Walter Terrell & His Waterworks.

Walter Terrell’s dam and grist mill on the bend of the Iowa River.

In 1896, Iowa Citian Gilbert R. Irish wrote a 3-page biographical article – for The Iowa Historical Record – on Iowa City’s famed entrepreneur – Walter Terrell. Interspersed here on this page is Irish’s complete story. Enjoy!

In 1838, Walter apparently made his decision to settle down in Iowa Territory.

Terrell came to Iowa City in 1840, becoming the first person in Iowa to obtain a permit to build a dam and mill. Venturing back to New Orleans to close out his business interests there, Walter returned three years later (1843) to begin his Iowa River project.

Walter Terrell’s Mill near Iowa City” by George H. Yewell (1855). Click here to read more about George H. Yewell.

In 1843, Walter, with the help of a skilled carpenter, Irish immigrant William Windrem, built a dam and a three-story grist mill on the Iowa River just north of Iowa City – what is today – directly in front of the Mayflower Apartments.

Actually, between 1841 and 1844, there were three dams/grist mills built in Johnson County, which Terrell’s Mill being the first on the Iowa River. Read more details here.

As you can see from this photo, Terrell’s dam was in two sections, both connecting to a small island in the middle of the Iowa River.

Over the next 23 years (1844-1867), Walter Terrell was a highly successful miller of grains. His grist mill was equipped with three run (top and bottom) of 3¹/₂ -foot millstones and three run of four-foot millstones. The water wheel was the undershot type where the power wheel that turned the millstones was made to revolve by the water undershooting the wheel. The mill could grind 300 bushels of grain in 24 hours.

Pioneer farmers from the surrounding region traveled up to 100 miles with their ox teams and wagons loaded with wheat or oats or rye or corn. At the mill, each man waited, sometimes for days, for his turn in the order of his arrival.

“A Distant View of Iowa City” (from the north) as sketched by George H. Yewell in 1855. In the bottom left corner notice Walter Terrell’s mill. Click here to read more about George H. Yewell.
(P-0050) (P-0272) (P-0051)
The Walter Terrell Mansion was built in 1851. Sometime in the 1930’s or 1940’s it became Mayflower Inn, with Mayflower Nite Club inside, a popular spot for receptions, parties and dances. In the mid-1960’s the building was demolished and the eight-story Mayflower Apartments – 1110 N. Dubuque St. – was built.

After Walter retired in 1867, the family kept the mill going until a good portion of the dam was carried away in the flood of 1881, ending the milling business after 37 years.

Circa 1880’s – Stereoscope Souvenir Card featuring Terrell’s Mill

(P-0053) The area north of Terrell’s Mill was a recreational spot for Iowa Citians. Click here to see more picture postcards that display some of the beautiful sites where people gathered.

After the 1881 flood, part of Terrell’s dam remained in place until well after the turn of the century, when it was dynamited and replaced with a new dam and water power plant further downstream – adjacent to the Burlington Street bridge.

In 1906, the land surrounding Terrell’s Mill was purchased by the city and made into Iowa City’s second City Park. Read more details here.

With the Terrell dam gone, the river sank back to its original level, flooding curtailed and improvement projects by both the city and the university began along both sides of the river. In 1909 the Iowa River’s landscape changed with the construction of Park Road Bridge, which for the first time directly linked the city on the eastern side of the river to the park on the west. It provided wagon, auto and trolley car traffic access to the newly opened Manville Heights area. Click here to read more about Iowa River bridges.

(C-0290) Terrell’s Dam around 1910.

Walter Terrell, his first wife Margaret Crew Terrell (1822-1853), second wife Jane Crew Terrell (1821-1888), and daughter, Mary Ann Sanders (1850-1916) are all buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

Click here to watch Iowa City historian Irving Weber offer his 15-minute story-version of Walter Terrell and his Iowa City dam and grist mill. Not only informative but this classic 1980’s video gives you a good look at the character and nature of Irving Weber, Iowa City’s famous historian. Click here for more on Irving Weber.

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

Walter Terrell, G.R. Irish, Iowa Historical Record, Vol. XII, No. 4, October 1896, pp 529-531

Year Book and Reference Manual of Zion’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1907-1908, Chapter 1: Origin 1856-1859, p 1

Terrell’s Mill – Iowa City, Iowa, George H. Yewell – 1855, Iowa Digital Library

The Island, Iowa City Press Citizen, Iowa City Chronology, February 17, 1987, p 28

An Encyclopedia of Iowa City Information, Irving Weber, Article 231, Series 17, Digitial Library – University of Iowa, p 177

Irving Weber – Terrell Dam and Grist Mill video, Iowa City Public Library Channel

Walter Terrell, Find-A-Grave

Margaret Talitha Crew Terrell, Find-A-Grave

Jane Crew Terrell, Find-A-Grave

Mary Ann Terrell Sanders, Find-A-Grave

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