Johnson County’s Own – Coralville.

1870’s – The Mills & Dam Of Coralville, Iowa on the Iowa River.

In an earlier post, we cover the amazing history of Coralville, Iowa – from 3,800 years ago when a tribe of Late Archaic Iowans camped alongside the Iowa River – to the 1830’s when Chief Poweshiek and the Meskwaki people showed the early settlers of Johnson County how and where to best tame this amazing waterway that snaked its way through the open prairies, leading eventually to the Father of Waters – the Mississippi River. Read more here.

Here in Johnson County, there were three major dams and grist mills built between 1841 and 1844. The first (see map above) was built in 1841 by David & Joshua Switzer on Clear Creek, close to where it empties into the Iowa River in today’s Coralville. The second was actually approved in 1840, but was not finished until Walter Terrell built his dam and mill on the Iowa River in 1843 – located just north of Iowa City – what is today – directly in front of the Mayflower Apartments.

Read more about Walter Terrell and the first dam & grist mill on the Iowa River.

In 1843, approval was given to Iowa City’s founding father – Chauncey Swan – and a group of investors calling themselves The Iowa City Manufacturing Company to build a second dam and mill on the Iowa River – this time about two and one-half miles northwest of Iowa City.

Interestingly, the location for this new dam was chosen because it was further north of Iowa City than Terrell’s mill – meaning it would not impede with any steamboats coming up the Iowa River from the Mississippi. At the time, it was hoped that steamboats would become a primary means of transportation in eastern Iowa. Read more here.

Historical records indicate that the shareholders of this start-up company paid for their shares mostly through labor and groceries. One historian notes…

An examination of the company’s books showed that what probably was the most substantial structure west of the Mississippi River had cost but $25.00 in actual cash, with the balance paid for in dry goods, groceries, meat, and flour.

Opening for business on January 1, 1844, this new dam and grist mill – the largest in Iowa Territory at the time – became the birth place of today’s Coralville.

While The Iowa City Manufacturing Company began grinding flour in January 1844, the business struggled and passed through many owners until 1848, when Ezekiel Clark and E.W. Lake of Ohio purchased both the dam and the mill. At that point, the mill was officially re-named the Clarksville Mill, though once Clark’s brother-in-law – Samuel J. Kirkwood – moved west and joined the business – becoming its operations manager in 1855 – the mill was often called the Kirkwood Mill – after the future Iowa Governor and U.S. Senator. Read more here about Samuel J. Kirkwood – Iowa’s Civil War Governor.

Governor Samuel J. Kirkwood got his start in Iowa politics in Coralville in 1856. Known by his nickname – Dusty Miller – a description of his job as the mill manager – his friends convinced him to leave his job one afternoon to come see what was happening at the state convention of the new Republican Party in Iowa City. There was a “Wide Awake” movement afoot that would ultimately put Kirkwood in the governor’s chair, and a young man named Lincoln into the presidency of the United States in 1860. Read more here.

We must insert, here, the amazing story of Coralville’s Mormon Handcart Brigade. You see, once the railroad was completed into Iowa City in 1856 – Johnson County became the furthest point west on the proposed Transcontinental Railroad. Read more here. Because of this fact, most pioneers who wanted to travel into America’s untamed west, came through Iowa City, stepping off the train at the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad depot, and then finding creative ways to continue their westward trek from here.

In 1856, 1,300 Mormon immigrants, forced westward from their homes in Illinois and points further east, gathered here in Johnson County to make camp during their difficult migration to Utah Territory. Here, in today’s Coralville, the Mormon community built handcarts out of native woods so that one adult could haul a 600–700 pound load, covering about 15 miles per day on foot. A historical marker commemorating the Mormon Handcart Brigade was erected in 1936 by the Iowa Society DAR. Originally placed just south of 5th Street and west of 10th Street, it was moved in 1998 to S. T. Morrison Park and re-dedicated by the Nathaniel Fellows Chapter, placed near the entrance and pond. Today, the Mormon Handcart Park and Nature Preserve commemorates the site. There is also a street, Mormon Trek Blvd. – named for the Mormons who came through Johnson County in 1856.

Watch Iowa City’s famed historian Irving Weber tell the Mormon Handcart Brigade story.

Coralville’s name is derived from the fossilized coral that is found within the limestone on which the mills and dam on the Iowa River were built. In 1864, Louis Agassiz, a Harvard University zoologist, gave two lectures at the nearby State University of Iowa – one being titled The Coral Reefs of Iowa City. During the lecture, Agassiz presented local samples of fossilized Devonian period coral, and the lecture was so well received, in 1866, as more coral samples were discovered at the site of yet another new mill, area citizens were inspired to name their little settlement – once known as Clarksville on the Iowa River – Coralville.

Historian Benjamin Shambaugh offers his overview (above) on the coral deposits found around Iowa City. For more on the history of Ancient Iowa click here.
It’s Official – December 1866 – Coralville Is Our New Name!

Much like its sister city – Iowa City, which was founded in 1839 but not incorporated until 1853 – Coralville was first formed as a village by the mid-1840’s, named in 1866, but not actually incorporated until 1873. At the same time, the leaders of Johnson County decided to form a new township – making the City of Iowa City its own township, while taking everything else surrounding the city (see map below) and making it into a new township named after Iowa’s first Territorial Governor – Robert Lucas.

By the time of its incorporation in October 1873, Coralville’s population had grown to almost 300, and it boasted a blacksmith shop, a two-room school house (see below), a wagon shop, a meat market, a lumberyard, a dry good store, and four saloons. 

Two years later, in July 1875, one of the largest mills in Coralville – Close Mills – had a massive explosion and fire. Below are all the details…

Read about the on-going controversy surrounding the city’s name – Clarksville vs. Coralville.

During the last two decades of the 19th century, Coralville became a vibrant blue-collar, working man’s village that served eastern Iowa’s agricultural-based society as one of the most vibrant milling communities throughout the state.

Read one man’s letter – a worker at the Coral Mill – back home to his family in Ohio.

Harvesting Ice On The Iowa River. Supporting recreational pursuits, ice harvesting, farms, mills, a limestone quarry, and eventually, an electric power company, the Iowa River was both friend and foe to the early residents of Coralville. In fact, flooding was such a regular part of life that 1st Avenue was originally known as Water Street!
The red-brick Iowa River & Power Company building was first constructed in 1886, but a big explosion and subsequent fire on Jan. 3, 1899, destroyed the building, killing three workers. The building was quickly rebuilt (see pic above) and reopened the following summer. In 1902, the plant was converted into an electric power plantbecoming the region’s biggest economic engine until it was retired in 1968.

Read about the name controversy – Coralville vs. Clarksville – that lingered into the 20th century.

At the beginning of the 20th century, industry along the Iowa River shifted away from milling to electric power generation, and as a result, all of Coralville’s mills had closed down – except for the low-head hydro-electric plant – first built in 1886 – a power company that remained in operation until the middle of the 20th century.

(P-0326) The Coralville Dam became the subject of penny postcards at the turn of the century. Read more here.
Here’s a rare penny postcard dated July 17, 1911 from Nellie Campbell in Coralville and written to Mrs. Nettie Haines – 4th Ave. – Grinnell, Iowa. The picture features the Coralville Mill Dam and Nettie writes … By this mill is where I take Robert (her son?) to bathe! Well, I am slow but sure about writing. Old Hemp and I have been as busy as could be ever since we came here. We have quite a small farm to care for besides 44 chickens, 1 cat, and 2 dogs and a pig. How are you all and George? Barnum and Bailey Circus will be at Iowa City Saturday July 22nd. We expect to go of course. Read more about when the circus came to Iowa City. We live just a little ways from this dam. Best regards to all. Nellie Campbell.

After World War II, Coralville began to grow as many SUI students began to make their homes here. In 1940, Coralville had only 433 people, but by 1970, the population had jumped to 6,130. The Iowa River and Power Company building still stands today (below) and is now home to a popular restaurant loved by Coralville residents and visitors.

In 1973, Coralville celebrated its Centennial Anniversary – and now, in 2023, it’s time to celebrate the 150th! Happy Birthday, Coralville!

Click here to read about Coralville’s long history before it was formed as a milling community in the 1840’s.

DYK-April 30, 2023

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Coralville, Iowa, Wikipedia

Mills and Livestock, Clarence R. Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, 1912, pp 412-423

Mill Dam, Iowa Capitol Reporter, August 19, 1843, p 4

Mill Dam, Iowa Capitol Reporter, September 30, 1843, p 3

Coralville history, various authors, History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1883, pp 310-311, 436-437, 592, 728-731

Louis Agassiz and the fossil reefs of Iowa, Gale Academic Onefile

Geological, Benjamin F. Shambaugh, Iowa City – A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa, State Historical Society of Iowa,1893, pp 2-4

Lucas Township-Plat Book 1930, University of Iowa Digital Libraries

Coralville photos, Coralville Digital History Library

Coralville, Iowa 1870.jpg, Wikipedia

Coralville History, City of Coralville

Iowa River Power Restaurant steeped in history, Brian E. Clark, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, December 30, 2016

History, Iowa River Landing

150th Anniversary, City of Coralville

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