Folsom’s Fury – Building A Bridge Over Troubled Water.

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…

Gilman Folsom was born in New Hampshire in 1818, and caught the “go-west-young-man-go west” bug, moving to Iowa City in 1841. Folsom came here to practice law, and after having a rough go of it in his first few years, he eventually became a very well-known and well-respected Iowa Citian – practicing law and serving in the Iowa House of Representatives for two terms (1850-1854).

Folsom married Emily Arthur in August 1843, and took over his late father-in-law’s ferry business in Iowa City in 1845. By the late 1840’s, people were clamoring for a bridge of any kind to replace the slower ferry service. Iowa was growing quickly, and the California Gold Rush was bringing a multitude of people to town via the National Road and all of Iowa needed a quick and safe crossing of the Iowa River in Iowa’s capital city. Gilman’s father – Winthrop – moved here from New Hampshire in the late ’40’s, and as you can see from the newspaper articles, both Folsoms were listed as the proposed contractors to build the first toll bridge over the river. Click here to read more about the Folsom family.
The second Governor of the State of Iowa (1850-1854) – Stephen B. Hempstead – was born in Connecticut in 1812.  In 1828, the family moved to a farm near St. Louis, and in 1830, Stephen, age 18, procured a position as clerk in a store at Galena, Illinois. After serving in the militia during the Black Hawk War (1832), Hempstead studied law, and in 1836, opened the first law office in the mining town of Dubuque. When Iowa Territory was established in 1838, Hempstead, age 26, was elected to the Council (Senate) of the First Legislative Assembly. During the Second Assembly, he was chosen President of the Council, and in 1844, was elected as one of the delegates to the First Constitutional Convention held in Iowa City.

In 1850, Hempstead was elected governor over the Whig candidate, James L. Thompson, and served four years in Iowa City. A very controversial leader, Hempstead was a hard-line conservative, schooled in the old ways of governing. He railed against banks, vetoing two popular proposals to amend the 1846 state constitution which prohibited such financial institutions. Read more here. Probably one of his most hideous beliefs was that he was, what was called back then, a Douglas Democrat – one who believed that slavery was a proper component to American business. During his term as governor, even though Iowa was a free state, he encouraged all forms of immigration, supporting his fellow citizens to bring African-American slaves into the state in order to grow the population! Sadly, it was also during his governorship when the Sioux Nation (1851) was forced to sign a treaty giving up the last of their lands in Iowa.

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.

A pontoon bridge (below), also known as a floating bridge, replaced ferries when heavy amounts of traffic made for lengthy delays. This type of bridge uses floats or shallow-draft boats to support a continuous deck for pedestrian and vehicle travel, but the buoyancy of the supports, limits the maximum load they can carry. Pontoon bridges were used extensively during the Civil War – allowing large numbers of troops to cross rivers quickly.

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

(JP-058) Here is a rare postal cover and letter from Eliphalet Price – the Whig representative from Clayton County, Iowa – to the Honorable G. Folsom, written from Price’s home in Guttenberg on July 27, 1851, and postmarked in nearby Garnavello on July 29.

Iowa Clayton Co. – Guttenberg July 27, 1851

Dear Sir. I have been favored this week by mail with a (copy) of The Reporter containing your address to the voters of Johnson and Iowa Counties relative to the veto of the Executive of the Bill passed by both houses of the General Assembly, authorizing the building of a bridge across the Iowa (River) by yourself and father (Winthrop). I have examined it carefully and cannot but believe that every unbiased mind, freed from that party enthrallment (which in Iowa) binds to an obsequious observance of the leader’s will, must regard it not only as an able but a conclusive exposition of the imbecility of the Executive mind when employed in an interpretation of the Constitution. What most surprised me at the time was to see with what serf-like obsequiousness the members generally surrendered their own opinions and bowed to the mandate of the Executive whose opinion seemed to be regarded as correct from no other cause than that he occupied a higher position as a public officer. I was not one of them and I assure you that I felt indignant at the time. I was sadly disappointed in the intellectual caliber of Hempstead, he is overrated, is self willed, and a Loco to (the) ultra for the growing liberal spirit that is governing the public mind of both the Democratic and Whig parties of the State. Hempstead has reached the Senility of his political greatness. In the North among his most ardent friends and supporters (and not a few of them were among the Whigs) he is settling fast in the political thermometer. His uncalled for exercise of the veto power prompted by a weak desire to appear before the people of the state, through the medium of an Executive message, has contributed not a little to that end. I have not seen, neither can I hear anything concerning the journals of the House. There has been a rumor Des Moines Republic would ask for an extra session. As you may know what the signs of the times are, being at the Capitol, I would be pleased to hear from you at your leisure. I shall expect you to call upon me should you ever venture as far north as this or its vicinity. 
Very Respectfully – Eliphalet Price

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!

DYK – May 22, 2023

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,, 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

Eliphalet Price, Find-A-Grave

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