The Streets Of Iowa City – From Mud To Bricks.

I’m certain that you’ve heard the old expression that is used by a person who finds themself in a very repetitive, and quite frustrating, conundrum – with very limited possibilities of escape — “HELP! I’m STUCK in the MUD!”

Well, until 1895, residents of Iowa City would use that expression nearly every time it rained or snowed in our fair community. You see, for nearly 60 years of Iowa City’s early history (1840-1900), all of our streets – including the main thoroughfares like Clinton Street, Iowa Avenue, and Dubuque Street – were dirt roads, with maybe a bit of crushed rock on top – if you were lucky.

One story is told about Judge George G. Wright, who was traveling into Iowa City via stagecoach in the 1840’s. As they were approaching Iowa City on The National Road, Wright asked the driver how long it would take to travel the final 12 miles into Iowa City.

“About five hours,” the driver replied, “if we can find the bottom of the road!”

Ba-boom!

Fed up with the mud, the first big step for Iowa Citians – as early as the 1850’s (see above) – was to appoint a streets commissioner who decided it was best to lay down wooden boards in front of the local merchant’s shops – thus the term “Board Walk.” By the mid-1800’s, small pieces of crushed stone were scattered over dirt roads – a process called macadamization – named after the Scottish engineer John L. McAdam, who invented the process. Certainly, this was a step forward, yet when the heavy summer rains came or when the warm, springtime sun melted the ice and snow of winter, the old expression – “Help! I’m stuck in the mud!” – surfaced once more!

Read more about the original 24 streets of Iowa City – 1839.

While it would seem obvious that brick paving would be the best way to go, it’s apparent that the opinions on the subject are varied, at best. The May 15, 1895 edition of The Iowa City Weekly Republican printed pro vs. con statements from fourteen different prominent city leaders…

By September 25, 1895, the city newspapers announced the “good news” details of the now-approved brick-paving project!

Earlier, on Wednesday, September 11, The Republican had offered details about the bidding process (see below).

The Purington Brick Co. in East Galesburg, Illinois, was once the largest producer of brick pavers in the world. The first brick was manufactured on the site in 1849 by Henry Grosscup, a German stonemason. Brothers D. V. and W. S. Purington purchased the business around 1890, and employed 800 workers to transform blue shale and yellow soil into more than 150,000 bricks per day. In those days, making bricks was a labor intensive process. The shale was scooped out of nearby pits, mixed, crushed, dampened and molded into raw, green colored bricks. The bricks then had to be set by hand onto large, movable platforms. Old-timers recall the physical labor involved as a green brick pitcher tossed the clay bricks, sometimes two or three in each hand, to the catcher above, who stacked them in the kiln. The catcher often used old leather shoe soles, cut individually for each hand, to help curb the blisters. Teen-age boys were hired as “sand monkeys” – workers who threw sand on the bricks so they wouldn’t stick together in the kiln. Many long-time employees started their careers that way.

Clinton Street was designed to be one of the major north/south streets of Iowa City – focusing on commercial storefronts from the very beginning. Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, states that despite its prominence in Iowa City, hogs from local farms would often gather here on the mud street to feast on the food scraps. It’s this smelly mess that put Clinton Street at the top of the list for brick paving in 1895! Click here to read more about Clinton Street in the 1890’s.

The September 25th article in the Iowa City Republican (above) seems to indicate that College Street was the first location for brick paving, however, from looking at the bidding process (September 11th article), Clinton Street – from Jefferson to Washington (see pic below) – came first. Regardless, it’s apparent that during 1895, a total of eight city blocks (see map) were completed before winter set in – including Dubuque Street and Washington Street.

The first street paving project in Iowa City is underway in this 1895 image looking north along Clinton Street from Washington Street with University Square as a backdrop. During the summer/fall of 1895, the surface from Jefferson south to College was completed. Note the bricks stacked at the street side beyond a limestone curb already in place. Photo by Laurence Welsh courtesy of Paul Welsh. Read more about Clinton Street here.

In December, the editor of The Republican had nothing but good to say about the project (see above).

Once the first eight-block paving project was completed in the fall of 1895 – the demand exploded. In 1897, Clinton Street was extended north to Church Street, and south – past Burlington Street – to Harrison Street. Then, in 1898, Clinton was extended by two more blocks to the Rock Island Railroad Depot (below).

Also, in 1897, College Street was extended east to Summit, and then Summit Street was paved all the way south to Bowery Street.

In 1907, Linn Street was paved all the way north to Brown, then east along Brown Street to both Oakland and St. Joseph Cemeteries. This was a very important addition to the city – allowing most of Iowa City’s funeral processions to proceed without muddy delays! Also, in 1907, Iowa Avenue was finally bricked from Clinton to Gilbert, and then extended, in 1908, to Muscatine Avenue.

In 1914, Dubuque Street was paved northward from downtown to the new Park Road Bridge (see pics below) – leaving a 10-foot wide space down the middle for the Iowa City Railway trolley tracks – which were installed around 1912. Read more here.

Intense hand labor is applied to install streetcar tracks in North Dubuque Street 
between Fairchild Street (foreground) and Church Street (on horizon). Circa 1912.

By 1920, brick roads were appearing throughout Iowa City – and now, residents were clamoring for better roads between our fair city and other communities throughout eastern Iowa. Read more here.

The brick-paved Clinton Street served as the main route for the annual Mecca Parade. Read more here.

In its heyday, Purington Pavers could be found around the world – from more than 60 miles of streets in their own hometown of Galesburg, Illinois to the Bazaar in Bombay, India. Cities from Chicago, IL, to Deadwood, SD, ordered the bricks for their streets. At the turn of the century, the United States government selected Purington Pavers for the streets of Panama City, Panama, during construction of the Panama Canal. Knox County, Illinois soldiers in World War II were surprised to find Purington Pavers in the streets of Paris.

According to Purington Bricks – maker of most of the paver bricks used across America – the largest order the company in Galesburg, Illinois ever filled came at the start of World War II. The Dupont Company needed twenty-two million building bricks for a munitions plant they were building in southern Indiana. Purington worked at full production capacity for 146 days to complete the order, filling seven or eight freight cars each day. The daily shipment traveled through the night and arrived the next morning at the building site – still warm from the kiln.

The beautiful brick streets of Iowa City glisten in the rain – photo by Fred Kent.

Sadly, a lot of Iowa City’s original brick streets are now hidden away, covered over by asphalt, and only peeking through when potholes develop or street repair work is being done.

Today, there are 24 brick streets remaining in our city, and according to a report in 2017, the city was, at that time, about 10 years into a long process of upgrading them all – a few blocks at a time. This painstaking work is part of an ongoing effort to improve and preserve the brick streets in Iowa City’s historic neighborhoods, despite the higher costs associated with the project.

“The challenge with our brick streets is that 100 years ago, when they were putting in the brick, they didn’t necessarily put a concrete base below them,” Public Works Director Ron Knoche said, adding that the city is working to install those bases now so the bricks don’t shift as much during the freeze-thaw cycles. “They tend to move around a bit more and they do become a little bit rougher ride than folks want to have.”

Despite the “bit rougher ride,” here’s a tip of the old hat to all of those Purington Pavers that went into building the streets of Iowa City.


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

Judge George G. Wright (1855-1860), Iowa Judicial Branch, State of Iowa

Mud Roads, Irving Weber, Article 247, Series 19, October 4, 1978, p 231

Iowa City’s Streets, The Iowa City Weekly Republican, May 15, 1895, p 8

They All Wanted the Contract, The Iowa City Republican, September 11, 1895, p 5

Brick Paving Sure, The Iowa City Weekly Republican, September 25, 1895, p 7

Work Is Progressing, The Iowa State Press, September 25, 1895, p 5

Why To Be Thankful, The Iowa City Weekly Republican, December 4, 1895, p 7

Saturday Postcard 233: Iowa City Paves Over the Mud, Bob Hibbs, The Iowa City Press-Citizen, February 28, 2004 

Making Sense Out Of Iowa City Streets, Thomas Schulein, Iowa City Public Library, May 25, 2016

Purington Brick History, Gavin Historical Bricks

IC History: Iowa City’s early crossroads, Marlin Ingalls, Little Village Magazine, July 8, 2013

Reclaiming Iowa City history, one brick at a time, Cedar Rapids Gazette, July 8, 2017

Kudos to Iowa City historian Julie Hastings for leads on this story.


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