Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday June 19, 2004 

Postcard 249: Iowa City builders Sylvanus Johnson and William Snyder

By Bob Hibbs


William Snyder and Sylvanus Johnson literally helped build pioneer Iowa City, Snyder as a carpenter who superintended construction of Old Capitol for a year and Johnson as a brick maker.

They lived in an era when men frequently practiced diverse vocations, and died within months of each other more than a century ago just after the dawn of the 20th century.

Snyder provided private music lessons in Iowa City in 1841.

In 1843 he became the chief promoter of a high school (“seminary”) associated with the Methodist Protestant Church. The school was closed after two years, a fate which befell many such schools in pioneer Iowa City. The church is unrelated to the current local Methodist Church.

Three years earlier Snyder was among prominent pioneers who were charter trustees of a failed Iowa Seminary, an effort which received legislative approval but which apparently never was opened.

Beside these efforts, Ohio native Snyder was a farmer and builder. He and wife Mary Ann had settled in Scott Township at the eastern edge of Iowa City, where the Snyder name demarks a creek which forms the next Iowa River tributary below Iowa City’s Ralston Creek.

One of the literal builders of pioneer Iowa City, Sylvanus Johnson came to Iowa City in 1839, 
began making bricks with his own hands, and succeeding handsomely.

Snyder and Iowa City founder Chauncey Swan were fellow officers and founding members of Iowa City Masonic Lodge, which first met in 1842, and where Iowa Territorial Gov. Robert Lucas would move his membership from Burlington about 1844.

After Swan oversaw work at Old Capitol for about a year, he surrendered the reins to Snyder, who Swan had hired to build a roof for Old Cap. Lack of funds forced Swan to suspend that project in late 1841.

After Swan inherited the Old Cap project from architect-builder John Rague in July 1840, Rague’s plans for Old Cap disappeared. Snyder later reported “no plan for the cupalo (sic) nor for anything else” came to him when he began work.

Nearly a decade would elapse before a copula and dome finally topped Old Cap, leading to speculation of how they could reflect Rague’s plans if those plans had disappeared so long before the topping occurred.

Noted pioneer Roman Catholic priest, Samuel Mazzuchelli, founder of St. Mary’s Church in Iowa City, often is suggested as having influenced the design. His extensive experience and Italian architectural credentials hint at his role, but only tradition provides any connection.

Snyder’s first task at Old Cap was to find stone for its construction. Stone taken from below what today is site of the university President’s House had proven unsatisfactory.

He soon opened State Quarry along the Iowa River about a mile downstream from today’s Mehaffey bridge between North Liberty and Solon.

Arriving in Iowa City ahead of Snyder, Sylvanus Johnson had migrated from Anamosa in 1839 in response to a call by Gov. Lucas for volunteers to fight a “State Line War” with Missouri. The war never materialized, but Johnson had found a new home.

According to the 1902 Old Settlers of Johnson County yearbook, he arrived “penniless and in debt for his dinner to find the war over.”

Johnson was a brick maker, taught by his father in Connecticut. He soon set up shop along Gilbert Street just south of Burlington. His first bricks went into boot store building on Iowa Avenue just west of Dubuque. Demand was immediate for chimneys at nearly every building. He built his first local brick home – for himself – on the brickyard site.

Johnson became a prominent pioneer and extensive land owner, which he began purchasing as a source of wood for his brickyard. His 1857 home along Prairie du Chien Road still exists.

Among other important local projects, he supplied material for the Mechanics Academy on Linn Street just north of Iowa Avenue, which housed numerous important local events, including the founding of Mercy and University Hospitals, the first university classes, and first Iowa City public school.

Indeed, two pioneer builders of Iowa City.

Next Saturday: The giants of University Hospital.

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

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