Gilman Folsom – Crossing The Iowa River.

Did You Know? the audio version
Click here to read early letters from Gilman’s father to Folsom in Iowa City – 1841 – 1844.

A native of New Hampshire – born April 7, 1818 – Gilman Folsom came to Iowa City in 1841 to practice law, but ended up accomplishing so much more in life. In 1843, he married Emily Arthur, daughter of Pleasant Arthur, and it was through this life-long relationship, Folsom became involved with his father-in-law’s work of helping people get across the Iowa River.

In the earliest days of Johnson County, the only way to cross the Iowa River was swimming, walking on the ice, or paddling a canoe. Author Ruth A. Gallaher gives us this reminder…

A typical ferry crossing in the 19th century.

In 1838, just as Johnson County was first being established, an early settler, Benjamin Miller, began his flatbed ferry service, establishing it near the little community of Napoleon.

By 1840, competition in the flatbed ferry business was starting to stir. On March 6, 1840, Andrew D. Stephen was granted a license to keep a ferry boat at the point where the “National Road” crossed the Iowa River. According to a map of Iowa City, published in 1839 (see above), this crossing point was where the present-day Iowa Avenue bridge stands. But Mr. Stephens failed to establish a ferry in due time, so the license was given over to John D. AbleOctober 13, 1840 – who established his ferry crossing there. While records show that John Able was “able” to get things off the ground – or, in the water, so to speak) – apparently his last name was not appropriate, because…

Which now brings us to Gilman Folsom’s father-in-law

Pleasant Arthur – Emily Folsom’s father – was born April 16, 1785 in Bedford, Virginia. He married Agnes Timberlake in 1810 in Hillsboro, Ohio until moving to Iowa City in the early 1840’s. In 1841, Arthur purchased John D. Able’s ferry businesses in Iowa City, making him a pretty popular fellow…and a pretty penny.

When Pleasant Arthur suddenly died in 1845 – at age 60 – Gilman Folsom – his son-in-law – took over the ferry business.

By the early 1850’s, people were clamoring for a bridge of any kind. Iowa was growing quickly, and the California Gold Rush was bringing a multitude of people to town via the National Road and they needed a quick and safe crossing of the river. By this time, Gilman had taken over Arthur’s ferry business and was ready to answer the call.

There was hope for a toll bridge to be built in 1851, but the plan was vetoed by Iowa’s governor. Read more here.

This 1854 map shows the Folsom “Draw Bridge” and the proposed site for a “High Bridge” which was never built.

In March 1853, Enos Metcalf received a license to build a toll bridge across the Iowa River but construction did not occur until several years later. In May 1853, Gilman Folsom took out a similar license to build, and by 1854, Iowa City had its very first toll bridge located at the National Road crossing.

A pontoon bridge (above), also known as a floating bridge, replaced ferries when heavy amounts of traffic made for lengthy delays. This type of bridge uses floats or shallow-draft boats to support a continuous deck for pedestrian and vehicle travel, but the buoyancy of the supports, limits the maximum load they can carry. Pontoon bridges were used extensively during the Civil War – allowing large numbers of troops to cross rivers quickly.

At first, Folsom’s bridge was a pontoon (floating) bridge which was then replaced with a wooden structure in 1856. By that time, Enos Metcalf had finally built his own wooden toll bridge just south of the present day Burlington Street bridge.

In 1859, a public free bridge was approved – at Burlington Street – and was completed in 1860. A wooden structure and poorly constructed, the bridge partially collapsed in October 1863 when a herd of oxen panicked while crossing, leaving citizens with no bridge to cross the river! Read more here.

By this time, since the ‘free’ bridge had pretty much shut down the other ‘toll’ bridges, both Folsom’s and Metcalf’s bridges had shut down and fallen into disrepair. It was during this time of the Burlington Street bridge reconstruction (1863 -1864) when Gilman Folsom revived his toll bridge, making it once again, the only bridge over the Iowa River. And while this temporary loss of the “free” bridge looked to bring an uptick of revenue to Folsom’s pockets, know that his generosity showed up as well…

The re-built Burlington Street Bridge (1864) is shown here on the left, with the newly constructed Mississippi & Missouri Railroad Bridge (1860) on the right. This Burlington Street bridge was replaced with a new iron structure in 1871. “It is good the era of rotten wood bridges is passing away,” commented an Iowa City news­paper editor. Click here to read more about the bridges of the Iowa River.

By 1864, as the Civil War was ending, repairs were finally made and the “new” Burlington Street free bridge was reopened, made partly of wood and partly iron – pictured above from the 1868 bird’s eye map of Iowa City.

As we discussed earlier, the Folsom Toll Bridge was located at the foot of what is today Iowa Avenue. In the early 1850’s, would-be prospectors gathered here, at the foot of Iowa Avenue, in tents and wagons as they’d wait to ferry across the river on their way to California looking for gold. By 1876, a new iron bridge replaced the Folsom Toll Bridge, and being the nation’s centennial year (1776-1876) the new bridge was called The Centennial Bridge. In 1916 a new steel bridge replaced it, and is now called the Iowa Avenue Bridge. Click here to read more about the history of the many bridges that cross the Iowa River.
The Iowa Avenue Bridge as it appears today.

Here is a biographical overview of Gilman’s life…

The subject of this sketch, departed this life, and his noble soul winged its everlasting flight to the God who gave it at three o’clock, July 15th, 1872, at his residence near Iowa City. He was born at Dorchester, New Hampshire, April 7th, 1818. He read law in the office of the Hon. Josiah Quincy, a noted jurist of New Hampshire and was admitted to practice law at Haverhill, 1841, at the early age of twenty-three years. He settled in the practice of law in Iowa City in 1841, and was recognized as a young man of great promise. He was married in 1843 to Miss Arthur. His widow and three children, Mary A., Arthur and George J., survived him and are still living at the family residence, a fine brick mansion on the Iowa river, situated on a bluff at the narrowest place on the river, commanding a beautiful view of Iowa City that lies on the opposite side of the river. Mr. Folsom was for two successive terms a member of the House of Representatives of Iowa. On the election of Frank Pierce to the Presidency in 1852, Mr. Folsom was appointed receiver of the land office in Iowa City; this service terminated his public career, and thenceforth he devoted himself to looking after and caring for his large estate. As a legislator he rose to the full height of statesmanship.

The Folsom home was built in 1851 and stood at the top of the west bluff overlooking the Iowa River – adjacent to the Folsom Toll Bridge. It was constructed of bricks made by Sylvanus Johnson – the first brick-maker in Iowa City.

Gilman Folsom died July 15, 1872 (age 54) and is buried in Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City.

Emily Arthur Folsom – born October 1827 in Ohio; died June 3, 1901 (age 73); and is buried in Oakland Cemetery, Iowa City – see her obituary above.

Today, the land just west of the Iowa Avenue bridge – where Gilman and Emily Folsom’s home was located – is called Folsom Hill and the Nursing Building stands there. Above are a couple of black and white pictures taken by Fred Kent in 1939.

Here’s a tip of the old hat to Gilman and Emily Folsom – Iowa City pioneers who literally led the way to the west side of the Iowa River!

DYK – May 22, 2023

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

Gilman Folsom, The Annals of Iowa, Volume 1872 – Number 4, 1872, pp. 298-301

One More River to Cross, Ruth A. Gallaher, Palimpsest – March 1927, Article 3

Gilman Folsom, History of Johnson County Iowa 1836-1882, p 822

Gilman Folsom, Historical Stories About Iowa City – Volume 1, University of Iowa Digital Library, pp 234-236

Winthrop Folsom, Find-a-Grave website

Mary Noyes Folsom, Find-A-Grave website

Pleasant Arthur, Find-A-Grave website

Gilman Folsom, Find-A-Grave website

Emily Arthur Folsom, Find-A-Grave website

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