Our Iowa Heritage: Walter Terrell & His Waterworks.

A map of the United States in 1845.  Iowa is included with planned statehood as the 29th state in 1846.
“A Distant View of Iowa City” (from the north) as sketched by George H. Yewell in 1855. In the bottom left corner notice Walter Terrell’s mill. Click here to read more about George H. Yewell.

Newhall’s book encouraged many living in the East to venture to this beautiful and bountiful land called Iowa Territory to make a new life for themselves. Such is the story of Walter Terrell.

Walter Terrell – born Apr 14, 1805 in Caroline County, Virginia. Terrell came to Iowa City in 1840, obtained a permit to build a dam and mill on the Iowa River, but ventured to New Orleans before returning in 1843 to complete the project. Terrell and his family successfully ran his mill until his death on January 30, 1887 (age 81). He, his wife Margaret (1822-1856), and daughter, Mary Ann Sanders (1850-1916) are buried in Oakland Cemetery in Iowa City.

“Walter Terrell’s Mill near Iowa City” by George H. Yewell (1855). Click here to read more about George H. Yewell.

In 1843, Walter Terrell, with the help of a skilled carpenter, Irish immigrant William Windrem, built a dam and a three-story grist (flour) mill on the Iowa River just north of Iowa City (what is today – directly in front of the Mayflower Apartments).

But, life for the pioneering settlers of Iowa City was not easy in the 1840’s…


Yet for nearly 40 years, Terrell was a highly successful master miller. His grist mill was equipped with three run (top and bottom) of 3¹/₂ -foot millstones and three run of four-foot millstones. The water wheel was the undershot type where the power wheel that turned the millstones was made to revolve by the water undershooting the wheel. The mill could grind 300 bushels of grain in 24 hours.

The pioneers of Johnson County and surrounding country traveled up to 100 miles with ox teams and wagons loaded with wheat or oats or rye or corn. At the mill, each man waited, sometimes for days, for his turn in the order of his arrival.

Circa 1880’s – Stereoscope Souvenir Card featuring Terrell’s Mill.
As you can see from this photo, Terrell’s dam was in two sections, both connecting to a small island in the middle of the Iowa River.
Walter Terrell’s dam and flour mill on the bend of the Iowa River.
(P-0272) Terrell’s Dam from 1907 Postcard
(P-0053) The area north of Terrell’s Mill was a recreational spot for Iowa Citians. Click here to see more picture postcards that display some of the beautiful sites where people gathered.

The demolition of Terrell’s dam. Walter Terrell’s original mill (1843) was carried away in the flood of 1881, ending his successful milling business, but the dam remained in place until well after the turn of the century, when it was dynamited and replaced with a new dam and water power plant further downstream, adjacent to the Burlington Street bridge. With the Terrell dam gone, the river sank back to its original level, flooding curtailed and improvement projects by both the city and the university began along both sides of the river. In 1909 the Iowa River’s landscape changed with the construction of Park Road Bridge, which for the first time directly linked the city on the eastern side of the river to the park on the west. It provided wagon, auto and trolley car traffic access to the newly opened Manville Heights area. Click here to read more about Iowa River bridges.

In 1906, the land surrounding Terrell’s Mill was purchased by the city and made into Iowa City’s second City Park. Read more details here.
Click here to watch Iowa City historian Irving Weber offer his 15-minute story-version of Walter Terrell and his Iowa City dam and grist mill. Not only informative but this classic 1980’s video gives you a good look at the character and nature of Irving Weber, Iowa City’s famous historian. Click here for more on Irving Weber.

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Year Book and Reference Manual of Zion’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, 1907-1908, Chapter 1: Origin 1856-1859, p 1

Terrell’s Mill – Iowa City, Iowa, George H. Yewell – 1855, Iowa Digital Library

The Island, Iowa City Press Citizen, Iowa City Chronology, February 17, 1987, p 28

An Encyclopedia of Iowa City Information, Irving Weber, Article 231, Series 17, Digitial Library – University of Iowa, p 177

Irving Weber – Terrell Dam and Grist Mill video, Iowa City Public Library Channel

Walter Terrell, Find-A-Grave

Margaret Talitha Crew Terrell, Find-A-Grave

Mary Ann Terrell Sanders, Find-A-Grave

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