Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
 Saturday June 14, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 198: Steamboating at Iowa City

“Steamboat Ripple arrives 1936 oil by Mildred Pelzer"


A jubilant 1841 community greets the Ripple, the first steamboat to call at the “Port of Iowa City,” in this 1936 oil by Mildred Pelzer, wife of UI history professor Louis Pelzer. The Pelzers resided at 127 Ferson Ave. in the Manville Heights neighborhood of Iowa City during the 1920s through the ’40s.

 “Steamboat Burlington Peterson on Mississippi 1968”


At a bit longer than 100 feet and rated at about 60 tons, steamboats able to navigate the Iowa River were tiny compared to the
giants on the Mississippi. The medium-sized steamer Burlington seen here was about 300 feet long and rated 359 tons,
about half the size of the true Mississippi River giants. Some topped 900 tons.


By Bob Hibbs


The “Port of Iowa City” was a cherished pioneer dream which died hard under the wheels of the iron horse and a disastrous fire. Steamboat building was an active local endeavor for two decades, with a half dozen boats under construction in Iowa City during 1847, the year following Iowa statehood.  


Jeff Westfall, a 1965 City High alum now living in Arizona, recalls as a youthful “river rat” finding an ancient water-logged and mud-covered wharf downstream from the Benton Street bridge, hidden by brush, debris and a tree canopy. This was probably the century-old site of local steamboat construction.  


Boat-building ended abruptly in 1866 with launch of the steamer “Iowa City,” the largest built here at 120 feet and 160 tons. She was consumed by her own fire during trial runs near her construction berth.  


With the smoke went local hope of becoming a port city navigable to New Orleans and points beyond. Eleven years earlier, arrival of the railroad from Davenport on a frigid New Years Eve 1855 produced a precipitous decline in the importance of riverboat, wagon and stagecoach traffic.  


Flamboyant Burlington author John B. Newhall, more publicist than historian, wrote a singularly important best-selling “Sketches of Iowa” pamphlet which brought scores of immigrants from eastern states to Iowa beginning during the late 1830s. He published praises of Iowa, Iowa City and the Iowa River.  


He also rode the first steamboat to Iowa City. The Ripple landed Sunday morning June 20, 1841, at the Iowa Avenue ferry landing to a waive of jubilation.  


The Ripple had run to the mouth of the Cedar near Columbus Junction on Friday, and then stopped near Hills just short of Iowa City Saturday night, although neither town then existed. The run was hampered only by snags and overhanging trees near Hills, which the Iowa City Standard newspaper reported would be removed shortly.  


The paper boasted: “The present comparatively low stage of water will effectively silence any sneers that may be thrown out concerning high water navigation.” The article touts the potential impact of water transport on all of Iowa. “We have now a situation in many respects superior to any in the Territory,” the Standard claimed in 1841.  


A banquet ensued Monday at National Hotel with Newhall as principal speaker.  As he had before, he declared the Iowa navigable, opening an era “pregnant with the happiest results of the future.”  In typical style he described navigating the Iowa was to “penetrate the serpentine windings of the Iowa Fork.” Oh, such a word merchant was he!  


Ben Shambaugh in his 1939 Iowa City centennial classic The Old Stone Capitol Remembers records historic reality: “the little craft never returned to Iowa City. It faded out of the picture . . . . even as the hopes it inspired faded without fulfillment.”

An interesting caller was the Maid of Iowa. After a third stop she sailed Sept. 2, 1844, with wheat for St. Louis where she was impounded for debt of Joseph Smith of Nauvoo as trustee for the Mormon Church.  


Boat construction first appears locally May 19, 1845, with announcement by the Robbins & Co. that it launched a new one. In 1848 Hutchinson & Roan built a 130-foot barge 18 feet wide able to carry 180 tons.  


Regular service was begun in 1846 between Iowa City and Burlington – leaving Burlington at 10 a.m. each Monday and Friday for a round trip, when water levels permitted. In 1854 service was begun between Iowa City and St. Louis for the shipping season – when water flow was sufficient.  


With arrival of the railroad, passengers and freight had reliable year-round service. Steamboating sank to insignificance locally, then died in the 1866 flames which devoured the steamer Iowa City.


Next Saturday: Mysterious Additional  Postcard.

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


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