Copyright 2003 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday February 28, 2004 

Saturday Postcard 233: Iowa City Paves Over the Mud


Photo by Laurence Welsh courtesy of Paul Welsh

The first street paving project in Iowa City is underway in this 1895 image looking north 
along Clinton Street from Washington Street with the Pentacrest Campus as a backdrop. 
The surface from Jefferson south to Burlington was brick, which can be seen stacked at 
street side beyond a limestone curb already in place.


By Bob Hibbs


Pedestrian “boardwalks” downtown began lifting Iowa City from mud more than 150 years ago, a process which later encompassed vehicle routes of gravel, macadam, brick, concrete and asphalt.

Judge George Wright reportedly asked a stagecoach driver in 1840 how long it would take to travel a final 12 miles into Iowa City. “About five hours,” the driver reportedly replied, “if we can find the bottom of the road.”

Although local pioneers believed county and state authorities provided enough government, terrible local street conditions were a key factor which finally fostered a city government in 1853. Among the new council’s first actions was appointing a commissioner charged with maintaining and improving streets.

As late as 1922, after watching Iowa defeat Minnesota 28-14 during its homecoming game of a second consecutive undefeated season, Iowa football fans faced traveling home during a fierce rainstorm. Some 500 cars were reported stranded in mud just between North Liberty and Cedar Rapids.

The most fortunate hopped an Interurban rail car for a hotel either in Cedar Rapids or back in Iowa City.

Hundreds spent the night in their cars. Next day, one farmer reported collecting $90 in just two hours pulling cars from the mud. He was among many who earned a Chicago Tribune headline: “Autos Stick in Iowa Muck; Gold Harvest in Iowa,” reports William Petersen in the February 1965 issue of Palimpsest magazine.

Pedestrians got first attention, with wood planks in front of stores downtown.

On Pentacrest, coal tar produced locally was mixed with sand to run a walk from Old Capitol to South and North halls during the Civil War era, but that material proved unsatisfactory and tracked into buildings. The walks were replaced in 1876 by limestone from a quarry at Joliet, Ill, reports Margaret Keyes in a 1988 Old Cap history.

Once street brick paving was installed on Clinton Street between Jefferson and Burlington in 1895, demand exploded. Built for a horse and buggy era, that strip was extended in 1897 north to Church and south to Harrison; then, by two more blocks to the Rock Island depot the following year.

Before that first burst subsided, College was bricked east to Summit in 1897, and Summit was paved south to Bowery Street. Then, a decade passed before paving was extended from the downtown north on Linn to Brown, then east along Brown to Oakland and St. Joseph’s cemeteries.

That same year of 1907 also brought paving of Iowa Avenue from Clinton to Gilbert, which was extended to Muscatine Avenue the next summer. Dubuque Street was paved in 1914 north from the downtown to the Park Road bridge, except for the center 10 feet occupied by trolley tracks.

In Iowa’s rural areas, multiple jurisdictions impeded progress for decades. A state highways department was established in 1904 as an adjunct of the engineering college at Iowa State in Ames. But, it took the arrival of federal highway dollars in 1916 to invigorate the move to paving.

When the 1920s produced a federal requirement that a state control federal routes before it used federal aid, the paving of transcontinental routes soon was seriously underway. Iowa built more than 2,300 miles of paving during the 1920s, and 2,800 miles the following decade.

By 1927 Iowa City had its first highway paving of about five miles of the River-to-River Route (later Highway 6) out through the tiny village of Coralville, plus a three-mile stretch of what then was the Red Ball Route (later old Highway 218) out North Dubuque Street across Butler bridge to near what is now River Heights.

The area’s other “highways” all still were dirt in 1927, a fact that changed dramatically during the subsequent two decades.

The last local paving was Interstate 80 opened on Iowa City’s northern boundary in 1963.

Next Saturday: Coal gas lights Iowa City in 1857; natural gas 1936.

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


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