CLINTON, IOWA -- On July 5, 1955, citizens of this Mississippi River town could board sleek passenger trains to almost every major city west of Chicago. Ozark Air Lines' DC-3s took off four times a day for Milwaukee, St. Louis and five other midwestern cities. And of course, dozens of buses flowed through town in all directions.
Today, there are no trains, no planes and no buses.
Passenger trains dwindled and were gone for good by 1970. Major air service was replaced by occasional efforts by air commuter companies; the last one gave up last year. And, on March 1, the last Greyhound pulled out of town.
In an era of shifting economics, deregulation and shrinking federal subsidies for transportation, especially in rural areas, Clinton is one of the losers. The Greyhound strike precipitated the final blow for public intercity transportation here, as the bankrupt company decided it could no longer afford its once-a-day U.S. 30 bus.
Clinton has reacted to its paucity of public transportation by lobbying Amtrak for a new passenger train and wooing a new commuter air service to reopen a route to Chicago. But the last bus wheezed out of town an orphan, unlamented by any but a handful who will be inconvenienced. The bus had become irrelevant to this community of 31,500.
"We have not formally organized an effort" to get bus service back, said Hugh Lamont, executive vice president of the Clinton Area Development Corp., which is involved in attempting to return the trains and planes to Clinton.
In contrast to its reports on rail and air service, the Clinton Herald covered Greyhound's exit in one small story concentrating on the memories of Greyhound agent Mike Maxa, who was losing his job after 18 years.
Part of the reason for the lack of attention is that no one is complaining.
"We haven't even gotten a letter," said George Langmack, Clinton's city administrator. But he pointed out that the people who used the bus were probably from lower-income groups who rarely organize or speak up. "No, you don't hear from them -- now or at the time," he said.
Down in Davenport, 45 miles away, Ermadel Ludwick, executive director of the Great River Bend transit system, had braced for an influx of calls for help. For 15 years, Ludwick has operated one of Iowa's 16 regional on-call van systems for the rural elderly and handicapped -- including the Clinton area -- and she was certain that the Greyhound cancellation would cause problems. She even had a deal with Greyhound to inform those who complained that her service was available.
Greyhound received only two complaints and so far neither has contacted Ludwick.
"Yeah, I was surprised," she said.
Perhaps one of the reasons for the lack of complaints is the success of van pool systems such as hers. Iowa is ahead of most states in organizing van services, but many states have them. There are 1,140 systems throughout the country supported by local, state and federal funds. Typically, they will pick up clients in the morning, take them to a city for services such as doctors' appointments, and drive them home at night.
Ludwick said she doubts her service has deprived Greyhound of any passengers, partly because intercity buses were driving people away with poor service and dirty, sometimes dangerous terminals. Schedules were often inconvenient, she said.
"I'll probably be crucified for saying this, but I think probably the intercity bus carriers are the last resort for many," she said.
Ludwick said the elderly also are becoming more independent and are engaging in more self-help. She said elderly people who drive now appear to be forming more car pools with those who do not drive.
Maxa, Greyhound's agent for 18 years, said perhaps 25 to 30 people a week -- about four a day -- boarded Clinton's last bus, "the local" between Omaha and Chicago. The local was cut in March because of the strike, and on April 27, Maxa said he was told he would be laid off: "no gold watch, no buckle, no nothing, no letter. Goodbye."
Maxa said a number of his regular passengers were inconvenienced, including a nurse who took the bus every week to her job in Iowa City. Now, she must pay a limousine service across the river in Illinois to take her to the bus station in Davenport.
But "nobody has come up to me and said, 'Hey, Mike, without you, I'll die,' " he said.
The big push here, and in other cities along an east-west line across central Iowa, is to bring back a passenger train.
This project has taken on almost a messianic pitch, as if Clinton's pride were hanging in the balance. The Clinton Herald is filled with reports of pleas to Amtrak to open a new route or to reroute its Chicago-California train, which now traverses southern Iowa.
Prospects are perhaps 50-50 that the grand old Chicago & North Western station -- now the American Fence & Pool Co. -- will relive a little of its past glory. Thirty-five years ago, streamliners such as the City of Los Angeles and the Challenger -- eight a day -- paused on their way to the Rockies, the Cascades and California. Today, dozens of trains ply the same tracks every day going to the same places, but they carry freight, not passengers.
Out at Clinton Municipal Airport, officials are working hard to persuade Great Lakes Aviation to begin commuter service to Chicago. More than 100 people showed up May 19 when the airline flew in one of its new Beechcraft 1900 turboprop aircraft for an open house.
One reason for wanting a passenger train through Clinton is to bring tourists and gamblers to town for the boom expected when riverboat gambling begins next year on the Mississippi.
Lamont of the area development corporation said that in addition to the passenger train project, Clinton wants the return of air service. But he said he has found that businessmen do not seem to worry about that. "They rarely ask if they can fly to Clinton," he said.
He pointed out that a Chicago businessman probably had to drive more than 45 minutes to get to O'Hare International Airport, so why would he object to a pleasant 45-minute ride up the Mississippi from the Moline, Ill., airport to Clinton?
But Clinton has found no reason to want bus service to return. And it appears the people of Clinton made that decision long ago.
"It's hard to call it a loss," city administrator Langmack said. "Did the carrier leave the passenger or did the passenger leave the carrier?"
Clinton seems to be doing fine without intercity public transportation. It has no taxis but has a city bus system operating over six routes to and from major employment centers. And, as in almost every part of America, almost everyone owns a car or knows someone who does.
As an old river town, Clinton enjoys many miles of parkland and hiking trails along the Mississippi and farther out from town in the river bluff area. Downtown is roughly divided into thirds: a pleasant old area of mostly wood-frame houses with big lawns, a downtown center that looks as if it should have a courthouse but doesn't, and commercial strips on the highways running north and south at either edge of town.
A number of old downtown commercial buildings, dating to the 19th century, are being restored. Clinton is unusual in having low-income elderly housing in the middle of town across from city hall.
Clinton, like most of the heartland, suffered a depression early in the 1980s while the rest of the country was in a recession. But it is recovering faster than most of the surrounding countryside and is even experiencing a boomlet in new construction.
Several agricultural and chemical plants dot the horizon, and some have announced major expansions. International Paper Co., in a huge boost to the Clinton economy, will triple the size of its plant. In 1988, E.I. du Pont de Nemours & Co. announced a plan to boost production 20 percent. The Chicago & North Western freight car shops are busy, reflecting an ongoing revival of nonpassenger railroading. And a Canadian steel company, IPSCO Inc., has proposed a $12.8 million project to reopen an abandoned manufacturing plant and add 200 jobs.
Still, the end of bus service nips a little at Clinton's heels.
"I'm sure there's a grandma who's not going to get to Illinois for Christmas, and for that, this county is deeply sad," Lamont said.
But he pointed out that Clinton is in rural Iowa, where everyone has friends, relatives and neighbors. "We take care of our own," he said.