Today, one of the nicest aspects of living in Iowa City is its abundance of recreational activities. According to our city’s website, Iowa City is home to over 50 parks, natural areas, and open spaces, with almost 100 percent (99.4) of Iowa City residents living within one half-mile of open green space.
City Park #1 – 1839: In the Beginning…
It’s interesting to look back through our city’s history and see that it’s always been important to have plenty of open space available to its residents. In earlier posts, we’ve discussed how Iowa City’s origin is unique as compared to other cities. Iowa City, you see, from the very beginning, was a planned city – built for an explicit purpose.
So in 1839, as city planners laid out one-square mile of Iowa City, you can see from L. Judson’s map (above) that a City Park was an important component. In a later map developed in 1868 (below), you can see the artist’s rendition of that same City Park, located two blocks east of Old Capitol, between Iowa Avenue and Jefferson Street.
1890: Land Development vs. Green Space – Let the Battle Begin.
As Iowa City drew ever closer to the turn of the 20th century, controversy about City Park abounded, with the leaders of our fair city facing the hard decisions all growing communities must grapple with. In 1890, forty-three years after its inception, The State University of Iowa was quickly running out of space. Rumor had it that the Iowa State Legislature just might move the university to a more centrally-located community, just as they had done in 1857 when they voted to relocate the state capital to Des Moines. In order to appease the Board of Regents, the city fathers decided to donate City Park to the University for building expansion.
As you might imagine, this decision sparked an outrage. Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, gives us some more details…
1905-1910: The Six-Sided Fountain – You, Two Horses, and Three Other Friends Can Get a Drink!
So, Round One went to the city. Some believe that, in order to pacify the church ladies, the city leaders decided to erect a “decorative hexagonal fountain” right in the middle of the intersection of Iowa Avenue and Dubuque Street (see pics above & below)…
City Park #2 – In the Beginning…
Now, let’s turn our attention to the eventual replacement of Iowa City’s first City Park. To do that, I must take you, once again, back to our city’s origins.
In 1840, an early Iowa City pioneer named Walter Butler purchased a large portion of untamed prairie located north of the city – which today includes large portions of property adjacent to the Iowa River in both Iowa City and Coralville. Later that same year, Butler sold some of his property to Walter Terrell, who had a vision to build both a dam and a flour mill just north of town (see pics below).
1880’s – 1906: Iowa River Recreation & The Island.
The Mill prospered for nearly forty years (1843 – 1881), both under Terrell’s ownership, and others after Terrell died. But the flood of 1881 changed all that, severely damaging the property. Terrell’s daughter, Mary, and her mother bought back the property at that point, intending to restore both the dam and mill, but whether the mill continued to operate past 1881 is not officially known.
With the mill out of service, the area immediately surrounding the property became a popular gathering place. As you can see from the above picture, ‘Mill Hill’ provided a nice Sunday outing for Iowa Citians, particularly when water levels were low. Which now brings us to The Island (see picture below).
The 1903 Iowa River Flood – Setting the Stage for City Park #2 (1906).
In 1903, the Iowa River flooded again, and this time, Terrell’s daughter, together with her husband, Mr. Euclid Sanders, gifted the dam to the University of Iowa’s School of Applied Sciences. The University paid $600 to repair the dam and promised to protect the family from “possible nuisances” caused by development near their home.
In 1905, the dam was relocated down river (Burlington Street) and became the University’s Power Plant. In 1906, with the land now cleared, the city purchased 78-acres from the Terrell Estate for $10,000, and Iowa City established City Park that same year.
When City Park opened in 1906, access to the new park was limited. One would need to walk or ride in a carriage across the Iowa Avenue Centennial Bridge to get there. But that all changed in 1909.
1909 – The Park Bridge opens.
In 1909, the Park Road Bridge opened, connecting the east side of Iowa, where most people lived, directly to the new City Park.
City Park – 1906 to 1930 – The Penny Postcard Era.
Back in the day, prior to Polaroid snapshots and phones with cameras, penny postcards were the best way for anyone to “take pictures” of places you’ve been. For 1-cent, you could mail a beautiful postcard that had a scenic picture on one side and room for a brief message on the other.
Obviously, one of the more popular subjects chosen for penny postcards in Iowa City was the new City Park. Enjoy some of the scenery…
We hope you enjoyed our little history lesson.
But wait . . . there’s more to our City Park story. Click here to go on to Part II.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.