Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday October 25, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 217: Visiting a 1900 Iowa City Map

iwcy map

A 1900 map of Iowa City yields some interesting historic features, including a community called “East Iowa City” 
and a precise route of the old “Plug Line” railway. Historic names abound on the section of map from a 1900 
Johnson County atlas. The author added the several street names to assist interpretation.


By Bob Hibbs  

Exploring a 1900 Iowa City area map produces a sense of walking in a history book as one ambles off on a journey of discovery among its lines and lettering.

One begins with orientation: There is the “University Campus.” It certainly isn’t the dominating central feature then that it now represents in central Iowa City. It’s just today’s Pentacrest Campus labeled as the whole of the University of Iowa. Enrollment in 1900 was only about 1,350.

A block east (right) the eye lands on a two-square-block area labeled “Park,” an obvious cartographer’s error since old downtown city park occupied only one square block bounded by Dubuque, Iowa Avenue, Linn and Jefferson streets – directly south of today’s First Methodist and St. Mary’s Catholic churches.

Iowa City gave the park to UI in 1890 to stave off talk in the Iowa legislature of moving the university nearer the center of the state.

The other block served 1842 Mechanics Academy with frontage along Linn Street between Iowa Avenue and Jefferson Street that was a half-block deep originally plated in 1839. The east half of that block, facing Gilbert Street, had been sold as lots, but by 1900 had been acquired by UI as hospital space.

A block west (left) of “University Campus” features a three-block area west of Madison Street labeled “P-A-R-K.” In 1839 founding father Chauncey Swan labeled it “Promenade,” a hoped-for landing site for steamboats. A relatively few paddle-wheelers ever plied the river upstream to Iowa City.

The university put the area to use for baseball and football games, developing it as “Athletic Park” where standing-room-only crowds reached 25,000 before Kinnick Stadium was opened in 1929 with 45,000 seats. The area between Burlington Street and Iowa Avenue now serves the UI Water Plant and English-Philosophy Building.

As one scans farther from the central area, the eye picks up “East Iowa City” in the southeast (lower right) corner of the map. It was a large subdivision which in 1900 was unincorporated – like River Heights north of Iowa City today – where the W.F. Main jewelry manufacturing plant had been built, along with surrounding home lots.

The existence of East Iowa City as a separate town, although never incorporated, explains why First Avenue today is farther from central Iowa City than Seventh Avenue, a seeming inversion of the usual order of things. Developers expected East Iowa City to grow east, making First Avenue its central thoroughfare. Instead, the subdivision was annexed into Iowa City, and East Iowa City died.

Just west (left) of East Iowa City one sees the Rundell farm, developed beginning in 1910 as a subdivision flanking Ralston Creek served by the first street cars from downtown, done to promote subdivision lot sales.

The dominating railroad loop from downtown into East Iowa City is the “plug line” owned in 1900 by the Burlington Cedar Rapids & Northern. Its depot was along the bank of Ralston Creek in what is now a parking lot behind the Recreation Center downtown.

Along the plug railroad, the eye catches “Fair Grounds” labeling just east (right) of the tracks in what today is the Morningside Drive neighborhood below City High School. As City High was developed during the 1930s, this site yielded to housing as the current fairgrounds south of the airport came into being.

As the eye runs along the bottom of the map, it picks up “Mary Lucas” labeling of the Plum Grove property. She was widow of the first governor of Iowa Territory, Robert Lucas; the site now a state historic landmark.

Such historic name as Coldren, Ryerson, Clearman, Williams, Hill, Butterbaugh, Mahoney, Elliott, Crowley, Slavata, Boarts, Oakes, Pritchard, Fairall, Kelly and Oakes surround Iowa City.

It’s fun to explore 1900 Iowa City.

Next Saturday: Another local map shows towns of Minnehaha and Clarksville.

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

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