Let The City-Wide Celebrations Begin: 1839 – 1841 – 1856.

Iowa City is no stranger to big celebrations. Of course, now-a-days, the very biggest city-wide parties occur when the Hawkeyes pull off a big upset against a top-ranked foe in football, but back in the 19th century, there were some pretty impressive city celebrations that were long remembered by Iowa Citians. Let me give you, here, three wonderful examples from 1839, 1841, and 1856

July 4, 1839 – Celebrating The Creation Of Iowa City.

As we’ve discussed elsewhere, Iowa City had her humble beginnings on May 4, 1839, when Chauncey Swan placed a marker in the ground as he was standing high above the Iowa River – near where Old Capitol stands today.

By July 4th – Independence Day – 1839 – the surveying of our new city was well under way, and the earliest Johnson County pioneers gathered on, what is today, the Pentacrest, for a big celebration – the first in our city’s history! Iowa City historian Benjamin Shambaugh (below left) describes this special day, and, one of those attending the party – Cyrus Sanders (below right) – writes about this glorious event in a first-hand account recorded in his 1839 journal.

By the way – the U.S. flag that the early pioneers hung from that young oak tree might have looked like the one pictured above. In 1839, there were 26 states in the Union and the arrangement of the stars on the American flag could vary, depending on the flag maker.

In some of his later writings, Sanders reports (above) a bit more about this first city-wide celebration – describing Gen. John Frierson – the main speaker at the July 4, 1839 event. It was also at this July 4, 1839 celebration, when draftsman L. Judson presented his map of Iowa City (below) – the very first one in our history…

L. Judson’s 1839 proposed city map of Iowa City. This first map of Iowa City – situated in Township 79 North, Range 6 West of the 5th Meridian – was signed and approved. Click here to read more how the streets of Iowa City were named.
June 21, 1841 – Celebrating The Arrival Of The Steamboat Ripple.

Excitement across Johnson County was at an all time high when the first steamboat, the Ripple, under the command of Captain Dan Jones, made its way into Iowa City in the early summer of 1841. Author John C. Parish, in his 1921 article from The Palimpsest, tells us more…

“We need not speak of the astonishment caused by such unusual sounds – sounds which were for the first time heard on our peaceful river – nor of the many conjectures which were started as to the course from whence they proceeded. Our doubts were soon dispelled by the glorious reality, as the Steamer Ripple for the first time came dashing up the Iowa and landed at the ferry, which henceforth is only to be known by the more appropriate name of the Steam Boat Landing.” The Iowa City Standard

Read more about the arrival of steamboats in Iowa City here.

On Monday night, June 21, 1841 – the day after The Ripple’s arrival – a festive city-wide dinner was held at The National Hotel. The evening began with the touring author, John B. Newhall from Burlington, who was gathering crowds across the West speaking about Iowa and its great potential. His first book, The Sketches of Iowa (1841) was making quite the stir and as guest speaker, Newell set the stage for the festivities, and after a lengthy speech, Newhall finally introduced the Ripple‘s skipper – Dan Jones…

From this day henceforth a new era will commence in the destinies of your city.

Records show that while Captain Dan was not accurate when it came to his prediction that riverboats would shape the future destinies of Iowa City, he was right about how going forward, this little town on the prairie would never be the same once it became better-connected with the outside world.

There was hope in Iowa City that, with the coming of the Ripple in June 1841, many more steamers would be coming and going on a regular basis. But sadly, with the ebbs and flows of the Iowa River in Johnson County, it simply was too difficult – and risky – for larger boats to maintain a regular schedule. Which brings us now to Iowa City’s big city-wide celebration #3…

January 3, 1856 – Celebrating The Arrival Of M&M Railroad.

With steamboats simply not a practical reality because of the fluctuating water levels of the Iowa River, the good people of Iowa City turned their attention to getting the railroad to come to town. But as we discuss elsewhere, that plan – which started with the formation of The Davenport & Iowa City (D&IC) Railroad Company in the fall of 1850 – didn’t find fruition until New Year’s Eve – December 31, 1855. Below, Iowa City historian Irving Weber tells the tale…

You can read the complete story of the arrival of the M&M (Mississippi & Missouri) Railroad here.

According to Johnson County historian – Clarence Ray Aurner – in November 1855 – the Iowa City Council began planning for a big celebration to be held when the M&M finally arrived…

So, with celebration plans now in place, on December 18, 1855 – the committee in charge of party invitations sent out hundreds of letters to all of their contacts back East, offering a free round-trip ticket on the C&RI (Rock Island) and the M&M railroads – departing from Chicago on January 2nd, and arriving in Iowa City on Thursday, January 3, 1856.

While there were many businessmen and investors who helped bring the railroad to Iowa City, there are two names that stand out when it comes to the planning of The Grand Railroad Festival. As the invitation states, LeGrand Byington (lawyer) & Hugh D. Downey (banker) were the two major planners of the event, with Downey doing a lot of the footwork in inviting all of his Eastern contacts, while Byington served as the main speaker at the evening program.

With the invitations in the mail, and the M&M employees getting the track laid into Iowa City by New Year’s Eve (1855), it was now time to party. So, on January 3rd, 1856, the M&M steam engine – The Oskaloosa – rolled into Iowa City, pulling seven passenger cars filled with those who had boarded the C&RI train in Chicago the day before, arrived in Rock Island to spend the night, ferried across the Mississippi to Davenport the next morning, and finally, arriving in Iowa City in the late afternoon! Whew – quite the trip! According to the historical records, the booming of cannon announced the train’s arrival, with the passengers deboarding at the Johnson Street station – located four blocks to the east of the present Rock Island station (see map above).

According to the reports, the overnight temperature in Iowa City on the evening of January 3rd was 22-below zero! Again, Irving Weber tells us more…

Several days later – on January 8, 1856 – the Iowa Capital Reporter gave its readers one full page of details about the Grand Rail Road Festival – including all the speeches, toasts and salutes to “the Tyranny of Progress” – moving steadily toward the long-awaited goal of a transcontinental railroad! For, as of January 3, 1856, Iowa City was now directly connected to every city in the East – including Chicago, New York, and Washington D.C.!

LeGrand Byington, in his memoirs, writes this about this very cold but very festive day held in the state capitol building on Capitol Square…

Read more about LeGrand Byington here.

And finally, here’s historian C.R. Aurner’s writings about this special day…

So, there you have it. Three different decades – three different city-wide celebrations. 183918411856. Quite the parties – don’t you think?


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

Iowa City – A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa, Benjamin Shambaugh, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1893, pp 26-27.

26-star U.S. Flag, Jeff R. Bridgman.com

Official U.S. Flags 1777-1960, U.S. Flag Depot, Inc.

The Ripple, John C. Parish, The Palimpsest – Volume 2 Number 4, Article 3, April 1921, pp. 113-114, 117, 120

The First Steamboat At Iowa City, History of Johnson County, 1883, pp 426-429

Early Steamboating on the Iowa River, H.W. Lathrop, Iowa Historical Record, Volumes XIII, XIV, and XV, 1897-1898-1899, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1899, p 45

The M. and M. Railroad, Mildred J. Sharp, The Palimpsest – Volume 3 Number 1 Article 2, January 1922, pp. 1-2, 3-9, 15

LeGrand Byington & Hugh Downey, Chronology – 1841/1979, Iowa City Press Citizen, February 9, 1979, pp 20

LeGrand Byington notes, History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1883, pp 256-267

Grand Rail Road Festival, Weekly Capital Reporter, January 8, 1856, p 1-2

Grand Rail Road Festival, Clarence Ray Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, 1912, pp 223-224


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