Chariton was incorporated after an authorizing election on Feb. 26, 1857, and Daniel Iseminger was elected the first mayor. He would die in combat during the Civil War Battle of Shiloh during April of 1862, five years later.
Although Chariton prospered during the 1850s, transportation options were limited. Construction of the Burlington and Missouri River Railroad route across southern Iowa commenced in the 1850s, but that project stalled at Ottumwa until the Civil War ended. Until July 4, 1867, when the first trains rolled into town, all supplies were hauled overland to Chariton by horse- or ox-powered wagon and stage coaches were the only form of public transportation.
Once the trains arrived, Chariton boomed again. Gradually, beginning in the 1860s, the crude frame buildings that had lined the square were replaced by brick.
Branch rail lines were built from the main east-west route southwest toward Kansas City and St. Joe and northwest toward Indianola and Des Moines in the 1870s. Later, the main north-south Rock Island line was built. Well into the 20th century, Chariton remained south central Iowa’s principal rail hub.
By 1900, Lucas County was considered one of Iowa’s richest counties, based almost entirely on its agricultural resources, and Chariton, one of the state’s most prosperous cities.
Agriculture was supplemented by coal, beginning in the 1880s. The mining industry was launched in western Lucas County, near Lucas, then developed and prospered in the immediate Chariton vicinity and northeastward into English and Pleasant townships. Coal remained a major economic factor into the 1930s.
Although scattered small industries developed — manufacturers of farm implements, wagons, carriages, brooms and more — Chariton was almost entirely dependent upon agriculture, coal and commerce until the development of such industries as Johnson Machine Works during the early 20th century and Hy-Vee Food Stores at mid-century.
Today, Hy-Vee and Johnson Machine Works remain Chariton’s largest private employers; Lucas County Health Center offers one of the best health care options in the region; and, after multiple consolidations, Chariton Public Schools serve the entire county.
Agriculture remains vital to the Chariton economy and those rolling hills, woodlands and prairies that surround the city and attracted settlers to it in the first place — now featuring parks, trail systems and greenbelts — form a major recreational asset.