Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday Aug 16, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 207: Bunkers below Engineering Hall

eng hall

A rare Madison Street postcard view of the University of Iowa’s original 1905 College of Engineering building and the
accompanying 1908 bunker-like steam shops is provided by this recent addition to the Hibbs postcard collection.


By Bob Hibbs

Local Historian


Bunkers like those used for ammunition storage at military arsenals once inhabited an area along Madison Street in Iowa City across from present-day University Library on a site now occupied by the lower sections of the University of Iowa’s engineering hall.

Explosions in such bunkers limit damage to surrounding facilities.

Why in Iowa City?

The short answer is the bunkers which existed a century ago protected the UI engineering building from potential mishaps in the steam shops used as teaching facilities. Each bunker contained a boiler used to produce steam to power machinery, or which could be used to heat UI buildings as the weather dictated.

They served both academic and utilitarian purposes from the safety of the dirt-shrouded man-made caves.

A century ago the boilers heated as much as the western two thirds of the UI campus. The entire campus was then located east of the Iowa River; it was 1917 before the first major UI building was erected west of the river as Children’s Hospital, later called Steindler Building. The last of it was demolished this last year to make way for the new College of Medicine digs.

A century ago a sister facility of considerably different design served the eastern third of the UI campus, including University Hospital which then was located along Iowa Avenue east of Linn Street. The sister rested where the State Historical Society of Iowa building exists today at Iowa Avenue and Gilbert Street.

Both facilities featured tall smoke stacks and typically used coal as fuel.

When UI was first opened in 1855 in the Mechanics Academy located along Linn Street north of Iowa Avenue, heating was provided by stoves in the building.  Likewise, when UI moved into Old Capitol after state government was moved to Des Moines in December 1857, heat came from four fireplaces and a dozen or so wood stoves located in virtually every hallway and office.

With open fires in fireplaces, the potential for hot embers among ashes carried from stoves and with candles used for lighting, there is little wonder that there was constant worry about the prospect of fire. Old Cap housed the entire university until South Hall was opened 100 feet south of Old Cap in 1863.

The first central heating plant occupied the lower of two levels of a 30-by-40-foot red-brick armory located 60 feet west of Old Capitol. It came even before limestone replaced wood in sidewalks around Old Cap in 1876, before the first telephone arrived in 1889, or the first electric lamp in 1905.

Although records show a $2,000 furnace replaced heating in Old Cap in 1866, this likely was a boiler system since in modern usage the word furnace usually implies a forced air system.

Steam shops were incorporated within a 1931 engineering building addition erected on the site of these previous-generation bunkers. A replacement chimney was built about a hundred feet from the original one in an interior corner of the revised building, permitting access to it from both wings of the structure.

Steam production and steam operated machinery remained important in American industry until the middle of the 20th century, thus producing demand for the subject in the university curriculum.

The next incarnation of steam production at UI was created along the Iowa River at the present site of the UI Power Plant adjacent to the Burlington Street bridge. That facility recently was fitted to burn husks from Quaker Oats in Cedar Rapids as an experiment with alternative fuels for some of boilers.

Although academics have moved beyond steam powered equipment, and regardless of fuel type or global warming, Iowa winters still require heat in the University’s 120 buildings scattered over 2,000 acres of Iowa City and Coralville.

Of course, air conditioning is now a must, too.

Next Saturday: Hotelier Albert Burkley’s Kirkwood Avenue home, Ardenia.

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


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