Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday June 5, 2004 

Postcard 247: Iowa Government Exits Old Capitol

Erected during the 1840s, Old Capitol first served as home base for Iowa territory, 
became state headquarters in 1846, and finally was inherited by the University of 
Iowa with departure of state offices to Des Moines in 1857. 
The postcard image is from author’s collection.


By Bob Hibbs


Uncertainty reigned in Iowa City from its 1839 founding until state government was moved to Des Moines 18 years later.

Even though Iowa City has been designated Iowa’s “permanent capital,” there seemingly was an inherent belief that the seat of government should be located near the center of the area governed.

Exact boundaries weren’t settled until statehood was achieved in 1846, just two years after Congress had rejected an Iowa proposal that its boundaries stretch north to Minneapolis. With statehood came definite boundaries, thus permitting clear battle to be joined over choosing a central site.

Iowa City was barely seven years old when legislators meeting in Old Capitol created a commission to select a new seat. After a long 1847 search, a site was chosen “on a beautiful prairie” in Jasper County and named Monroe City.

Lots were surveyed and sold – the same procedure followed as when Iowa City had been located in May 1839 on “the most eligible point” in Johnson County. But, Monroe City was not to be. The legislature ordered it abandoned two years later with refunds.

Arguments continued in the chambers of Old Cap through three subsequent legislative sessions until Des Moines finally was selected in 1855 – nine years after the first organized effort to remove the capital from Iowa City. Coincidentally, the first railroad also reached Iowa City in 1855.

Two more years passed before Gov. James Grimes could officially declare that as set out by a newly-adopted state constitution the new capital was Des Moines. That 1857 document, hammered out within the walls of Old Cap, remains in use today, albeit with 46 amendments.

But, with no railroad beyond Iowa City, an arduous task faced those moving the state library, archives and furnishings 120 miles. The Great Western Stage moved the retinue of senior officials free of charge. In a four-horse coach, their journey began Thursday, Nov. 5, 1857, with Iowa City driver Joseph Braggs at the reins.

As the stagecoach passed below Old Cap, passengers bid ceremonial farewell to the home of territorial and state government for nearly two decades. They arrived in Des Moines near noon the next day.

State Treasurer Martin Morris personally paid for wagon transport for deputy office holders. They traveled separately, pausing a night about half way to Des Moines in Brooklyn near Grinnell. Sleet and rain greeted them next morning, and by evening a snowstorm was raging.

A second night found the group at a farmhouse 25 miles from their destination. More snow overnight so obscured the route that their driver quit. A local farmer familiar with the terrain used his lumber wagon to carry the deputies the final miles, arriving Sunday afternoon, two days after their counterparts.

Four office safes made yet a different journey. They, too, were caught in rain, mud and snow. A heavy Treasurer’s Office safe was abandoned in hiding near a creek in Polk County, to be retrieved after the storm abated and the ground froze solid.

An ox cart eventually hauled the safe in, gaining hearty cheers from officials who found in tact the gold and silver coins from which their wages were to be paid.

Both legislators and delegates to the 1857 constitutional convention in Old Cap agreed that in place of state government, Iowa City should have “the State University.”

In his 1939 Iowa City centennial history, Ben Shambaugh writes that the departure of state government “simply marked the transition from legislation to education.”

A UI professor himself, Shambaugh says that by “preferring professors to politicians” Iowa City received the better of the bargain. Point granted!

Next Saturday: 1,400 miles by handcart from Iowa City to Salt Lake.

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

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