Copyright 2004 By Bob Hibbs
Saturday September 18, 2004 

Postcard 262: Iowa City’s First Federal Aid Highway – in 1839

1839 military


From Dubuque through Iowa City to Keosauqua near the Missouri border, the first federal aid highway in Iowa was marked 
by plow in 1839 when no roads existed. North Riverside Drive in Iowa City remained a treacherous mud trail into the 1920s.


By Bob Hibbs


A $20,000 federal appropriation in March 1839 funded Military Road from strategic Dubuque through Johnson County where site for a territorial capitol would be designated two months later, then southwest to the Missouri border near Keosauqua.

Congress was encouraging construction of roads on the frontier, a characterization which certainly fit the county where a site for Iowa City would be picked in early May.

The few dozen settlers already in the county were mainly along the Iowa River south of what is now Iowa City, surrounding a pioneer trading post designated Napoleon. That was where Dubuque legislator Chauncey Swan was to meet legislative colleagues John Ronalds and Robert Ralston on May 1.

They were to choose a site for Iowa City, which Swan and Ronalds accomplished on May 4 to the subsequent acquiescence of Ralston. They marked the spot for a capitol on what is now the University of Iowa’s Pentacrest Campus.

At first called Military Road, it soon carried the moniker National Road. In Iowa City, it ran along what now is Jefferson Street beside Pentacrest. Here Swan and his wife, Dolly, would run what first was named National Hotel after the roadway beside it, later called Swan’s Hotel.

It occupied the northeast corner of the Jefferson-Capitol intersection, a site now serving Gilmore Hall.

Soldiers planned, surveyed and supervised construction of the route which entered Iowa City along what now is Highway 1, except that it followed Old Dubuque Road and crossed the countryside west of the current Interstate 80 overpass. It crossed the Cedar River near Ivanhoe Bridge.

Generally, it followed what now are Highway 1 to Anamosa and Highway 151 to Dubuque.  But, south of Iowa City it was located well east of present Highway 1 to Washington and Keosauqua.

The entire length has been rebuilt, straightened and widened, leaving little of it on the exact original alignment.

The ink on the 1839 appropriation bill was hardly dry before the section between Iowa City and Dubuque was being surveyed under direction of the U.S. Army. When that was complete, a contractor named Lyman Dillon was hired to mark the route to guide work crews.

Using a sod breaking plow, he plowed a furrow 100 miles between the strategically important lead mines at Dubuque and the new capitol of Iowa Territory. As the first dirt was moved at Old Cap, dirt also was being moved for Military/National Road.

As Dillon finished, crews were cutting trees and brush in a 40-foot wide swath. Tree stumps were grubbed out by oxen; ditches were dug to drain wetlands; even some bridge abutments were built of stone.

Mostly, though, creeks and rivers had to be forded during several subsequent decades; but, the initial layout included marking the best sites for bridges and ferries.

The military actually made little use of the road, but give it its name.

It became an important thoroughfare for pioneer families west bound from Chicago to the frontier capitol in Iowa City. Many other families, of course, arrived from Muscatine and Davenport, having taken a steamboat up the Mississippi from St. Louis, or more distant points.

But, arrive they did. From its beginnings in 1839, the permanent population of Iowa City topped 5,000 in just 20 years.

An “Old Military Road” marker at Dubuque notes it passed from that city through Cascade, Monticello, Langworthy, Anamosa, Mt. Vernon, Ivanhoe, Solon, Iowa City, Ainsworth, Crawfordsville, Mt. Pleasant, Hillsboro and Keosauqua.

Indeed, as the state’s first federal aid highway, it opened the way in both directions to Iowa City.

Next Saturday: Flu kills 38 in Iowa City.

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

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