As many of us know – politics is never a pretty profession. One look today inside the capitol buildings of either Washington D.C. or Des Moines, and it’s easy to see that politicians rarely, if ever, mince their words when it comes to saying what they mean. So it was, in the earliest days of Iowa politics. Allow me here, to give you an example from Iowa City in July 1851…
Interestingly, in the summer of 1851, the deep political differences that were typically found in Iowa City’s two newspapers, took a unique turn when The Iowa Republican published an editorial on July 16th that actually sided with the “new-school” Democrat – Gilman Folsom – who just a week earlier, on July 9th, had written a scathing editorial in The Iowa Capital Reporter – railing against a fellow Democrat – Governor Stephen B. Hempstead – for vetoing a widely-popular bill that would have allowed the construction of Iowa City’s first toll bridge over the Iowa River.
While it’s not unusual for one political party to have a wide range of governing styles or political priorities, the Democrats of Iowa in the 1850’s were unusually divided. A closer look at these two articles in July 1851 Iowa City newspapers reveals how the conservative, old school approach to government – with Hempstead literally choking off new ideas with a stroke of his pen – was angering both the opposition Whig (Republican) party, but also a large number of the more open-minded Democrats as well. But, before we get into more of the details, allow me tell you a bit about these two lawyer/politicians involved in this brouhaha – Gilman Folsom and Stephen B. Hempstead…
So now, back to our “Iowa City bridge” story. As we mentioned in Gilman Folsom’s biography, in 1845, Gilman took over his late father-in-law’s ferry service in Iowa City. If you look at the map above, you’ll see Pleasant Arthur’s ferry service running across the Iowa River – located on The National Road. This ferry service – where the Iowa Avenue Bridge is today – was started in 1840, and was soon taken over by Gilman’s father-in-law – Pleasant Arthur – in 1841. By the time Gilman took over the ferry service in 1845 – 1) Iowa City was growing rapidly, 2) the other ferry services had, pretty much, gone by the wayside, and, 3) when the California Gold Rush hit in 1849, suddenly The National Road had become just that – with literally hundreds of ‘go west-young man-go west’ adventurers camping at the bottom of Iowa Avenue – waiting for Folsom’s ferry to take them across the Iowa River. Read more about this story here.
Without a doubt, a bridge of some kind was badly needed in Iowa City, and the first stage would be to put in a pontoon bridge (see above) – which was a combination of a solid entry-way into the river with floatable planks in the middle that allowed for the highs and lows of the river current. This “temporary” fix would then lead to a more permanent wooden structure that would literally become the gateway to the West. And in 1851, Gilman & Winthrop Folsom were prepared to undertake the entire project, but first, the Iowa State Legislature would need to fully approve it – which they did. That brings us, now, to…
What’s so intriguing about Hempstead’s veto of the 1851 Iowa City toll bridge project is that the governor, himself, was very pro-immigration – wanting to bring more people into Iowa. A bridge in Iowa City would certainly become a positive step in that direction, so the question remains – why would Hempstead veto something that the Legislature approved, and something that would be so helpful in bringing more people into Iowa?
Secondly, it’s also very curious that Hempstead vetoed the bridge project since he was so very pro-Iowa City – being one of the first and foremost voices to support Territorial Governor Robert Lucas (1839) and his highly-unpopular decision to build a new capital city in Johnson County – versus keeping the government in Burlington or some other better-established community. Well, for whatever reason(s), Hempstead vetoed the toll bridge project, calling the idea unconstitutional, but the end result was not very pretty – nor popular! As we mentioned earlier, the first response to the governor’s decision came from Gilman Folsom himself…
Sadly, the only accessible copy of Folsom’s comments – published on July 9, 1851 in The Iowa Capital Reporter – is not very readable, but there’s enough to see that Folsom did a bang-up job in discrediting Hempstead’s “it’s not constitutional” argument. And, as you can see from the full page (pictured above right), the Iowa City lawyer did it, point-by-point, using nearly three full newspaper columns to make his case! So now, let’s explore who responded next…
One week after Folsom’s article was printed in The Capital Reporter, S.M. Ballard – the editor and publisher of The Reporter‘s competitor in Iowa City – The Iowa Republican – published a surprisingly supportive commentary, upholding Folsom’s views, while trashing the “illiberal” Hempstead and his “hard” interpretation of Iowa’s constitution.
Which brings us, now, to our next intriguing response…
I’m sure that Gilman Folsom was pleasantly surprised when he received, in his mailbox, this very supportive letter from the Whig Representative – Eliphalet Price – from Clayton County, Iowa…
Obviously, Representative Price – being a part of the Whig Party – was not a Hempstead fan, but like The Iowa Republican newspaper in Iowa City, it’s encouraging to see when good and proper individuals, on occasion, can drop their political positioning, and vocally support a political foe like Folsom, especially when that person does something honorable – acting on the truth because it’s the right thing to do! Inserting my editorial opinion here — sadly, we rarely see this type of attitude or willingness in politics today! So, here’s a salute to Eliphalet Price – the Whig from Guttenberg who represented Clayton, Fayette, Allamakee, and Winneshiek Counties (see map below) in the Iowa House during the 1850-1851 Assembly. Thanks, Mr. Price, for speaking up for what’s right!
Sadly, because of Hempstead’s rejection and the Iowa Senate and House of Representatives’ unwillingness to override his veto, Folsom’s bridge project didn’t get off the ground until 1854 – making for a three-year delay in Iowa City getting her first toll bridge over the Iowa River!
Today, Iowa Avenue in Iowa City has its scenic bridge over the Iowa River, but in truth, over the years, we’ve had four different Iowa Avenue bridges! Read more here.
As we said earlier, the first toll bridge (1854), when finally built, was a pontoon bridge, which Folsom then replaced with a solid, wooden structure in 1856. A “free” bridge followed in 1860 on Burlington Street, but closed in 1863 after a herd of cattle stampeded, putting the poorly-constructed bridge out of commission for a year. During that time, Folsom re-opened his toll bridge on Iowa Avenue, donating much of his profits to the Civil War soldiers fund. Read more here.
In 1876, a new steel bridge replaced Folsom’s wooden toll bridge, and since it was the nation’s 100th birthday, it was called The Centennial Bridge (above left). In 1916, that bridge was replaced by a concrete structure (above right) – which, of course, still stands today after a whole bunch of updating & widening.
Click here for a complete overview of the many bridges of Iowa City.
So, that’s the story of how Iowa City got her first bridge. Thanks to a stubborn governor, it was three years after it could have been built – but, as they say, better late than never!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Stephen P. Hempstead, Wikipedia
Hempstead, Stephen P., The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa, University of Iowa Digital Editions
Son of Former Iowa Governor goes bad: “Rebel Son” becomes Campaign Issue, David Cannon, ConfederatesFromIowa.com, April 17, 2015
Stephen Hempstead, Find-A-Grave
Gilman Folsom, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 1872 – Number 4, 1872, pp. 298-301
Representative Gilman Folsom, The Iowa Legislature
One More River to Cross, Ruth A. Gallaher, Palimpsest – March 1927, Article 3
Gilman Folsom, History of Johnson County Iowa 1836-1882, p 822
Gilman Folsom, Historical Stories About Iowa City – Volume 1, University of Iowa Digital Library, pp 234-236
To My Constituents Of The Counties of Johnson And Iowa, The Iowa Capital Reporter, July 9, 1851, p 2
Iowa And Cedar Rivers, Mr. Folsom To His Constituents, The Iowa Republican, July 16, 1851, p 2
Winthrop Folsom, Find-a-Grave website
Gilman Folsom, Find-A-Grave website
Eliphalet Price, The Iowa Legislature
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