Steamboat’s A-Comin’ – Maybe?

Did You Know? the audio version.

If you’ve never been to Iowa City, you might not realize that we have more river bridges than cornfields. As a matter of fact, the entire State of Iowa is blessed with magnificent rivers. From the Father of Waters (Mississippi) on the east to the longest river in North America, the Missouri on the west, Iowa has over 80 different creeks and rivers flowing through her. Click here for a complete list.

From 1823, when the Virginia became the first steamboat to navigate the upper Mississippi, through 1860, when railroads took over, riverboats were the primary way to travel long distances in the West. Click here to read more about William J. Petersen, Iowa’s ‘Steamboat Bill,” who wrote extensively about era of steamboats on Iowa rivers.

Before the railroad came to Iowa City (1856), there was a great hope that the Iowa River would support steamboat travel as a way of importing and exporting goods. That hope was actually written into the City’s code as all bridge construction – which began in 1854 – could not “obstruct navigation.”

Navigating the Iowa River.  A portion of the bird’s-eye-view map of Iowa City (1868) by artist Albert Ruger shows a steamboat on the Iowa River.

Excitement across Johnson County was at an all time high when the first steamboat, the Ripple, under the command of Captain Dan Jones, made its way into Iowa City in the early summer of 1841. Author John C. Parish, in his 1921 article from The Palimpsest, tells us more…

“We need not speak of the astonishment caused by such unusual sounds – sounds which were for the first time heard on our peaceful river – nor of the many conjectures which were started as to the course from whence they proceeded. Our doubts were soon dispelled by the glorious reality, as the Steamer Ripple for the first time came dashing up the Iowa and landed at the ferry, which henceforth is only to be known by the more appropriate name of the Steam Boat Landing.” The Iowa City Standard

A festive dinner was arranged for the following evening at The National Hotel. The evening began with the touring author, John B. Newhall from Burlington, who was gathering crowds across the West speaking about Iowa and its great potential. His first book, The Sketches of Iowa (1841) was making quite the stir and as guest speaker, Newell set the stage for the festivities – click here to read more – and after a lengthy speech, Newhall finally introduced the Ripple‘s skipper…

Read about the first four hotel/taverns that were established in the early Iowa City days.

Read more about Iowa City’s earliest city-wide celebrations here.

As Captain Dan Jones, this Son of Neptune, closed his speech, he echoed Newell’s words…

From this day henceforth a new era will commence in the destinies of your city.

Records show that while Captain Dan was not accurate when it came to his prediction that riverboats would shape the future destinies of Iowa City, he was right about how going forward, this little town on the prairie would never be the same once it became better-connected with the outside world. Interestingly enough, this June 1841 encounter wouldn’t be Dan Jones’ last with Iowa City…but more on that later.

There was hope in Iowa City that, with the coming of the Ripple in June 1841, many more steamers would be coming and going on a regular basis. But sadly, with the ebbs and flows of the Iowa River in Johnson County, it simply was too difficult – and risky – for larger boats to maintain a regular schedule. In Irving Weber’s 1980’s video presentation, he talks about a spot just south of town, a ford, when at certain times of the year, the water level would be so low, farmers and cattlemen could walk their herds across the riverbed.

But, like all good Iowans, the townspeople of Iowa City held onto hope, believing that riverboats, like Captain Dan had predicted, still might be the key to wealth and prosperity. On April 21, 1842, nearly a year after the Ripple steamed into town, hope was revived. This time, it was not Captain Dan, but Captain Thayer and his decked-out steamboat, the Rock River

Nothing could have exceeded the magnificent scene displayed before us. The steamer moving up in a majestic manner, with the stars and stripes from her bows floating joyously in the breeze, smiling on the luxurious landscape of surpassing beauty and richness, seemed to be greeted by nature’s loveliness in a region which had witnessed for the first time the emblem of the country’s glory. The Iowa Capitol Reporter

The Port of Iowa City was located on The National Road – where the Iowa Avenue Bridge is today.

As historian Irving Weber tells it, a good number of Iowa Citians took this opportunity to ride the Rock River up the Iowa River to the quarry north of town where stone had been cut for the new statehouse on Capitol Square. The traveling party, made up of over one-hundred merry-makers, spent the day strolling and picnicking, returning to the city by nightfall, prompting The Reporter to announce the next day…

That the Iowa (River) is navigable for steamboats of a medium draught for many miles can no longer be doubted.

Captain Thayer and the Rock River made a second trip to Iowa City in the spring of ’43 to unload cargo and a few passengers, but never returned after that.

Earlier, we mentioned how unpredictable the Iowa River was when it came to its ability to accommodate larger and heavier boats. Historian H.W. Lathrop tells us more…

The arrival of the Agatha is pictured in At Our City Landing – 1844 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

The Agatha was the first visitor in 1844 – a 64-ton, 119-foot sternwheeler made in Pittsburgh. Author J.A. Swisher tells us more…

Sadly, the Agatha returned to St. Louis with only a small amount of pork, hemp and wheat, and, like the Rock River and Ripple before her, never came back to Iowa City.

So now, back to the Ripple and its skipper, Captain Dan Jones.

Captain Dan Jones of Nauvoo, IL (1810-1862) – a Son of Neptune, a son of the Five Oceans, was born in Wales and came to the United States in 1839. Dan Jones’ family and church records show that he left his childhood home in Wales at age sixteen (1826) to follow his love of the sea. He married in 1837, ending up in America around 1839. By the early part of 1841, Captain Dan found himself in St. Louis, where he teamed with two other men to build the Ripple, the famed steamboat that first visited Iowa City in June 1841…

Many Iowa City historians simply state that the Ripple never returned to Iowa City, leaving no indication of the why. But a recent search in Jones’ family records tell us, via the writings of Ronald D. Dennis, the rest of the story.

But Captain Dan didn’t give up…

And, just like that, Captain Dan had a new steamer on the water, the Maid of Iowa. And because of his conversion to Mormonism, the famed Joseph Smith of Nauvoo, Illinois bought out Moffat’s half-share in May of 1843.

In June 1844, Captain Dan, while he was in the midst of preparing for his missionary assignment to Wales, sent his boat, the Maid of Iowa, back to Iowa City – June 6 – only this time, she was under the leadership of Captain Repshen. After loading up with corn, the crew agreed to tug a large keel boat owned by Judge Harris, but as the Maid was maneuvering herself southward down the Iowa, the keel boat broke apart, dumping one thousand bushels of Iowa gold into the river.

Despite this major boo-boo, the Maid twice returned – July and September – prompting the Reporter to, once again, predict, with great hope, that there was no doubt Iowa City would prosper, now that she had her own “successful” river port. But wait!

Before a scheduled fourth trip in October could happen, the Maid of Iowa found herself weighted down by legal actions surrounding the controversial death of Joseph Smith – June 1844 – so was impounded by the sheriff in St. Louis. And, you guessed it…the Maid never returned to Iowa City.

In May 1845, Charles A. Robbins of Iowa City launched his own steamboat at the boat yards, offering shares in the company for $25.00. This was the first of several steamboats under construction in Iowa City, perhaps as a response to the irregularity of boats coming from the Mississippi River ports. But Robbins apparently caught the same bug other steamboat owners suffered from, because records show that he took his boat to St. Louis and never returned!

In 1849, Iowa City artist, George H. Yewell, records in his journal four arrivals of the steamboat Herald: on March 24, April 11, April 22, and May 10. On April 22, George and several others strolled south of Iowa City to Philip Clark’s farm, hailed the Herald, as it was passing by, and got a free ride up to the landing at the foot of Capitol Square. According to Yewell, there was “a pleasure party on board from Hannibal.”

The steamer Badger State’s run to St. Louis, Iowa City and Cedar Rapids is advertised in the July 3, 1854, edition of the Muscatine Tri-Weekly Journal.

In 1854, the Badger State, a steamer that had been refitted to run on the Iowa and Cedar Rivers, began to make occasional round trips from Iowa City to St. Louis. It was on one of those trips that twin brothers Richard and Henry Morton were involved in a mortal battle with the ship’s cook, John Norton. A furious argument led Norton to attack Richard with a knife. In his attempt to escape the attack, Richard fell through a hatchway just as Henry arrived, and Norton turned the attack on him. Henry, however, had a gun and shot Norton, killing him instantly. A coroner’s jury ruled self-defense.

Which brings us, now, to the post-Civil War days, and our final Iowa City steamboat story.

The steamer Iowa City launched in 1866, and was built by Captain W. Reninger, Col. Harvey Harvey Graham, and Henry Sporleder. The boat was one hundred and ten feet long and had a passenger cabin and two freight barges. Its first voyage was in the early summer to New Boston, Illinois and Burlington. The operators of the Iowa City were optimistic, promising weekly trips from Iowa City to the Mississippi River.

Because of the unreliable depth of the Iowa River, the Iowa City spent most of her time on the lower portion, headquartering at Wapello (see story below). All the while, the Iowa City Republican regularly updated its readers on the boat’s whereabouts, with hopes that it would return to its namesake as soon as possible.

On July 4th, 1866, the Iowa City Republican reported that the Iowa City had a successful round-trip run to the Mississippi port at New Boston. The October 17, 1866 edition of the Iowa City Republican reports that in nearby Wapello – further downstream on the Iowa River, much closer to the Mississippi – the Iowa City took a group of people to the 1866 State Fair, which was held that year in Burlington. Apparently, all went well. Three cheers for the Iowa City! Click here to read about the early days of the Iowa State Fair.

In a late summer incident, the Iowa City apparently became stranded near Wapello and was abandoned by her owners. A well-experienced riverboat pilot, Captain E. H. Thomas, was hired to free the boat and he recounts this incident – along with many other riverboat stories – to the Burlington Saturday Evening Post in 1911/1912. The rescue of the Iowa City took Thomas a week, but it must have impressed the owners as it resulted in his being hired to pilot the boat for three more seasons. Here is Thomas’ account…

Apparently, the Iowa City kept going for several more years. In 1867, the Rock Island Argus was running ads for Mississippi River runs between Clinton, Lyons and Fulton.

According to Charles Aurner in his Leading Events in Johnson County, flames engulfed the steamboat, destroying the Iowa City, yet according to another report, the boat’s fate was far less dramatic. Being sold to new owners in Davenport, by 1882, it had been rebuilt several times, turning into a stern-wheeler, and renamed the Minnie.

Either way, as Anne M, blogger for the Iowa City Public Library, puts it…

With the loss of the Iowa City, the dreams of a Port of Iowa City went up in smoke or sold down the river, depending on what metaphor rings true.

(P-0215) This postcard from the 1950’s reflects the good-ole-days of steamboating on the Mighty Mississippi with Mark Twain’s Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn. Sadly, the big riverboats were never able to navigate their way in and out of Iowa City.

(C-0252) The Steamboat Iowa and Steamboat Bill (William J.) Petersen celebrated Iowa Statehood in 1946 with this special postal cover.

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

List of Rivers in Iowa, Wikipedia

Iowa Lakes, Rivers and Water Resources,

Misc. graphics, 1851 Iowa Township Map Info, Iowa Dept of Transportation

Iowa As It Is – A Gazetteer for Citizens and Handbook for Immigrants, N. Howe Parker, 1855, p 32

What is that in the 1868 Bird’s Eye View of Iowa City?, Anne M, Iowa City Public Library, May 18, 2018

The Ripple, John C. Parish, The Palimpsest – Volume 2 Number 4, Article 3, April 1921, pp. 113-114, 117, 120

The First Steamboat At Iowa City, History of Johnson County, 1883, pp 426-429

Early Steamboating on the Iowa River, H.W. Lathrop, Iowa Historical Record, Volumes XIII, XIV, and XV, 1897-1898-1899, State Historical Society of Iowa, 1899, p 45

Iowa in 1844, The Palimpsest – Volume 25 Number 5, Article 2, May 1944, pp 148-149

Iowa City & Its Environs map-1854, J.H. Millar, University of Iowa Digital Library

Hard Aground in Iowa River, Capt E.H. Thomas, Burlington History Project, Burlington Saturday Evening Post, Chapter XLIV

Steamboating at Iowa City, Bob Hibbs, Iowa GenWebProject, June 14, 2003

Time Machine: Believe it or not, steamboats once plied the Iowa River in Iowa City, Diane Langton, The Cedar Rapids Gazette, May 4, 2019

A Steamboat Eldership: Dan Jones and the Beginnings of Mormonism in Wales, Ronald D. Dennis, Rhydybont Press, 2017, pp. 3-4, 11, 139

Arrival of a Steamboat, Old Capital Reporter, 1842, Apr. 23

The Iowa City, Iowa City Republican, 1866, Oct. 17

Steam Boat Arrival, Old Capital Reporter, 1844, June 8

The Steamer Iowa City Iowa City Republican, 1866, July 4

The Steamer Iowa City, Iowa City Republican, 1866, Aug 1

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