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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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
Margaret Talitha Crew Terrell, Find-A-Grave
Jane Crew Terrell, Find-A-Grave
Mary Ann Terrell Sanders, Find-A-Grave
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