Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday January 24, 2004 

Saturday Postcard 228: Exploring the Old North Side 

iwcy plat

The UI President’s House now sits on original “public quarry” grounds at the north end of Clinton Street. 
“Bird-eye marble” was available and there were church preserves along Church Street,
 all shown on this 150-year-old map of north Iowa City.


By Bob Hibbs


The quarry feeding construction stone to Old Capitol, a phantom railroad and empty church preserves along Church Street were dominant features of Iowa City’s original north side.

It also boasted a substantial early house called “Prospect Hill” at the north end of Johnson Street, residence of Hugh Downey, pioneer attorney, real estate agent and partner in the first local banking firm, called Cook, Sargent and Downey which occupied what is now the Iowa State Bank corner downtown.

Downey, for whom a Cedar County community is named, also helped found the first local commercial club and the first literary guild. He also was active in an early movement to build a public library, served as a territorial legislator and later as an original trustee of the University of Iowa.

The still-existing Prospect Hill house, built about 1844 and perhaps occupied as early as 1842, also carries the unsubstantiated claim of being designed by architect John Rague, who at least in part designed Old Capitol.

A Lyons Iowa Central Railroad route through the north side was never completed, although a roadbed was built from the Iowa River east some 70 miles into Clinton County at the Mississippi River. Bankruptcy occurred before rails were in place or an Iowa River bridge built, stranding dozens of unpaid worker families in Iowa City.

Two church preserves platted along Church Street by city founder Chauncey Swan in 1839 never served churches. However, the half-block-sized parcel at Dodge Street was given to the Presbyterians by the state legislature meeting in Old Capitol in 1855.

That congregation had set a cornerstone for its Old Brick Church in 1856, but lack of money prevented serious construction even though the Church Street plot was sold to help pay for Old Brick, finally occupied in 1865. The sold-off site eventually served Aldous Greenhouse, Eagles grocery, and currently Lenoch and Cilek Ace Hardware.

North Market was one of three such square blocks set aside in 1839 for local farm commerce, now all in other uses. This northerly of them is the park adjacent to Mann Elementary School.

The “Public Quarry” and “Bird-eye Marble” labels on an old Millar promotion map refer to historic use of stone for construction of basement walls, including those for Old Capitol, and for local crafts produced by entrepreneurial artisans.

Early residents crafted paperweights, cane heads and novelties from local coral-bearing limestone which “would take a fine polish,” according to an 1870 Geological Survey report. The stone was called bird-eye marble despite being limestone, not marble.

The fossilized corals occur in world-famous quantities in what geologists call the Cedar Valley Formation, a 30 to 40-foot thick sedimentary rock layer of 350-million-year-old Devonian deposits underlying the local area.

When the first dam of the Iowa River was built upstream from Iowa City, the tiny village at the site took the coral name of the bedrock on which the dam was built; thus, Coralville.

The “Cedar Valley” strata name has on occasion resulted in the mistaken belief that part of the stone for Old Capitol came from a Cedar Valley quarry. Even the 1920 Old Settlers Association yearbook carries a tale of stone ostensively for Old Capitol being ferried across the Cedar River near what is now the Highway 1 crossing.

Rather, that limestone may have been for the historic Stone Academy north of Solon since stone for Old Cap came from the Cedar Valley Formation at two sites along the Iowa River, one in Iowa City, the other from State Quarry located in what is now the first cove downriver from the Mehaffey bridge between North Liberty and Solon.

Thus does a bit of history flow from tertiary review of a 150-year-old map of Iowa City’s north side.

Next Saturday: Exploring old east Iowa City.

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

Return to Postcard Index