1839-1842 – Iowa City’s First Hotels.

Over Iowa City’s first four years of existence – 1839-1842 – there were four “hotels” that came into existence – 1) Allen/Andrews’ Double Log Cabin, 2) F.M. Irish’s Lean Back Hall, 3) Walter Butler’s City Hotel, and 4) Chauncey & Dolly Swan’s National Hotel (see map above – which also indicates The National Road). On this page, we’ll introduce you to these four iconic hotel/taverns that welcomed visitors into our fair city and hosted some of Iowa City’s earliest gatherings and celebrations.

When Territorial Governor Robert Lucas announced on January 21, 1839 that Johnson County would be the home of Iowa’s new capital city, settlers began trickling in, joining with John Gilbert and the good people of Napoleon in securing land for themselves. Since Iowa’s only Land Office was in Dubuque at that time, pioneers would come here, stake out a piece of land, and build a temporary claim cabin (see pic below). Then, once the land was marked, the future owner would make their way to Dubuque, secure their land, and then return to begin their new life in Johnson County.

In February 1839 – three months before Chauncey Swan and Robert Ronalds would hand-pick the location for Iowa’s new capitol building – pioneers Asaph Allen and George T. Andrews built a claim cabin on Johnson County land near, what is today, the Iowa City intersection of Brown Street and Gilbert Street (see map below). By June 1839, they had built a second cabin about 20 feet away from the original one, placed a roof over the space in-between, and before long, they had opened up a tavern. Welcome to Iowa City!

Over the next few years, this double log-cabin – located on The National Road as it came into the north end of town – became Iowa City’s first “hotel/tavern” – where visitors to our fair community could have a roof over their head, a hot meal, a few drinks, and a place to lay their head. Sorry – no room service!

On July 25, 1839, Governor Lucas, announced two sale dates when the public could begin purchasing land in the newly-surveyed Iowa City: the third Monday in August (19th) and the first Monday in October (7th). This announcement stirred excitement across Iowa Territory and back East as well. And so, they came, and between the August 19th and October 7th sales events, over 200 lots were sold!

Here’s a look at L. Judson’s original map (1839). Two months after the surveyors planted their stake — on July 4, 1839 — this first map of Iowa City situated in Township 79 North, Range 6 West of the 5th Meridian, was signed and approved. Iowa City, as it was laid out on L. Judson’s map, was one-square mile, divided into blocks 320 feet square with lots 80 x 150 feet. Click here to read more about the early maps of Iowa City.

But, curious minds want to know. Where did all these potential buyers stay when they attended these two land sales?

With the announcement of the land sales, one of Iowa City’s earliest settlers – Capt. Frederick M. Irish – sprang into action, throwing up a very temporary building – literally in the span of just a few days! The 75′ long x 8′ wide Lean Back Hall was made of stripped-bark poles with slabs of wood for siding and was built on Block 61 – the corner of Washington Street and Linn Street (see map above) facing west.

Lean Back Hall was divided into three sections – 1) a grocery store on one side, 2) a kitchen/dining area and tavern on the other, and 3) a large open space in the middle – a sleeping floor for up to 36 “not too big” men. Women guests were curtained off with a hanging blanket, and the floor was strewn with wild hay to soften the guest’s sleep! A long muslin-covered bolster, stuffed with wild hay, served as a pillow, and cooking was done on a four-hole cook stove that was shipped in from New Jersey. Historian Benjamin Shambaugh tells us more…

Shambaugh states that during the August 19th & October 7th land sales of 1839, occasional breaks would be taken throughout the day – with the whole proceedings moving over to the Lean Back Hall for a few sips of whiskey!

The Lean Back Hall grocery included: flour, corn meal, bacon, dried apples, gun powder, whiskey, salt, brown sugar, a few jars of stick candy, a box of raisins, a box of rosin soap, and a keg of saleratus – an early leavening agent. Apparently, while a bit primitive as a hotel, this first semi-permanent frame building met the needs of those who attended the land sales, and, according to Shambaugh, remained in Iowa City “for about twenty years”.

In those August and October 1839 land auctions, Walter Butler – fresh in town from Illinois – bought three lots – one of which was in Block 80 (see map above). Historian Benjamin Shambaugh indicates that Butler had already started constructing a hotel on Lot 5 of Block 80 prior to the sale – so he was allowed to purchase the property at a base price of $300.

Butler had already seen the big shortage of lodging in Iowa City, so once the property was his, he immediately applied for a tavern license (see below)…

So, by October 8, 1839, Walter Butler’s City Hotel had its proper tavern licensing and soon would be welcoming visitors to Iowa City.

Click here to read more about Walter Butler and his impact on early Iowa City.

In December 1840, Walter Butler’s City Hotel hosted a big Christmas Ball for the city. Here is an invitation to that event. Read one man’s story who probably stayed at The City Hotel in December 1841.

Sometime around 1840, just as Walter Butler was establishing his City Hotel, another building was going up on the northeast corner of Capitol and Jefferson Streets – directly north of where the new capitol building was under construction. The National Hotel was owned by Jonathan Lawrence and was called “a new and commodious establishment – open and ready for the reception of the traveling community.” Historian Marybeth Slonneger tells us more…

The National Hotel was named such since it was located on The National Road and was very near the only ferry crossing of the Iowa River. The hotel was advertised as “a very desirable and convenient stopping place…the table will be furnished with all the good things of the season that the market afford[s],” but by 1842, had apparently fallen in its stature.

In May 1842, Chauncey Swan – the founding father of Iowa City – and his wife, Dolly, bought out the National and transformed it into an eloquent inn and tavern with a commanding view of the Iowa River. Swan’s Hotel – as it became known – went on to play a major role in day-to-day life during the early days of Iowa City.

Below is an invitation to a New Year’s Eve Cotillon (dance) Party held December 31, 1849 at Swan’s Hotel.

Here’s just a few Swan’s Hotel highlights that are recorded in Iowa City history…

  • May 1842 Iowa historian, T.S. Parvin, in his diary, states… “Stopped at Swan’s, the only good tavern ever established in Iowa.”
  • 1840-1849 – The Swan served as the station stop for all stagecoach travel into Iowa City. Prior to the railroad coming to Iowa City in 1856, stagecoach service was the fastest way in and out of the capital city. All aboard at The Swan.

Without a doubt, The Swan – during the 1840’s – was the place to be! Read more here.

Click here to read about some of Iowa City’s classic hotel/taverns that graced our city throughout the 19th century.

So, there you have it – the first four years (1839-1842) and the first four hotel/taverns of Iowa City…

Read about the next 50 years of Iowa City hotels (1840’s-1890’s) here.

Come on in – grab a nite-cap. We’ll leave the light on for you!


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

Allen & Andrews hotel/tavern, History of Johnson County, Iowa, containing a history of the county, and its townships, cities and villages from 1836 to 1882, 1883, p 309

Iowa City – A Contribution to the Early History of Iowa, Benjamin Shambaugh, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1893, pp 32-34, 38-40, 45, 48, 50

Walter Butler: Capitol Builder, William J. Peterson, The Palimpsest, Volume 36-Number 12-Article 2, December 1955, pp 485-492

Lean Back Hall, Butler Hotel, Finials – A View of Downtown Iowa City, Marybeth Slonneger, Hand Press, 2015, intro, p 28

Swan’s Hotel, The Iowa Capitol Reporter, December 17, 1842, p 3


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