Most Iowa Citians don’t know how the Iowa River between the Burlington Street Bridge and northern part of City Park came to look as it does, nor that the channel once followed a very different course through the city. Would one know what was underfoot while walking along its banks or viewing it from afar? Who remembers the islands in the river, the quarries along its banks or the changes in 1939 that made them disappear?
The river first changed in 1843 when Walter Terrell constructed his flourmill between current North Dubuque Street and the now nonexistent island located in the river’s channel between Dubuque Street and what would become City Park. They powered the large and active mill by water that came from a two section stone mill dam. One section of the mill ran from Dubuque Street to “The Island” (as it was referred to), and the second section ran from The Island to the northeastern corner of what is now City Park. The mill was carried away in a flood in the 1880s but the mill dam still impounded water back to the Coralville Dam, also built in 1843. The river channel between those two dams was a favorite location for boating excursions in the summer and skating in the winter.
Around 1890 Terrell’s mill dam was dynamited and with it gone, the river level sank back to its original level, flooding curtailed and improvement projects by both the city and the university began along both sides of the river. In 1908 the Iowa River’s landscape changed with the construction of Park Bridge, which for the first time directly linked the city on the eastern side of the river to the park on the west. It provided wagon, auto and trolley car traffic access to the newly opened Manville Heights area.
Between 1917 and 1930 little occurred along the Iowa River except for the completion of the innovatively engineered Burlington Street Bridge in 1918, replacing the 1861 steel arch bridge. During this time, the area along Riverside Drive north of Iowa Avenue consisted of abandoned quarries. Most of North Dubuque Street was much the same and the limekilns still operating near the Mayflower dorms.
In the early 1930s, the University envisioned and initiated a series of beautification projects, starting with both buildings and scenic structures such as walls, walkways and skating ponds. On the west side of the river between Iowa Avenue and City Park Bridge the Maybee Theater Building and the Arts Campus were built atop a series of abandoned quarries. The senior class helped build and fund a shelter house near now nonexistent skate ponds.
Then in January of 1939 something astounding arrived. The Works Projects Administration (WPA) and Army Corps of Engineers brought in a river dredger for the newest campus beautification program: the dredging of the Iowa River. The goals of the WPA works project were to “beautify” and widen of the Iowa River, to fill up the old football stadium and to protect Dubuque Street from flooding. With this project, levees and stone retaining walls were built by WPA workers and the river was widened from 25 to 100 feet.
By mid-1939, plans proceeded for extending these WPA works projects past City Park Bridge to the western end of The Island. This meant moving the Iowa River channel through City Park by connecting the northeast end of The Island with the mainland near Dubuque Street. This channel project set the course for the river to run through the north section of the park, necessitating removal of about 130,000 square yards of dirt and making the river in this area 300 feet wide with a 1,200 foot radius. The plans made it so that it started in the northwest section of the park and cut through to a point 700 feet north of Park Bridge on the east side of the park.
To fill the old channel, dams were built on the corners of The Island between it and Dubuque Street. More dikes were built along the east river bank to prevent street flooding north of the City Park Bridge. A rock wall was built around the park’s west bank and connected to the river wall that ran north from the Burlington Street Bridge. Dredged materials from the new channel were used to fill in much of City Park. The WPA payed nearly all the costs for the dredging, stone walls, walkways and levees thus leaving a permanent legacy on the now “beautified” Iowa River.
These “final improvements” of the Iowa River had proceeded from April to September of 1939. The dredge had worked its way south to north and dispersed the dredged materials along the banks, into the old football stadium, behind the four to six feet tall rock walls and levees lining both sides of the river. The dredged stone from the river bottom and abandoned quarries was used to fill the original channel and level City Park, resulting in an Iowa River that was never the same again.
What can we see today of these changes? The new skate park lies atop The Island. City Park’s ball fields are built on dredged materials. Huge half-buried stones quarried in 1843 for Terrell’s mill dam can still be seen along the western side of north Dubuque Street just south of Park Bridge at the slope bottom. The stone Lagoon Shelter House marks where ice skating lagoons were. Stone walks can be seen in the woods along the western bluffs and river walls still stick out of the river bank near Park Bridge.
Marlin R. Ingalls is a professional archaeologist, historian and architectural historian within Iowa’s Office of the State Archeologist. He is a member of the State Historical Society of Iowa’s Technical Advisory Network and former member of Iowa’s State Nomination Review Commission, which reviews nominations for listing on The National Register of Historic Places. He is also a consultant specializing in helping preservationists and communities evaluate, document and restore their historic buildings, neighborhoods and other historic resources.