working depot until 1968. The 1898 Chicago, Burlington, and Quincy depot houses our transportation museum. The Railway Express Agency and the Division Freight Office buildings round out the museum complex.
Exhibits include examples of early industries like button making from freshwater clam shells, sawmills that supplied much of the lumber to build other Iowa cites, paper mills using, at different times, either straw or wood pulp, the Morrison Plow Works, and Iowa Farming Tool Co., the Essex Soap factory, the Cattermole Packing Co., and the Huiskamp shoe factory. Fort Madison was the birthplace of the Sheaffer Pen Co., maker of fine writing instruments. The Sheaffer display features a variety of pens made over the years. Throughout the museum, paintings by the late local artist, Louis Koch, depict historic scenes and buildings of the area.
The museum is proud to have at the center of its collection a horse-drawn 1873 Silsby steam pumper fire engine and a period fire hose cart, which compliments the police and firefighters display. A 1942 30-ton Santa Fe caboose (or waycar) is open three seasons a year for museum visitors. A utility car utilized by the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy (CB&Q) railroad has been fully restored and is on display in our transportation museum located in the CB&Q depot.
Centrally located, the NLCHS museum is within walking distance from the replica of Old Fort Madison, the downtown business district, historic Victorian homes, three beautiful parks, the world’s longest double-decker swing-span bridge, and, of course, the Mississippi river, one of the great waterways of the world. Pelicans, ducks, herons, egrets, plovers, and bald eagles all utilize our little stretch of the river. Sitting some 15 feet from the main rail line between Chicago and Los Angeles, the NLCHS museum is a Mecca for rail enthusiasts who can view between 70 and 100 trains per day. Close by are the Iowa State Penitentiary, the one-room schoolhouse “Brush College,” the North Lee County Courthouse and the 1867 Lee County Jail.