Iowa City historian to highlight 19th century brewery, beer caves

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Brewery Square
Beneath Brewery Square on the Iowa City’s north side is a 19th century beer cave. — photo by Alan Light via Flickr Creative Commons

Weber Days Event: Prohibition, Breweries and Beer Caves in Iowa City

Iowa City Public Library, Meeting Room A — Saturday, May 16 at 2 p.m.

Iowa City Brewery Cave Tours

Brewery Square lobby (123 N. Linn St.) — Monday and Tuesday, May 18-19 at 5 p.m.

Archaeologist, historian and Little Village contributor Marlin Ingalls will present on the history of prohibition, breweries and beer caves in Iowa City this Saturday, May 16, from 2 – 4 p.m., at the Iowa City Public Library.

Ingalls works for the Office of the State Archaelologist (OSA), and during his career has searched for mines, factories and lost highways in the area. His presentation will focus on the three breweries — the Union Brewery, the Englert Brewery and the Great Western Brewery — that called Iowa City home in the 19th century; their locations on Linn and Market Streets; and the beer caves that still exist beneath Brewery Square. The brewery caves recently discovered under Interstate 380 in Cedar Rapids will also be discussed.

Ingalls will also talk about the caves’ construction and the technology used to locate and map not only the brewery caves, but also steam tunnels, wells and other subsurface features. Slides will show the interior of the caves, showing cask hoops from burned barrels, torch niches in the walls and the spring-fed trough in the floor (used to float barrels).

The former brewery locations and their caves, which can be considers industrial archaeological sites, “are appealing historical survivors of what Iowa City used to be,” says Ingalls. Their depth, construction and difficulty of access are all part of their appeal. They hark back to a time in the city when all beer was brewed and consumed locally, and the massive, national breweries known today did not exist.

Ingalls’ presentation will also touch on the cultural impact the breweries and beer had on Iowa City, including the economic clout and political influence of the beer mafia, the 1884 beer riots and the conflict between prohibitionists and the interests of business-owners. That conflict, Ingalls says, is similar to those that affect the city today.

“Alcohol and entertainment are prime movers in this city — both good and bad — and always have been,” he wrote in an email.

On Monday and Tuesday, May 18-19, Ingalls will conduct two sold-out tours of the Iowa City brewery caves. The tour starts at 5 p.m. when he will take attendees 25 feet below ground into a Brewery Square beer cave.

At 6 p.m. the tour will move to Pullman Bar and Diner for beer and snacks while Ingalls and Elizabeth Reetz, the OSA Education Director, will continue the conversation and share historical artifacts. The tour and tasting costs $42 to attend, and for those who want to opt out of the cave tour (or don’t meet the requirements to attend) the cost is $21 for the cave talk and tasting.

The Saturday presentation at the ICPL is free to attend and part of Weber Days, a month-long celebration of local history held each May to honor the memory of Iowa City’s unofficial historian, Irving B. Weber.

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