Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday November 22, 2003 

Saturday Postcard 221: Football Image Sparks Insight

Photo courtesy Miriam Troyer of Kalona

The University of Iowa’s 1900 championship gridiron team mixes it up with Drake during 
an Oct. 26 game on Athletic Park turf along the Iowa River below central Iowa City. 
The horizon is marked by 1863 South Hall (left) and 1882 Medical Building on Pentacrest, 
both destroyed by fire four months later.


By Bob Hibbs


From riverboat landing and football field to tower of learning and water spigot, the Iowa River’s left bank below Old Capitol in Iowa City has witnessed much.

Miriam Troyer of Kalona recently produced evidence of one aspect of its history in a marvelous 1900 image of a Drake-Iowa football game played Oct. 26, 1900. She brought the image to a recent Questers Club gathering where this reporter was guest speaker.

Two red brick buildings from the University of Iowa’s formative years nearly jump from the horizon.  The October date means the image was recorded only months before fire leveled Pentacrest denizens South Hall and Medical Building on March 10, 1901.

A substantial crowd at the game had no seats; it was caught standing along the sidelines with teams tangling under the watchful eyes of three officials. Fencing perhaps eight feet tall limits vision into a neighborhood now site of the Becker and another communications studies building under construction.

The field – now raised 10 feet – currently serves the UI English Philosophy Building along Iowa Avenue, the UI Water Treatment Plant along Burlington Street and a parking lot between them.

Although hidden from view, a bleacher section which seated several hundred spectators backed up to the river. The venerable Crandic Railway had yet to build its tracks along the tall fence. That happened in 1904.

The game came during Iowa’s first season in the Western Athletic Conference, commonly called the Big Ten, during which Iowa won the league title.

That 1900 championship team notched seven wins without a defeat, although it was tied by Northwestern, 5-5, in a game marked by apparently intentional food poising of the Iowa team on the eve of the game by a Davenport hotel chef who reportedly bet against the Hawks.

Iowa scored 311 points in eight games, while allowing eight opponents like Chicago, Michigan, Grinnell and Northwestern a total of only 12 points.

This team might have played the inaugural Rose Bowl, except that the University of California cancelled at the last minute. Michigan accepted similar invitation the following year and beat Stanford in the first game of that holiday classic.

Athletic Park along the Iowa River was dedicated during the second game of the 1900 season played against an Iowa State team which Coach Alden Knipe’s Hawkeyes shellacked 68-0.

The site had been established in 1839 as a public “promenade” located west of an unopened First Street right-of-way platted a block west of Madison Street. First Street became route of the Crandic tracks.

Pioneers hoped paddle-wheeler river boats would dock at the promenade, a dream realized but on rare occasion during the 1840s and ‘50s before the railroad arrived in Iowa City during the final minutes of 1855.

The promenade eventually was sold into private hands, becoming known as the Metzger lot, Englert Park and Sullivan Pasture, the latter fronting on Burlington Street. The university optioned the Metzger parcel in 1892, Englert Park the next year, and the Sullivan ground in 1895. It took title in 1897 to all three.

Improvements made during 1900 cost $1,500, likely including the west side bleachers. Huge bleacher-type stands later would help handle crowds exceeding 25,000 during 1925, though many still stood.

Opening of Kinnick Stadium with 42,500 seats in 1929 shifted the sports focus west; a baseball diamond and oval track were built east of the stadium on ground now occupied by University Hospitals. Trailer houses were moved onto the former athletic park in 1946 in response to an explosion in UI enrollment following WWII.

The trailer court evolved into a parking lot, then into a building site and the water plant existing today. Thus, an old image helps unfold the story of a chunk of river bank in Iowa City. Many thanks, Miriam.


Next Saturday: The battleships Iowa.

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

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