Your Village: Who are the streets in downtown Iowa City named for?

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Photo by Paul Brennan

Why are streets called what they are called? Especially in the downtown, Goosetown area? Who were these people? – Jeneane, Iowa City, via Facebook

Some of the street names have obvious origins (for example: Washington, Jefferson and Madison are named for presidents George, Thomas and James), but some only appear obvious. Consider Bloomington Street.

It seems obvious it was named for a city called Bloomington, the same way Dubuque, Davenport and Burlington Streets are named for those cities. But which Bloomington? Perhaps Bloomington, Illinois? Or Bloomington, Indiana? Or the one in Minnesota? The answer is: none of them. It’s named for Muscatine.

The first American settlement at the site of Muscatine was set up to service steamboats on Mississippi River, and became known as “Casey’s woodpile.” In 1839, when the woodpile became a city, locals decided it needed a more dignified name, and chose Bloomington. Ten years later they decided there were too many other Bloomingtons in the Midwest, and changed the city’s name to a slightly misunderstood version of Mascoutin, the name of a group of Native Americans who lived in the area before the Americans arrived.

Gilbert Street’s name has an equally tricky origin. It’s named for John Gilbert, who should be familiar to anyone who went to school in Iowa City. Gilbert is celebrated as the first American to settle in what is now Johnson County, where he opened a trading post to barter with the local Meskwaki. What probably doesn’t get mentioned in school is that Gilbert’s actual name was John Prentice, and one of the major reasons he came to Iowa is he was hiding from creditors.

Prentice made a series of bad investments in canal construction projects in Ohio, and once his debts mounted up, he headed west, hiding his identity with a phony last name. Changing his name didn’t do much to improve Prentice’s luck. When he died in March 1839 of complications from gonorrhea, Prentice/Gilbert was deeply in debt to the companies that supplied his trading post with manufactured goods.

Two months after Prentice/Gilbert died, Chauncey Swan and John Ronalds, two members of a commission appointed by Iowa’s first territorial governor to decide where Iowa City would be built, selected its location. Ronalds has a street named for him, while Chauncey Swan has been immortalized with a parking ramp. Ralston Creek is named for the third member of the commission, Robert Ralston, who didn’t show up for the vote on Iowa City’s location.

The governor who appointed that commission, Robert Lucas, has a street named for him, although William Conway, who served as territorial secretary under Lucas, probably disagreed with that decision. Conway once wrote to President Martin Van Buren to complain about Lucas’ “vexatious, ungraceful, petulant, ill-natured and dogmatic interferences.” Members of the first Iowa legislature agreed with Conway, and passed a resolution declaring Lucas “unfit to be the ruler of a free people.” Still, Lucas got a street, as did Van Buren. Conway didn’t.

“Vexatious, ungraceful, petulant, ill-natured,” Robert Lucas, first territorial governor of Iowa. Steel engraving, artist unknown.

Lucas isn’t the only territorial governor with a street. Dodge Street is named for Henry Dodge, who was governor of the Wisconsin territory when Iowa was still Baja Wisconsin.

Dodge was the half-brother of Lewis Linn, a U.S. Senator from Missouri during the 1830s and 40s. Politically well-connected, Linn died relatively young, which made him an appealing figure to name things after. Things that include the downtown street, as well as the neighboring county.

An elected governor also has a street downtown. DeWitt Clinton, governor of New York in the 1820s, put the Clinton in Clinton Street (and the Clinton in both the eastern Iowa city and county, as well as the DeWitt in DeWitt, Iowa). Clinton was nationally admired for taking the lead in the creation of Erie Canal, which revolutionized the economies of both New York and the Great Lakes region, and led to a boom in canal building in the U.S. Which, of course, led indirectly to John Prentice becoming John Gilbert.

But Gilbert isn’t the only failure commemorated by a downtown street name. There’s also Church Street. It received that name because early plans for Iowa City projected there would be two churches on the street. Neither was ever built.

Tuesday, May 8, 2018. — photo by Zak Neumann

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