Carlisle has a rich rail history, dating back to the 1860s when the Iowa and Minnesota Railroad acquired right of way for a planned railroad line from Des Moines to the Missouri state line and eventually to Kansas City. The right of way was transferred to the Des Moines, Indianola and Missouri Railroad Company which constructed a line from Des Moines through Carlisle to Indianola in 1871, then a branch to Winterset was added in 1872. These lines were consolidated into the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway Company in 1880.
Carlisle’s original downtown was located on Market Street between 1st and 3rd Streets, but with the coming of the railroad in 1871, it was moved to its present location along School and First. As the settlement began to grow, the Bank of Carlisle was founded in 1895 and by the early 20th century, a newspaper, hotel, bakery, barber shop, doctor’s office, general store, drugstore, hardware store, livery stable, harness shop and blacksmith shop were established.
As Carlisle has evolved from a free-standing trade center into a metropolitan Des Moines suburb, its dependence on the railroad has decreased although a recent train highlight was a visit by the UP Steam Team and the Challenger No. 3985 locomotive in 2007. Carlisle is proud to receive the designation of Train Town USA.
From 1912 to 1913, the Saint Paul and Kansas City Short Line Railroad Company established the short line junction at Dean Avenue and SE 18th Street in Des Moines and constructed another line south through Carlisle. It extended through Hartford and Beech to Allerton, Iowa, and became known as the short line between Des Moines and Kansas City. It was leased to the Rock Island and eventually consolidated into the Rock Island system in 1948. From 1945 until the 1960s it was the route of the Twin Star Rocket streamliner passenger train between the Twin Cities and Houston. The Winterset branch was abandoned in 1958. When the Indianola branch was abandoned in 1998, it was successfully rail-banked and converted into the Summerset bicycle/pedestrian trail. The Rock Island went bankrupt in 1979 and the Chicago and North Western Railway acquired the main line. The C&NW was acquired by the Union Pacific Railroad in 1995. The UP currently operates trains through Carlisle on a daily basis and maintains a staging yard for track maintenance crews. The line is called the "spine line" because it parallels the spine of the North American continent.