Valley Junction is a downtown commercial district in West Des Moines, Iowa, offering a rich blend of the historic and the trendy.
At the time of contact with Europeans, Iowa was originally inhabited by primarily Siouan Indians. The site of Des Moines area itself, strategically positioned at the junction of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers, has been inhabited for over 7,000 years. Early inhabitants included Mississippian mound builders. Over a dozen mounds once existed in the Des Moines area, though all have been destroyed as the town grew. Jacques Marquette and Louis Jolliet documented Iowa on their exploration of the upper Mississippi.
The first permanent European presence was fur traders, primarily French, but also some British. In exchange for furs, Europeans traded firearms, metal tools, and prestige items like glass beads. European settlement was concentrated on the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers on either side of Iowa, and the central Iowa was largely ignored. This would soon change; once the United States gained control of the area through the Louisiana Purchase, Iowa’s indigenous inhabitants were mostly driven out by the mid-19th century to make way for pioneers. Indians’ careful stewardship of Iowa’s resources created an area rich in lumber, pasture, and wild game, ideal for settlement.
The first European settlement in the area was Fort Des Moines. An 1851 flood swept away the entire nascent Des Moines community, but its inhabitants rebuilt. While it was the rivers that led to the settlement of Des Moines, it was the railroad that allowed its growth. In addition to agriculture, the first major industry of the Des Moines area was coal. The area that would become Valley Junction area was initially peripheral, primarily home to coal miners and cattle ranchers.
Iowa in general, and especially the Des Moines area, was a free territory, settled almost exclusively by Europeans and their descendants. However, it did play an important role in the history of American slavery as a stopping point on the Underground Railroad. The first settler in what would become Valley Junction, James C. Jordan, risked the considerable wealth and influence he was attaining to aid Black Americans in their bid for freedom.
In 1847, a group of Illinois businessmen arranged for the construction of a 75 mile railroad from Rock Island to La Salle. From this rather humble beginning grew the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, which would eventually spread to service 12 states. Some of its earliest expansion was into Iowa, including the Des Moines area, and it was used by residents to transport coal, livestock, and other products to larger markets, like Chicago. It was Jordan who got the railroad to run a spur toward his property so he could move his cattle, creating Valley Junction. Despite the Jordan family’s growing wealth and influence, Valley Junction would remain a peripheral satellite of the growing Des Moines community for the next few decades, primarily comprised of coal miners.
In the early 1890s, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad decided to relocate its East Des Moines turntable and repair yard to Valley Junction, igniting the growth that would see Valley Junction become the community it is today. Upon news of the railroad’s move, groups of investors began purchasing land in the Valley Junction area, planning to capitalize on the impending growth of this minor community.
Rather than organically evolving over time, the commercial district of Valley Junction arose almost overnight from this decision by the railroad. The city of Valley Junction, soon to be renamed West Des Moines, was incorporated in 1893. The Valley Junction commercial district was, and remains, a clearly defined area of primarily one and two story brick structures.
In 1936, in the heart of the Great Depression, the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad decided to move its facilities back to Des Moines. The loss of this important business only added to a general malaise in the community. Residents determined a name change was in order, and it officially became West Des Moines, hoping to relegate Valley Junction to the past, and push the community into a new future.
The 1950s push to suburbanization saw a population explosion in West Des Moines, reinvigorating the community and the Valley Junction district. As West Des Moines continued to grow, though, businesses in Valley Junction struggled to compete. The disastrous flood of 1993 brought the district to a new low; but, rather than collapse, business leaders banded together and sought to rebrand the district as a destination.
Valley Junction is now home to numerous locally owned shops and hosts dozens of events every year. Antique stores, art galleries, and boutiques cater to a more modern crowd, as Valley Junction simultaneously embraces its historic past, while pushing the trends of the future. Locally owned bars and restaurants offer one of a kind culinary experiences. The walkable, visitor-friendly downtown hosts a farmers market and many other outdoor events in the warmer months. In the winter, visitors can enjoy a stunning display of lights, as well as carriage rides and caroling. The Jordan family home is now a museum and headquarters of the West Des Moines Historical Society. With its blend of old and new, of traditional and trendy, there is something for everyone at this must-see destination.