Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday February 7, 2004 

Saturday Postcard 230: Iowa City’s Hutchinson Quarry

hutchinson quarry

Since Iowa City’s pioneer years the limestone cliff and pond of Hutchinson Quarry have 
greeted passersby across North Riverside Drive from the 1930s University of Iowa Art Building. 
An Art Annex building now rising there will have a major support sprouting from the pond.

By Bob Hibbs


The Hutchinson Quarry in the bluff along North Riverside Drive provided foundation and basement wall stone for early local buildings, then settled into the scenic landscape for a century before being chosen as ground zero for a $21 million University of Iowa Art Annex building currently under construction.

The quarried limestone bluff will provide a picturesque backdrop when viewed from within the new structure while still serving the passerby.

Owned originally by Iowa City pioneer Robert Hutchinson, the quarry was worked from the 1840s through about 1900. However, like “Public Quarry” located in the opposite river bluff downhill from what is now the University of Iowa President’s House, it produced stone best suited for unseen masonry.

It was worked principally with hand picks and wheelbarrows, producing irregular, broken stones.

This bedrock is loaded with fossilized corals in sufficiently large numbers to make the formation noteworthy among geologists worldwide. Samples are said to have dazzled curators at the British Museum in London when presented by early Iowa promoter John Newhall, who authored “A Glimpse of Iowa in 1846.”

After the first steamboat arrived at “The Port of Iowa City” in 1841, Newhall had served as the keynote speaker for a festive banquet at Swan’s Hotel located on the site now serving Gilmore Hall. The hotel was operated by city founder Chauncey Swan and his wife, Dolly.

In 1866 eminent Harvard Prof. Louis Agassiz came to wonder over the local fossil-bearing rock. He developed a lecture titled “The Coral Reefs of Iowa City,” a sensation in its day. Local craftsmen fashioned the so-called bird-eye marble into cane heads and nick-knacks since the stone polished well.

Even a tiny village upstream from Iowa City took its name from the noted corals; thus, Coralville.

At Hutchinson Quarry, UI professor and distinguished geologist Samuel Calvin found a crew of from six to eight men working during the 1890s. It had been opened not long after 1843 when Hutchinson purchased an Iowa Territory-owned tract west of the river considered too remote from town to be of much value.

There were no bridges then, just ferries operating intermittently. Parts of the tract also were a wetland, now drained and filled to serve the Art, Art Museum, Theatre and Music buildings, as well as Hancher Auditorium.

On higher ground on his tract, Hutchinson, a carpenter from New Hampshire who specialized in building window sashes and doors, soon built a one-story stone dwelling now located along Park Road and serving University of Iowa Press. He reportedly used stone rejected for use in Old Capitol.

The house has since had dormers and a second floor added, as well as undergoing extensive subsequent renovation to serve modern offices.

Hutchinson also is credited with helping build the 1850 Presbyterian Church predecessor to Old Brick, as well as the 1842 Mechanics Academy building along North Linn Street where the university eventually would be housed during its nascent years before inheriting Old Capitol when state government was moved to Des Moines in 1857.

The Hutchinson Quarry is one of a half-dozen stone bearing sites along the river in central Iowa City. The most northerly is at UI’s Mayflower Residence Hall along North Dubuque Street, with others downriver as far as the cliffs along South Riverside Drive opposite UI’s Hydraulics Laboratory near the Burlington Street intersection.

A well located old quarry site is still identifiable along what is now Kimball Road at North Dubuque Street below the Bella Vista Heights neighborhood. Its pit has been filled, now serving as a level lawn.

Although Happy Hollow Park along Brown Street at North Governor Street often is supposed to have been a quarry site, it’s actually a clay pit that served brick manufacturing.

Such, with sidelights, is a brief history of Hutchinson Quarry.

Next Saturday: Triumph and tragedy of Iowa City’s Close family.

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

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