Early Iowa City



Storefronts along Clinton Street north of Washington dominate this 1856 view taken while Iowa City was the capitol of Iowa. The space between the taller structures and a two-story white building north (left) of them marks the entrance onto Iowa Avenue east of Old Capitol.  This image by noted local photographer Isaac Wetherby has been digitally repaired and enhanced.


pioneer bed

This cord bed from Iowa City’s pioneer past was state of the art in the 1840s when it was owned by John Wagner, reports C. Ray Aurner in his 1912 local history. The chair was made by Henry Wieneke, a prominent local merchant, demonstrating the self sufficiency which characterized all pioneers. The image is digitally enhanced.


By Bob Hibbs


Johnson County pioneers were a hardy lot who challenged a wilderness with little but their own hands, and not only persevered, but prospered.

During the late 1830s rude plows turned virgin soil and rough cabins sprang up on an otherwise natural landscape forming the base for an agricultural society among native peoples on the American frontier.

Into its midst Iowa City was created by fiat of a divided Territorial Legislature acting in desperation to move the territorial capital out into what all were certain would soon become another member of the union of states.

Retired Ohio Gov. Robert Lucas, who had been appointed chief executive of Iowa territory by President Martin Van Buren in 1838, named three Iowa legislators to meet on May 1 in the seat of Johnson County called Napoleon to proceed to select a spot for a capital named Iowa City.

Dubuque legislator Chauncey Swan escorted by local settler Frederick Irish showed up at the designated time and place, actually fur trader John Gilbert’s cabin a mile south of what is now the southern boundary of Iowa City.

Two other legislators, Robert Ralston and John Ronalds, failed to show up, so Swan sent pioneer settler Philip Clark to fetch Ronalds from his Wapello area farm before the appointed day expired.

Clark made the 70-mile roundtrip on horseback in an era without roads, improbably in the time allotted, but succeeded, or so Swan chose to read his watch for the legislative record. Ronalds and Ralston were characterized by contemporary locals as traitors to the Iowa City cause, believing both wanted the selection to fail so the legislature could reconsider its choice.

Swan is considered the founder of Iowa City for his work in site selection, layout, lot sales to benefit the territory and in commencing construction of Old Capitol. He commemorated the traitors by naming a street for Ronalds and a creek for Ralston, but placed his own name on nothing. Only a century and a half later was his name attached on a tiny green space across Washington Street from City Hall.

Local population grew from 237 in the entire county in 1838 to an 1840 census of 1,504, then ballooned to 4,472 in 1850 and 17,573 a decade later.

Clinton Street became the first center of commerce, facing the statehouse grounds where Old Capitol rose from native stone and timber toward an 1842 opening. The territorial legislature first met in Iowa City in 1841 in a two-story frame building just east of the Clinton-Washington corner. The locals dubbed it “Butler’s Capitol” after Walter Butler who built it adjoining his hotel which faced Clinton Street.

One of the earliest images of Iowa City was made by Isaac Wetherby showing Clinton Street in 1856.

The largest building in that image is the only one which still exists, now possibly the oldest surviving downtown structure. It is the F.P. Brossart building at 16 S. Clinton St., now occupied by McDonald Optical headed by 1980s Iowa City mayor John McDonald.  During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Namur Bakery made its heralded “snowflake bread” there.

Others, including this reporter on occasion, have pointed at 111 and 115 S. Dubuque St. immediately south of the Jefferson Hotel building as the oldest survivors downtown. The better preserved is the Franklin Printing House at 115 built in 1856 to house the Iowa Capitol Reporter newspaper.

The Wetherby image suggests the Brossart building is at least as old. Some date the Wetherby image to 1854, rather than the 1856 date this reporter accepts as correct.

Comforts in pioneer days did not include beds. An image taken in one of two pioneer cabins built on the county fairgrounds by Old Settlers Association members on Sept. 28, 1889 shows a cord bed which screams, “Oh my aching back!” although an accompanying chair looks comfortable.

These two cabins may be those in disrepair which today rest in the upper level of Iowa City Park.

Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs 

Bob Hibbs collects local postcards and researches history related to them. 

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