Recalling pleasant things and taking the time to dwell on them.
Clinton Street – Iowa City’s Center of Commerce.
Today Clinton Street, in downtown Iowa City, is one of the busiest spots in town, especially when classes are in session at The University of Iowa.
Like the two Clinton County, Iowa communities – Clinton and DeWitt – located on the Mississippi River, Clinton Street in Iowa City is named for GovernorDeWitt Clinton, the most ardent advocate for the construction of the Erie Canal. DeWitt Clinton (1769 – 1828), served as a United States senator, as the mayor of New York City, and as the seventh governor of New York. Clinton was a major candidate for the American presidency in the election of 1812, challenging incumbent James Madison.
It’s not a coincidence that Clinton Street is what it is today. From the very beginning, when Iowa City was nothing more than a map drawn up on a piece of paper (1839), Clinton Street was destined to become the center of commerce for Iowa’s only pre-planned city.
Dubuque: You see, in most cases, cities come into existence because of previous circumstances. Take Dubuque, for example – Iowa’s oldest community. In 1781, lead was discovered in the hills surrounding a very large river called the Mississippi. Feeding into that river was a tributary called Catfish Creek. In 1788, a French fur-trader named Julien Dubuque canoed down the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River, turned left and settled on some of that land where a Meskwaki tribe was already successfully mining lead. The creek, river, and surrounding trees provided food, shelter and transportation, while the lead, when mined using techniques learned in Canada, made Dubuque a wealthy man. Others, over the next several decades, came and helped Dubuque mine that lead, building houses, having families, etc. By 1833, when the U.S. government said people could buy land here, the city of Dubuque came together quickly, because of these earlier circumstances.
Iowa City, on the other hand, had no prior circumstances that made it happen. It came about by a planning committee, looking to build a brand new city in a brand new location. So when L. Judson drew up his 1839 map of Iowa City (below), the only pre-existing conditions he had to work with were 1) the Iowa River, 2) the hills surrounding it, and 3) one beautiful spot already located on one of those hills where a new capitol building would be built. Everything else would be worked out by city planners.
Within days of Chauncey Swan’s decision on the best location for the capitol building, surveyors began laying the framework for Iowa City. The process was long and arduous, yet calculated and precise, as crews marked out a one-square-mile layout using a 20-foot board for measuring length while driving iron pins into the ground at each measurement to mark boundaries. More than 2,000 stakes were used to plot the original Iowa City area, and despite the slight inconsistency in measurements, engineering experts today say the accuracy of Iowa City’s plotting is astounding. “When we survey today, these streets run about as good north, south, east, west as you can imagine,” Glen Meisner, engineer and land surveyor says.
That was Iowa City in July, 1839, one hundred years ago — a map, a paper plat, recorded in the office of I.P. Hamilton, the recorder of Johnson County.Benjamin Shambaugh
On July 25, 1839, Territorial Governor Robert Lucas, announced two sale dates when the public could begin purchasing land in the newly-surveyed Iowa City: the third Monday in August and the first Monday in October. This announcement stirred excitement across Iowa Territory and back East as well. And so, they came, and between the August and October sales, over 200 lots sold. Historian William J. Peterson gives us the details…
But, where will all these potential buyers stay when they come to Iowa City for these auctions? Historian Benjamin F. Shambaugh tells us the quick solution…
Speaking of last-minute hotels – since the Capitol wouldn’t be ready for occupancy until 1842, a wise businessman named Walter Butler, who bought property on Clinton Street (Block 80 – lot 5) and built a hotel there, purchased lot 6 – adjacent to his hotel – throwing up a two-story frame building on the corner of Clinton and Washington Streets. He “rented” this hall to the Territorial Legislature in December of 1841 at no cost so they could conduct their business in the new capital city – thus the building took on the nickname: Butler’s Capitol.Click here to read more about Walter Butler and his pro-active involvement with early-day Iowa City.
Circa 1854 – Isaac Wetherby takes the very first picture of the Iowa State House (Old Capitol) during the second annual Iowa State Fair (September 1854). A team of oxen going down South Clinton is another highlight of this rare photograph.
Soon, other business were springing up on Clinton Street as well. By 1854, when photographer, Isaac Wetherby came to town, opening up his first retail shop on Clinton, he took the earliest pictures we have of the State House (Old Capitol) and downtown Iowa City..
With these four pics (two above – two below) – you see the evolution of the Clinton Street buildings near the northeastern corner of Washington & Clinton. Whetstone’s Drugs, at 32 South Clinton Street, was located at this corner from 1880 until the early 1970s.
Above – South Clinton Street in the 1870’s and 1880’s….
(P-0311)Clinton Street – looking north.
Circa 1907 – Postcards featuring Clinton Street – looking north.
Further south of downtown Iowa City, construction was underway on a new Johnson County Courthouse (pictured below) which was completed in 1901. This is the fourth Johnson County Court House since 1837, with three of the four located on South Clinton Street. Read more here.
Though the changes are dramatic indeed, from the 1850’s to today, Clinton Street remains the place to be when in Iowa City. On Iowa! Go Hawks!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.