Iowa City’s Thomas C. Carson was a very successful merchant, banker, and community leader for nearly fifty years (1856-1905). Born in Burlington, New Jersey on August 7, 1834, Carson became a well-known businessman in Philadelphia before heading west.
Our ‘Thomas C. Carson comes to Iowa City‘ story actually begins in late December of 1855, when Carson – age 21 – received a notification in his Philadelphia office. The letter was a special invitation to a Grand Railroad Festival in Iowa City, and it came from some of his business associates who were heavily involved with land investments in America’s new west. Below is a sample of what Carson and many other businessmen out East received in their mailboxes right before Christmas…
Historical records show that Thomas C. Carson decided to take the Iowa City Committee of Invitation up on its generous offer, so on Wednesday, January 2, 1856, Carson and about one-hundred other businessmen gathered in Chicago and boarded a Chicago & Rock Island (C&RI) passenger train that was headed west into Rock Island, Illinois. Once there, the travelers rested over night before ferrying across the Mississippi River to Davenport, where on the morning of Thursday, January 3, 1856, seven passenger cars – pulled by the M&M locomotive – The Oskaloosa – left for Iowa City.
Read how Iowa played a key role in the development of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Without a doubt, it was a frigid afternoon as the passengers stepped off the train in Iowa City. According to the written accounts, the booming of cannon announced the train’s arrival, with the businessmen from back East deboarding at the Johnson Street station – located four blocks to the east of the present Rock Island depot in Iowa City. You can read all the details of the Grand Railroad Festival here, but for now, allow me to insert this bit of bone-chilling information…
After a full day of celebration, I’m sure both the businessmen from back East and the Iowa City hosts and hostesses were not only tired, but nearly frozen to death. Keep in mind that Iowa City was still a pretty small community – as compared to New York City, Philadelphia, or Chicago, and though we did host the state capital at the time, there was certainly a shortage of overnight accommodations for all of these visitors to our fair community. According to one biographer…
“Facing an over-crowded town, (Carson) slept that night wrapped in a buffalo robe on a store counter.”
Apparently, T. S. Carson, despite the icy cold weather, liked what he saw in Iowa City, because he made the big decision to relocate here, opening a hardware store on North Clinton Street near the Presbyterian Church (today’s Old Brick), while also becoming involved with the Sheppard & Darlington Company – which focused on farm machinery and other farm implements. In 1857, Carson headed back to Philadelphia, marrying Mary Josephine Reiff – who was born there in 1835. A newspaper report states that their honeymoon was a westward trip back to Iowa!
Soon after the wedded couple’s return, T.C. enlarged his store – eventually including a greater selection of farm implements, while keeping it solvent through the economic panic of 1857. In the 1860’s, he expanded into a three-story brick building on Washington Street – just across from University Square – moving his business there and making it into a go-to spot in Iowa City that remained until the turn-of-the-century!
In 1872, the former Iowa governor – Samuel J. Kirkwood – and other leading citizens of Iowa City organized the Johnson County Savings Bank, opening on Banking Corner – the SE corner of Clinton & Washington. By 1875, Chairman of the Board – Thomas C. Carlson – became Vice President, and in 1877, became President – a role he had until his death in 1905. Read more here.
Known for his civic pride, Carson served on the Iowa City City Council, and with his strong knowledge of farming and agriculture, became the founder of the Johnson County Agricultural Society and The Johnson County Fair.
Thomas C. Carson, literally, had his hand in just about everything here in Iowa City, from the printing business – The Republican Publishing Company (see below) to the utility companies – bringing his two sons – Frank C. and George S. into the management of the Iowa City Gas Light Company (1857) and the Iowa City Electric Light Company (1886).
Probably Carson’s longest-lasting impact on our fair city came when he became the man of the hour in 1899, securing the Johnson County building bonds for our new court house. In a front page article in the Daily Iowa State Press – March 15, 1899 – we read how Carson guaranteed up to $100,000 in order for the county to proceed with the construction…
The Johnson County Court House opened in 1901 (read more here) and still stands today as a lasting tribute to Thomas C. Carson and his commitment to our community.
Another lasting monument to Carson and his influence in Iowa City is his beautiful home – built in 1875 at 906 East College Street in Iowa City.
Which brings us, now, to the family of Thomas C. Carson who lived in this beautiful home. As we mentioned, Carson married (1857) Mary Josephine Reiff (1835-1915) – who went by her middle name Josephine, and together they had six sons – five of which survived into adulthood: Charles R. (1858-1866), Thomas B. (1860-1941), George S. (1862-1929), Hays H. (1864-1933), Frank C. (1867-1934), and Robert N. (1870-1949).
In October 1905, 71-year-old T.C. Carson was in Philadelphia visiting his family, when the following accident happened. Being such a well-known figure in Iowa City, the news spread quickly…
Sadly, Thomas C. Carson passed away on October 18, 1905, unable to recover from the concussion he experienced in his fall. Obviously, the citizens of Iowa City were shocked at the sudden demise of this well-known and well-respected gentleman. In one obituary published in The Iowa Citizen, we find these testimonies…
“A man of high honor and one who was always ready to assist in the promoting the welfare of the community.” William A. Fry – cashier at Johnson County Savings Bank.
“During an acquaintance of thirty years I have enjoyed his personal friendship and have always found him pleasant, affable, courteous and kind. His business life has been singularly successful as indicated by the many different enterprises engaged in and controlled by him. He was a man of strict business integrity, upright in his dealings and honest in all his transactions.” Iowa City Mayor George W. Ball.
“Carson was the best man I ever worked for and the most pleasant man with his men. I have always found him liberal and he always had a good word to say for everyone.” J. W. Donovan – Iowa City Gas Light Co.
“Mr. Carson was a mighty fine man.” Jason Tuttle – Iowa City Electric Light Co.
Below left is a 1943 article on Thomas C. Carson written by Iowa City historian, Jacob E Reizenstein, a long-time newspaperman in Iowa City and known as JER for his “A Fact A Day” column which appeared in the Iowa City Press-Citizen for many years...
Sadly, Josephine Carson passed on June 23, 1915 at the age of 79. As you can see from her obituary (above center), she, too, was a well-respected citizen of Iowa City. In my writings here, I had the honor of speaking with T.S. Carson’s great grandson – David Carson, who provided so many details that you’ll find on this page. Let me close with a few thoughts David sent me about his family recollections…
George S. Carson (Sr.) was my grandfather. Unfortunately, he died in April 1929, somewhat over a year before I was born – December 31, 1930. George’s oldest living brother – Thomas B. – was known as Burke, and was the treasurer for a wheel manufacturer in Bettendorf. Robert N. – the youngest Carson – ran a grocery store in Iowa City before moving to the Quad Cities as well, while Hays H. and Frank C. both lived in Iowa City, with one of them operating the Washington Hotel. My family was involved in technology and my grandfather was president of the Iowa City Gas & Electric Co, as well as Iowa Gas & Electric in Washington, Iowa. My Uncle Tom (Burke) worked for the Minneapolis Gas Company for many years, and also in Iowa City, as well as several other towns, supervising the conversion from manufactured to natural gas. My father, – George S. Carson, Jr., as you know, operated a commercial radio station (KFQP-Iowa City) when he was still in or just out of high school and had a wholesale radio parts business until starting work at the SUI Physics Department in 1942. As a kid, I was always interested in electric and mechanical devices, and started working at WSUI the summer of 1946, when I was 15. Nearly all of my college and pre-college education was provided by the University, beginning with preschool. I graduated from University High in 1949, and from SUI in 1954 (BSEE). After graduation, except for a few months, I was employed as an engineering manager in radio and TV broadcasting, and in 1958, I decided to get a MSEE degree (1959). Before retiring, I worked for the Bell System, mostly for Bell Telephone Laboratories – but never worked on telephones. My wife and I retired (1988) to our vacation home in Long Lake, New York, where we bought a movie theater in a nearby town, and ran it for about 15 years. So, I have had three careers, but now, I am really retired!
Thomas & Josephine Carson are both buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City. Godspeed!
In 1979, Iowa City historian – Irving Weber – offered this write-up on Thomas C. Carson. While Irving mis-spoke about the date T.C. first arrived in Iowa City (it was not Dec. 31, 1855 but Jan. 3, 1856) and the location of the Carson home (it’s College & Governor – not College & Gilbert), the article does offer a beautiful overview of Carson’s impact on Iowa City.
A true pioneer of Iowa City – from Day One – January 3, 1856 – until your sudden demise in 1905. Thank you, Thomas C. Carson – for your many contributions to our fair city!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.
Grand Rail Road Festival, Weekly Capital Reporter, January 8, 1856, p 1-2
Grand Rail Road Festival, Clarence Ray Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County, Iowa, 1912, pp 223-224
Johnson County Fair, History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1883, p 342
Republican Publishing Company, History of Johnson County, Iowa, 1883, p 369
990.00 Premium, Daily Iowa State Press, March 15, 1899, p 5
Thomas C. Carson House, TheClio.com
Thomas C. Carson House, Wikipedia
Thomas C. Carson House, National Register of Historic Places, npgallery.nps.gov
Philadelphia Trolley -1905, PhillyTrolley.org
Prominent Iowa Man Is Injured, Des Moines Register & Leader, October 13, 1905, p 3
Banker Is Trolley Victim, Muscatine Journal, October 17, 1905, p 6
Community Mourns Death of Thomas C. Carson, The Iowa Citizen, October 18, 1905, p 1
Thomas C. Carson Dead, Ottumwa Courier, October 19, 1905, p 1
Thomas C. Carson Dies of Injuries In Philadelphia, Des Moines Register and Leader, October 19, 1905, p 3
Resolutions Of Respect, The Iowa Citizen, October 25, 1905, p 8
Beloved Woman Of Iowa City Is Called By Death, Iowa City Republican, June 24, 1915, p 1
Thomas C. Carson – Fact A Day, Iowa City Press Citizen, November 19, 1943, p 4
Thomas Carson, Chronology – 1841/1979, Iowa City Press Citizen, February 9, 1979, p 21
Mary Josephine Reiff Carson, Find-A-Grave
Thomas C. Carson, Find-A-Grave
George S. Carson, Sr., Find-A-Grave
George Stevenson Carson Jr., Find-A-Grave
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