Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
 Saturday May 24, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 195: Coralville – Mills Aplenty!

As site of the first operating mill site on the Iowa River, Coralville offered area pioneers the best location in Johnson County
for water powered mills. This drawing depicts Pearl oat mill at left, Close Paper (low structure) at center,
and the three-story Coral flour mill at the dam.


The original flour mill at the Coralville dam site shows here rebuilt in brick after a fire in 1873.


By Bob Hibbs


If Coralville causes Iowa City people confusion today over shopping, taxing and civic issues, it has been confusing local historians for at least 150 years.  It occasionally even confuses itself.

Pioneers determined that Coralville offered the best water power site along the Iowa River in Johnson County. A long flat stretch of river would create good pressure on flows at a mill on a spot where the Coralville member of the Cedar Valley limestone formation was nearly exposed, creating firm foundation.

The potential proved irresistible to Iowa City investors – who promptly went broke. None-the-less, it would prove highly profitable to later owners Ezekiel Clark for whom Clarksville was named and his brother-in-law, Samuel Kirkwood, who became Iowa’s beloved Civil War governor.

It also became site of one of the worst industrial accidents in county history, killing six men in an explosion July 23, 1875, at the Close paper mill, which was rebuilt.

The first mill at Coralville was opened Jan. 1, 1844, grinding grain into meal or flour. The dam was 10 feet high, and a half-dozen other mills sprang up there through the years.

The following spring Walter Terrell opened his directly-competing grist mill at an Iowa City site along present-day North Dubuque Street near Mayflower Residence Hall. He had built his five-foot-high dam the previous summer, prompting some historians to tag Terrell the first mill.

Confusion also arises from licensing dates; and, distinctions between Coralville and Iowa City.  Terrell got the earliest permit for a dam on the Iowa River, but did not build it until nearly three years later when it was about to expire. The Dec. 15, 1840, license date is sometimes cited as opening of the Terrell mill. Terrell was first at Iowa City.

However, neither Coralville nor Iowa City saw the first water-powered mill in Johnson County.  That distinction goes to the flour mill erected by David and Joshua Switzer on Clear Creek in 1839. Several rural saw and woolen mills followed, and hydroelectric power generation came later.

Terrell’s mill was an immediate success, which continued during 23 years of Terrell ownership.

Despite an initial flourish, the Coralville mill floundered and was closed. In 1848 it was purchased by Iowa City banker Clark, who induced his lawyer brother-in-law in Illinois to come operate the mill. Kirkwood’s wife, Jane, was Clark’s much younger sister.

Once here, Kirkwood not only successfully ran the mill, but soon entered a long political career which extended not only to the Iowa governor’s office, but also to the U.S. Senate and into cabinets serving two presidents.

When it comes to confusing itself, though, Coralville begins with its own name.  The usual yarn is that it originally was called Clarksville, but couldn’t get a post office, so was forced to use Coralville to satisfy the feds.  That tale is a string of half-truths, misinterpretations and balderdash.  

The two existed simultaneously, essentially competitors.  Any property abstract north of the current Fifth Street Place (about 300 feet north of Fifth Street) will show it originally was in Clarksville.  An abstract for an area south of that line will show being in Coralville.

Coralville got a post office which originally sat in what now is First Avenue just north of Fifth Street near the Iowa River Power restaurant. It prospered while Clarksville died. Coralville got the post office plum, so the fact of another town with the Clarksville name existing in Iowa may not have mattered at all.

An easy source of the dueling towns is the 1900 Atlas of Johnson County, which labels what is now called First Avenue as Rogers Street in Coralville, and Water Street to the north in Clarksville. 

Coralville now features numbered streets running east-west, with numbered avenues running north-south, the probable source of most confusion in Coralville today. Or, do avenues run east-west?

Next Saturday: Iowa City’s first bell, a real clunker!

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


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