H. D. Downey – Iowa City Esquire.

Allow me to introduce you to:

What a title, don’t you think? And with a name and title like that, maybe that’s why Downey simply went by his initials H.D.?

Iowa City – as proposed in 1839.

Records don’t indicate when H.D. came to Iowa City, but we do know that he was born in Franklin, Pennsylvania on January 18, 1819, a valedictorian in 1840, and, as Iowa City historian Irving Weber and others write about him, Downey became Iowa City’s first lawyer and banker. In other writings, we introduced you to Gilman Folsom, who came to Iowa City in 1841 to practice law. So if indeed, Downey was Iowa City’s first lawyer, this 21-year old must have arrived around 1840.

Clinton Street – Iowa City in the 1850’s.

It goes without saying, that H.D. Downey had money. Now, whether or not he had all that cash when he came to Iowa City is not known, but before he died, at the young age of 48, Downey made and spent a lot of it during his time here. So, allow me, now, to give you a brief timeline of H.D.’s many endeavors in our fair city…

H.D. is among community leaders who offer regularly-scheduled Literary Institute “lectures” on important topics. In the winter of 1844, Thomas Rogers opens the lecture series, held in Butler Hall, with a talk on “Character,” followed by Downey, speaking on “Improvement in the Art of Public Speaking.” That lecture is followed by Rev. M. Hummer, who speaks on “The Importance and Character of a Thorough Mental Training,” – a gift I’m sure he calls upon that infamous day in 1848 when the good pastor is caught, red-handed, removing the church bell from his former church’s belfry. Click here for that hum-dinger of a story!

834 N. Johnson Street – Iowa City – Drawn by George H. Yewell -1854 – Prospect Hill carries the unsubstantiated claim of being designed by architect John Rague, who designed Old Capitol.

Early city records indicate that H.D. built a beautiful home for himself – a one-story ten-room mansion – on the far north side of Iowa City, calling it Prospect Hill. This home was probably built around the same time H.D. married Jane Murray – October 1, 1845 – and it became one of twelve buildings pictured on the 1854 map of the city, published by his banking partners (more on that later).

In this beautiful home, the Downey’s have three children – Hugh (1847) and Jane (1848), and Kate (1855).

1850 Iowa Census shows Hugh (age 30) & Jane (age 25) plus Hugh, Jr (age 3), and little Jane (age 2) living at Prospect Hill.

H.D. serves a one-year term as a state legislator in Iowa City, representing Johnson County.

Johnson County Representative – 1845-1846.

H.D. is appointed to the first Board of Trustees for the newly formed State University of Iowa. February 25, 1847 – SUI is born. Click here for more info.

H.D. is appointed by President Millard Fillmore to oversee the bustling U.S. Land Office in Iowa City. During the 1850’s – thousands flocked westward into Iowa. Click here for more.

Circa 1857 – Banking House on the SE corner of Clinton & Washington Streets with the sign over the entry-way – Cook, Sargent and Downey. Designed by architect Willett L. Carroll, this three-story building replaced a smaller framed structure in 1856. According to the Daily Evening Reporter (Aug. 12, 1856), the foundations of the “Banking House are laying deep and broad, worthy to support what is destined to be the finest edifice in the interior of Iowa.” This location became known around Iowa City as the Bank Corner by the late 1850s as the building stood across from University Square with its domed capitol, symbolizing the city’s prosperity and permanence, even though state leaders moved the capitol to Des Moines in 1857. In 1872, Samuel J. Kirkwood and other leading citizens organized the Johnson County Savings Bank at this location, and in 1912, this pre-Civil War building was replaced with a taller one now occupied by Midwest One bank.

H.D. partners with three highly-successful Davenport bankers, John & Ebenezer Cook and George Sargent, to form Iowa City’s first banking institution, Cook, Sargent and Downey, occupying what is, today, the Iowa State Bank corner – Clinton & Washington Streets. In the 1850’s, CS&D expands quickly into ten markets but crashes, as many banks do, following the 1857 economic panic.

Click here for more about the M&M Railroad.

In 1853, the Mississippi and Missouri (M&M) Railroad is organized to build a railway from Davenport to Council Bluffs, and H.D. is instrumental in coordinating with his Davenport banking partners to bring M&M, first and foremost, into Iowa City, which occurs on December 31, 1855. Downey organizes the big January 3, 1856 Grand Railroad Festival, offering free tickets to any easterner who will ride the Rock Island from Chicago to Davenport and then be a part of M&M’s first passenger train into Iowa City.

The Railroad Arrives– 1856 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.
1854 – H.D. oversees the production of a beautiful map entitled “Iowa City and its Environs.”
Click here for more info on the illustrations used on this map.

H.D. and his banking partners of CS&D publish J.H.Millar’s expansive map of Iowa City which includes twelve beautiful illustrations by Iowa City artist George H. Yewell. One of those twelve buildings shown on the map is H.D.’s private residence – Prospect Hill. Coincidence? I think not!

H.D., who helped create Iowa City’s first business association and its first literary guild, takes a leading role with the Citizen’s Library Association, becoming one of twelve trustees overseeing the foundational work that will eventually bring Iowa City its first public library (1897).

Farmland south of Iowa City – near the Plum Grove home of Governor Robert Lucas. Click here for more info.

H.D. is a big-time real estate investor throughout Iowa City, buying large areas of farmland including the southeast section of today’s Plum Grove Neighborhood and the land where Big Grove Brewery is today.

  • Downey, Iowa – a tiny town in Cedar County still remains.
  • Downey Drive – south and west of Mark Twain School in Iowa City, still remains.
  • H. D. and Jane’s Prospect Hill house, built in Iowa City about 1845 – with major renovations – still remains.

Hugh Denwiddie Downey (b-January 18, 1819) died on September 26, 1867 at age 48, while Jane Murray Downey (b-August 10,1825) died November 25, 1893 at age 68. Both are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

In September 2021, since Find-A-Grave had no pictures, we went exploring at Oakland Cemetery for H.D. & Jane’s gravesite. We found it and interestingly enough, it’s within a stone’s throw of Governor Robert Lucas’ gravesite in the southwest section of the cemetery.

Hats off to you H.D. – you accomplished more in your 48 years than most do in 90!


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

Hugh Denwiddie Downey, FamilySearch

Hugh D. Downey, IAGenWeb, October 9, 2007

Representative Hugh Denwiddie Downey, Legislators, The State of Iowa Legislature

Leading Events in Johnson County History, Charles Ray Aurner, Western Historical Press, 1912, pp 570, 573, 620

The History of the State University of Iowa – Iowa City, Johnson County, History of Black Hawk County, Iowa, Western Historical Company, Chicago 1878

Chronology – 1841/1979, Iowa City Press Citizen, February 9, 1979, pp 17-23

A Rare Glimpse at Early Iowa City, Mary Bennett, State Historical Society of Iowa, April 21, 2020

Saturday Postcard 228: Exploring the Old North Side, Bob Hibbs, Johnson County IAGenWeb Project, February 24, 2004

Wildcat Currency, J.D. Burrows, The Palimpsest – Volume 14 – Number 7- Article 3, July 1933

H.D. Downey – real estate – Lucas Farms Neighborhood

Pictures of Downey home, Margaret N. Keyes, Nineteenth Century Home Architecture of Iowa City, University of Iowa Press, 1993, pp 28-30

Iowa City Public Library – 125 years of service, ICPL

Hugh D. Downey, Oakland Cemetery- Find-A-Grave

Jane Murray Downey, Oakland Cemetery-Find-A-Grave


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