Iowa City, Johnson County, and Eastern Iowa history, as seen through the eyes of postage stamps, postcards, letters, coins, books, and other collectibles.
Our Iowa Heritage: Clinton Street – Iowa City’s Center of Commerce.
Without a doubt, from its very beginning, Iowa City was one up-n-coming town. On May 4, 1839, when Chauncey Swan drove a wooden stake into that hillside high above the Iowa River, marking where Iowa’s Territorial Capitol Building will be built, Iowa City probably looked a lot like this (below). . .
Today Clinton Street, in downtown Iowa City, is one of the busiest spots in town, especially when classes are in session at The University of Iowa. Like the county located on the Iowa side of the Mississippi River, Clinton Street is named for Governor DeWitt Clinton, the most ardent advocate for the construction of the Erie Canal. The Iowa cities of DeWitt and Clinton (also in Clinton County) are named after the good governor from New York as well.
It’s not a coincidence that Clinton Street is what it is today. From the very beginning, when Iowa City was nothing more than a map drawn up on a piece of paper (1839), Clinton Street was destined to become the center of commerce for Iowa’s only pre-planned city.
Iowa City – Pre-Planned From the Very Beginning.
Historians record that in 1838, just a few months prior to Iowa City’s birth, there were 237 residents of Johnson County. In the 1840 census, that number grew to 1,504, ballooned to 4,472 in 1850, and hit the 17,573 mark a decade later in 1860. From a business standpoint, that kind of growth is phenomenal, so no wonder people were flocking here to follow their American dream.
Dubuque: You see, in most cases, cities come into existence because of previous circumstances. Take Dubuque, for example – Iowa’s oldest community. In 1781, lead was discovered in the hills surrounding a very large river called the Mississippi. Feeding into that river was a tributary called Catfish Creek. In 1788, a French fur-trader named Julien Dubuque canoed down the Wisconsin River to the Mississippi River, turned left and settled on some of that land where a Meskwaki tribe was already successfully mining lead. The creek, river, and surrounding trees provided food, shelter and transportation, while the lead, when mined using techniques learned in Canada, made Dubuque a wealthy man. Others, over the next several decades, came and helped Dubuque mine that lead, building houses, having families, etc. By 1833, when the U.S. government said people could buy land here, the city of Dubuque came together quickly, because of these earlier circumstances.
Iowa City, on the other hand, had no prior circumstances that made it happen. It came about by a planning committee, looking to build a brand new city in a brand new location. So when L. Judson drew up his 1839 map of Iowa City (above), the only pre-existing conditions he had to work with were 1) the Iowa River, 2) the hills surrounding it, and 3) one beautiful spot already located on one of those hills where a new capitol building would be built. Everything else would be worked out by city planners.
Streets – Parks – Churches – Homes – Schools – Government – Business and Commerce.
Within days of Chauncey Swan’s decision on the best location for the capitol building, surveyors began laying the framework for Iowa City. The process was long and arduous, yet calculated and precise, as crews marked out a one-square-mile layout using a 20-foot board for measuring length while driving iron pins into the ground at each measurement to mark boundaries. More than 2,000 stakes were used to plot the original Iowa City area, and despite the slight inconsistency in measurements, engineering experts today say the accuracy of Iowa City’s plotting is astounding. “When we survey today, these streets run about as good north, south, east, west as you can imagine,” Glen Meisner, engineer and land surveyor says.
As you look at Judson’s map, Capitol Square, of course, was to be the center of everyone’s attention. The next priority for Judson was setting up a centrally-located business district, with Iowa Avenue stretching eastward from Capitol Square into the community, ending one mile later with Governor’s Square on Governor Street, where an executive mansion would eventually be built. Notice that Judson also planned a City Park two blocks from the Capitol Building on Iowa Avenue, surrounded by churches to the north and south, and a school to the east. Further east were three commercial areas, North Market, Centre Market, and South Market, all about a 1/2 mile from Capitol Square, where residents could easily secure life’s necessities.
On July 25, 1839, Territorial Governor Robert Lucas, announced two sale dates when the public could begin purchasing land in the newly-surveyed Iowa City: the third Monday in August and the first Monday in October. This announcement stirred excitement across Iowa Territory and back East as well.
The Lean Back Hall.
But, where will all these potential buyers stay when they come to Iowa City for these auctions? Historian Benjamin F. Shambaugh tells us the quick solution…
And so, they came, and between the August and October sales, over 200 lots sold. Historian William J. Peterson gives us the details…
1841 – Walter Butler Welcomes the Territorial Legislators.
Speaking of last-minute hotels – since the Capitol wouldn’t be ready for occupancy until 1842, a wise businessman named Walter Butler, who bought property on Clinton Street (Block 80 – lot 5) and built a hotel there, purchased lot 6 (adjacent to his hotel), throwing up a two-story frame building on the corner of Clinton and Washington Streets. He “rented” this hall to the Territorial Legislature in December of 1841 at no cost so they could conduct their business in the new capital city – thus the building took on the nickname: Butler’s Capitol.
Soon, other business were springing up on Clinton Street as well. By 1854, when photographer, Isaac Wetherby came to town, opening up his first retail shop on Clinton, he took the earliest pictures we have of the State House (Old Capitol) and downtown Iowa City.
Further south of downtown Iowa City, construction was underway on a new Johnson County Courthouse (pictured below) which was completed in 1901. This is the fourth Johnson County Court House since 1837, with three of the four located on South Clinton Street. Read more here.
Circa 1907 – Postcards featuring Clinton Street – looking north.
While most of the city’s attention on Clinton Street focuses on downtown Iowa City, one must not forget that at the far north end of the street, you will find the stately mansion built for the University of Iowa President. If you recall, when Iowa City was first laid out (1839), the plan was to build a Governor’s Mansion at the far eastern edge of Iowa Avenue (Governor Street). But those plans were all for naught when the state capital moved to Des Moines in 1857.
So, it seems rather fitting that at the northern end of Clinton Street, Iowa City still has its executive mansion. And a beautiful one it is.
The Roaring Twenties on Clinton Street.
1939 – The Nile Kinnick Era.
World War II Era.
1960’s into the Twenty-First Century.
Though the changes are dramatic indeed, from the 1850’s to today, Clinton Street remains the place to be when in Iowa City. On Iowa! Go Hawks!
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.