The Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad began as the Mississippi and Missouri (M & M) in the early 1850s. The railroad's main line was to be from Davenport to Council Bluffs. The first section of the M & M Railroad was begun in 1853 and was completed to Iowa City by 1855. The railroad changed hands in 1866 and became the Rock Island Railroad, and it reached Des Moines in 1867, Earlham late in 1868, and Council Bluffs in May of 1869. While the Rock Island was not the first rail line completed to Council Bluffs, it was to become the main line of the Rock Island in Iowa and provided an important link to the Union Pacific transcontinental railroad, which had been joined with the Central Pacific at Promontory Summit, Utah, just two days before the Rock Island arrived in Council Bluffs.
The actual built route of the Rock Island line from Atlantic through the town of Shelby would at first appear illogical given its curvaceous route. However, this route was in keeping with the configuration of the entire route between Des Moines and Council Bluffs, which managed to clip the corners of as many counties as possibly, in order to include as many county bond opportunities as possible to help fund the railroad's completion.
The Rock Island was of great significance to the town of Shelby, which owed its existence to this railroad. When the railroad construction along the Rock Island ground to a halt in 1868 as winter set in, a section house called Shelby Station was built at the end of the line and west of the Rock Island Stone Arch. Following the construction of the station house, two dwellings were built, followed by a third, which housed a general store. On December 28, 1870, the town of Shelby was platted, and by 1822, the town was thriving, with 20 business houses, two hotels, three churches, a schoolhouse, a large flour mill, two lumberyards, a coal yard, a bank, a printing office, and three large elevators for the buying and shipping of grain.
The Rock Island continued to serve the Shelby community until the 1950s when it was abandoned. The Rock Island depot in Shelby was razed in March of 1961, leaving the Rock Island Stone Arch as the primary landmark to remind those in the Shelby area of the singular importance of the former Rock Island Railroad to the town's existence. The arch was nominated, and subsequently listed, on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998, as a part of the development and construction of the Rock Island Old Stone Arch Nature Trail, which utilizes the former railbed crossing and travels 4 miles.
The arch viaduct is constructed of regular-coursed, dimension limestone quarried in Earlham, Iowa, and shipped along the rail line as it was completed to this site. The arch is one of two known along this line in Shelby County and is the most accessible of the two. The construction of the arched bridge required skilled masons on site. The construction of this arch demonstrates the care taken in the construction of the Rock Island Railroad, which was promoted as the best constructed railroad in Iowa.
Compared with other types of railroad bridges along the Rock Island railroad between Davenport and Council Bluffs, stone arches were in the minority, with timber trestle or pile bridges being the most common. The use of stone over timber for western Iowa culverts and viaducts can be attributed to the scarcity of timber in the region; however, any stone other than glacial till is also in short supply. Therefore, bridge material was shipped in over the line as it was being constructed from eastern and central Iowa where timber and stone resources were more abundant.
The concrete liner within the vault of the Rock Island Stone Arch was probably added c. 1928 when the Rock Island Railroad replaced 500 miles of track in preparation for heavier rail traffic over this line.