Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday September 11, 2004

Postcard 261: Horse Burials in Kinnick Stadium


Horses provided the principal power during 1929 to dig out the bowl of the University of Iowa’s Kinnick Stadium 

30 feet below surrounding ground level. The project was completed in just 199 days of working around the clock 

six days a week, costing less than $500,000. Many horses died.

By Bob Hibbs


Horse burials in Kinnick Stadium are the stuff of legend with little basis in fact, according to oral history given the author more than a quarter century ago by the late Magnus Christensen, the “Great Dane” who headed the crew which dug the stadium during the spring of 1929.

The legend was reprinted about 10 days ago in the “states” news briefs in USA Today.

Kinnick was built in just 199 days from March 6 through Sept. 20, in 12-hour shifts until about July 1 when the pace was slowed. Employment peaked at about 250 men.

The stadium is a marvel, now seating 70,397. It towers 80 feet above the playing field through 79 rows, rising 41 on a gradual incline to the exit level, then 38 rows on a steeper incline to the back wall, which is 50 feet above ground.

The 30-foot below ground excavation was accomplished with draft horses pulling an elongated steel bucket or “slip” commanded by a teamster barking orders and slapping reins along the horses’ backs.

Some dirt was loaded into wagons, with most dumped just north of the stadium, filling the head of a gully; some went as far as the University of Iowa Art Building area.

Christensen headed the teamsters. He later was a member of the Masonic fraternity from the 1940s until his death July 24, 1980. Occasion of a conversation with the author was a local fraternity dinner.

Magnus was a Danish immigrant who worked construction much of his life; then, during the 1950s was custodial supervisor for Iowa City schools.

Speaking good English with an accent, he responded to “a brother” who at the time was a lodge officer and professional property manager, not someone involved at that time with writing articles on local historic subjects.

The horses were huge, Christensen explained.

A typical adult draft horse weighed about 2,000 pounds, standing just short of six feet at the withers (back at base of neck). Pure-bred lines including Belgians, Percherons and Clydesdales existed; but, most were mixed breeds, or “work horses.”

Generally, they pulled at a steady pace as long as their teamster insisted; even to the point of exhaustion. Sometimes, they worked double shifts after short breaks; that is, essentially around the clock.

Some were injured, some were just worked to death, he said. They were stabled near where the 1934 Art Building now stands across the river from the Iowa Memorial Union.

It was an easy drive, Magnus explained, along a long gully running southwest to the stadium, along the back (northwest) face of the old law building, now International Center, between University and Veterans Hospitals, then across the Hospital School site. None of these buildings existed in 1929, except the original section of U-Hospitals.

Burying 2,000 pounds of horse beneath a structure, or under a playing field, would have meant considerable work, and would have left a huge hole as the carcass decayed.

And, according to Christensen, that’s not what happened.

If they could walk, he said, they were walked to the river, then shot. The carcass was dumped into the river. If they couldn’t walk, they were shot on the work site and the carcass dragged to the river. About a horse a week was lost; more some weeks.

That’s the report Magnus Christensen gave over dinner some 25 years ago.

P.S. This article begins a sixth year of providing a weekly piece in this series. It’s the 261st dating from 1999. It’s fun doing it, stimulating and provides interesting contact with readers.

It’s an entirely volunteer effort; the author is not paid other than receiving a complementary subscription.


Next Saturday: Iowa City’s first federal highway – in 1839.

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

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