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Drake, Francis Marion
(December 30, 1830–November 20, 1903)

–Civil War military officer, railroad developer, governor, and benefactor of Drake University—was born in the western Illinois hamlet of Rushville, where he grew up in a family of modest means. His father, John Adams Drake (1802-1880), was a merchant and small-time capitalist. In 1837 the senior Drake relocated with his wife, Harriet Jane (O'Neal) Drake, whom he married in 1826, and their flock of children (ultimately 14) to the frontier settlement of Fort Madison, Iowa, then part of Wisconsin Territory. The Drakes remained in that Mississippi River community until 1846, when they relocated to interior Davis County. There Francis's father founded the village of Drakesville and pursued banking and agricultural interests.

    Drake received a basic education in Fort Madison's public schools, although he never graduated from high school, hardly unusual for a lad of his generation. But he expanded his knowledge through his own initiative; he read widely and spent time with "learned" people.

    In the early 1850s Drake demonstrated his love for adventure and risk taking. In 1852 he organized a wagon train from southern Iowa to the gold fields of northern California. Once there, however, Drake turned to stock raising and for about a year remained in the Sacramento area. In 1854 he returned to the Midwest, but he soon set out again for the Golden State. This time he drove a herd of dairy cows, highly prized in both mining and nonmining communities. Although Drake accomplished that perilous undertaking, he nearly lost his life on the trip home, surviving both a shipwreck and a shipboard fire.

    An Iowa resident again, Drake engaged in more traditional activities. Initially he worked for his father and brothers in their Drakesville enterprises. Then in 1859 he struck out on his own and settled in the nearby Appanoose County village of Unionville, where he operated a general store.

    During the Civil War, Drake rallied to the Union colors. He raised a company of volunteers for an Iowa infantry unit, and he saw active combat. Later the governor commissioned him as a lieutenant colonel and asked him to recruit more troops. Once again Drake endured hostile fire, being wounded seriously and captured by Confederate forces. Later he won parole and courageously rejoined his regiment. When Drake left the military in 1865, he wore the uniform of a brigadier general.

    Following the war, Drake gave up his occupation as a minor merchant. He studied law and won admission to the local bar. And he left Unionville for Centerville, the bustling seat of Appanoose County. The quintessential community booster, Drake became keenly interested in improving local transportation. In post-Civil War Iowa, that meant railroads. In 1866 he launched the Iowa Southern Railroad, which soon joined the Keokuk & Western Railway (K&W), a road that by 1872 linked Keokuk (via Alexandria, Missouri) with Centerville. Eight years later the K&W, which Drake headed, reached Van Wert, 58 miles west of Centerville, making for a 148-mile road. Subsequently, he spearheaded construction of the 24-mile Centerville, Moravia & Albia Railway that linked the communities of its corporate name.

    There were additional railroad projects. In the early 1880s Drake assisted with the development of two central Iowa branch lines for the Iowa Central (then the Central Iowa) Railway. This trackage connected Hampton with Belmond and Minerva Junction with Story City. A much larger undertaking involved construction of the 110-mile Indiana, Illinois & Iowa Railroad. Opened in 1883 between Streator, Illinois, and North Judson, Indiana, this profitable connecting and terminal road was eventually extended to South Bend, Indiana, an additional 40 miles. Drake would serve as president between 1883 and 1898.

    In all likelihood, Drake represented various investors in his railroad projects. Evidence suggests that he worked closely with Russell Sage, the shrewd Wall Street stock trader. Drake's business activities made him wealthy, and he therefore possessed the financial means to expand his railroad interests independently.

    By the time of his death in 1903, due to diabetes, Drake had become a household name in Iowa. Although fellow citizens may not have immediately associated him with railroads, they knew that he had been the principal benefactor of Drake University in Des Moines, a school associated with the Disciples of Christ church. And residents knew, too, that Drake had served as Iowa's mildly progressive governor between 1897 and 1899. Yet Drake's permanent legacy involves the university, although his railroad activities did much to develop portions of Iowa and the Midwest, and his short office-holding career was hardly insignificant.
Sources include "Francis Drake," Wabash Railroad Company Papers, Norfolk Southern Corporation Archive, Atlanta; and H. Roger Grant, ed., Iowa Railroads: The Essays of Frank P. Donovan, Jr. (2000).
Contributor: H. Roger Grant