Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday July 10, 2004

Postcard 252: Swimming at Woodlawn & Other Tales

A scene reminiscent of an “old swimming hole,” one of many used by Iowa City youngsters for decades,
is recreated using a current photo of Ralston Creek east of the Woodlawn neighborhood with boys digitally
added from a century-old postcard image. Current photo and collage by Bob Hibbs.


By Bob Hibbs

  At the quarry in Clark’s Grove, now the Woodlawn neighborhood at the east end of Iowa Avenue 10 blocks from Old Capitol, “Ralston Creek expanded into what was known locally among the smaller boys as the swimmin’ hole,” wrote one of those “smaller boys” when he was in the full flower of age in 1924.

Ralston Creek was too dirty for swimming a century ago; but, not polluted by chemicals which began in earnest during the 1940s. None-the-less, during the era before swimming pools, Ralston Creek and the Iowa River were summer havens for youngsters – particularly boys – for more than a century beginning in the 1840s.

Perhaps the most popular swimmin’ hole was the Iowa River just below City Park after construction of the 1908 Park Road bridge, a steel high truss stretching up more than 30 feet above the water. “Bridge diving” was a dare-devil undertaking accomplished by many with no records of who was hurt; but, apparently, no one died.

A close second, particularly during the decade of the 1920s, was the Iowa River in the bend near the southern end of Rocky Shore Drive at a place commonly known a century ago as Black Springs beach. The Crandic pocket park is now located along that stretch of the river.

The Woodlawn swimming hole is called to mind by an article written by John Springer and preserved in the 1924 yearbook of the Old Settlers’ Association of Johnson County. Springer arrived in Iowa City in 1857 as a child with his parents.

Their first nights in Iowa City were spent in local hotels, first one on South Clinton where they slept on the floor, then in the American House – previously National Hotel and later Swan’s Hotel operated by Iowa City founder Chauncey Swan and his wife, Dolly, on a site now serving Gilmore Hall just north of Pentacrest.

However, Springer writes: “Living at an Iowa City hotel in 1857 was quite too expensive for my parents, and a small piece of land was purchased on the east side of the city; indeed it is now (1924) the eastern boundary of East Iowa City and a little house built thereon.”

East Iowa City was an unincorporated community stretching from Seventh Avenue east to First Avenue, a neighborhood established around an 1899 W.F. Main Co. jewelry factory located on the north side of Friendship Street between Third and Fifth, a site now owned by Carl Chadek.

The three-story factory building there burned in 1937.

Of swimming at Woodlawn, Springer reports: “Here town and country boys, (unclothed) in the one universal uniform, fraternized and fought without interruption save as comrades cheered and encouraged.”

This is at a spot just below the confluence of the north and east branches of Ralston Creek, about three blocks outside (east of) the original square mile located within the 1839 city limits, which ended at the west edge of then non-existing Summit Street, and a block east of North Governor Street.

Another dare-devil swimming spot was in Iowa City’s “north-ender” neighborhood – the area north of Brown Street and Oakland Cemetery. There existed near the crest of the North Dubuque Street hill for more than a half century a large elevated storage tank, part of the municipal water system, which originally was a private operation.

An oft-repeated boyhood initiation ceremony required many a young lad to climb the 60 feet or more to the top of the tank, and then lower himself into the water for a swim. Not an undertaking for the faint hearted; but, there is no record indicating anyone was hurt or drowning before the tank was demolished a quarter century ago.

Kids may have been tough in those years, but one sometimes wonders how any of us had forbearers survive to adulthood.

Next Saturday: The telephone girls of 1911.

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

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