Let’s Go To City Park!

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.

Iowa City, as it was laid out on L. Judson’s 1839 map, was one square mile – divided into blocks 320 feet square with lots 80 x 150 feet. With six exceptions, the streets, which ran east and west and north and south according to the compass, were all 80 feet wide.
Iowa City’s first City Park. As you can see here – the original layout of Iowa City provided for a city park located just two blocks from Capitol Square.

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 – surrounded by Iowa Avenue on the south, Linn Street on the east, Jefferson Street on the north, and Dubuque Street on the west.

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 state-owned property. Rumor had it that some in the Iowa State Legislature believed that the state’s university needed to be more centrally-located, just as they had decided in 1857, when they voted to relocate the state capital to Des Moines. So, in 1890, in order to appease the Board of Regents, and to put an end to any such speculation, our city fathers decided to donate City Park to SUI for educational purposes.

In 1892 – City Park was replaced with this $50,000 fixer-upper. Click here for details.

As you might imagine, this decision sparked an outrage. Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, gives us some more details…

For the full story on this part of SUI Red Brick Campus, and how this delicate issue of progress vs. green space surfaced again in the 1970’s, click here.

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 below…

(P-0041) Ornate Hexagonal Watering Trough (1905-1910)  Located on Iowa Avenue & Dubuque Street. Made for two horses with four ornate drinking fountains for people! Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, believed The Fountain, which was eventually moved to City Park, was lost over time, with no trace of it remaining today.
A wide, park-like Iowa Avenue was originally planned as the main entryway into our city from the east. Approximately, one mile east of the Capitol Building would be the Iowa Governor’s Mansion (Governor Street) which, when the capital moved to Des Moines in 1857, never was built.

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).

In 1843, Walter Terrell, with the help of a skilled carpenter, Irish immigrant William Windrem, built a dam and a three-story grist (flour) mill on the Iowa River just north of Iowa City (what is today – directly in front of the Mayflower Apartments). Settlers from the surrounding area came to Terrell’s mill to grind corn, oats, rye, and wheat. Walter Terrell’s 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.

Click here to read the full story about Walter Terrell and his successful mill business.

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(P-0293) 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.
The Island – picture is taken from the northeast corner of the Iowa River, looking south and west. Iowa City is to the left, Coralville to the right – circa 1930’s.

When Walter Terrell built his dam & mill (1843), there was an island in the center of the Iowa River. So, Terrell built his dam in two sections. One part was built from the eastern side of the island to the present Dubuque Street side, and the other was built from the island west to what is today, City Park.

The island never had a name and, according to Iowa City historian, Irving Weber, it was always simply called “The Island.” About 75 yards long and 25 yards wide, with a heavy growth of trees; at one point in its history, an attempt was made to establish a beach on The Island, but the two barge-loads of sand quickly sank into the river’s muddy bottom!


The Island was a popular spot for boating, canoeing, swimming and picnicking, and it is said to be the place where “many a lover’s troth was pledged there.”
Nearby was Fitzgerald’s Boathouse where one could rent a canoe, paddle over to The Island and enjoy a secluded get-away!
(P-0224) This postcard tells us how the good folks of Iowa City loved the recreational opportunities offered by the Iowa River and The Island.

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.

Because City Park is built on a floodplain, it has experienced considerable flooding from the Iowa River throughout the last century. Most of the worst floods on record have taken place over the last twenty-five years. The flood that Walter Terrell experienced as owner of City Park land in June of 1851 was 24.10 feet and is now only the fifth worst flood on record. The floods that stopped the mill’s production under new owners in 1881 (21.10 ft) and eventually completely damaged the mill under his daughter’s ownership in 1903 (15.00 ft), were the fifteenth and fifty-first highest floods on record, respectively. Since then, the highest flooding has occurred in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries:
June of 2013 (24.90 ft.)
July of 2014 (25.15 ft.)
August of 1993 (28.52 ft.)
June of 2008 (31.53)

Burlington Street Dam and Power Plant. In 1905, the dam was relocated down river (Burlington Street) and became the University’s Power Plant (see below).

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.

In 1909, the Park Road Bridge opened, connecting the east side of Iowa, where most people lived, directly to the new City Park. The new Park Road Bridge included street car rail service as well! Click here to read more.

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 postcards in Iowa City was the new City Park. Enjoy some of the scenery…

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(P-0270-i) Birch Bridge on Birch Lake was a popular attraction. Historian Irving Weber believed the lake was the final resting place for the famous Iowa Avenue “six-sided fountain” we showed you earlier.
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(P-0263) A beautiful scene of the Iowa River just north of Iowa City.

(P-0202) (P-0309) City Park at night – circa 1915. Click here to see more turn-of-the-century postcards showing recreational fun on the Iowa River…

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.

Iowa City – City Park, Think Iowa City

On Iowa, Irving Weber, University of Iowa Press, 1996, pp 61-62

City Park, Iowa City Parks, Laura Hayes, University of Iowa Library

City Park Virtual Tour, City of Iowa City.gov


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