Our Iowa Heritage: Let’s Go To City Park! (Part II)

Today, one of the nicest aspects of living in Iowa City is its abundance of recreational activities. According to our city’s website, Iowa City is home to over 50 parks, natural areas, and open spaces, with almost 100 percent (99.4) of Iowa City residents living within one half-mile of open green space.

We hope you enjoyed our little history lesson (Part I) on City Park in Iowa City. If you missed it, click here to check it out. It covers the history of City Park #1 (1839-1890), Iowa River Recreation & The Island (1880’s through 1906), and City Park #2 (1906-1930).

City Park became a popular attraction for countless Iowa Citians soon after it opened in 1906. But when the Park Road Bridge opened in 1909, not only pedestrians and bicycles flooded in, but a family could hop on a downtown trolley and be in City Park in a matter of minutes.

By the 1930’s, more and more University-related activities were now on the west side of the river. The SUI hospital moved west in 1928, and both the basketball and football teams were playing their games in new facilities built in 1927 and 1929 respectively. With the advent of the automobile, access to City Park was available to most Iowa Citians, yet one reoccurring problem still needed to be addressed: Flooding.

1939 – The WPA and SUI Beautification Iowa River Projects.

1930’s Iowa River channel north of downtown via the camera of Fred Kent.

In 1939, the country was still reeling from a decade of economic depression. In an attempt to build new jobs, two major work projects were created along the Iowa River, with the hopes of addressing the on-going problems associated with spring-time flooding…

#1 – The WPA Project: The city hired workers through the Works Progress Administration to redirect the Iowa River. The soil from the dredging, widening, and redirecting of the river influenced much of the city’s current geography. Where once a very sharp bend existed in the corner of City Park (see map above), now there is a curved northeast corner. Much of the mud and water removed from that sharp corner was pumped into Lower City Park, raising the land three feet. Of the two City Park ponds that residents used for ice skating, only one remained while the north duck pond was filled with dredges. And sadly, the project also eliminated The Island. :0(

#2 – The SUI Beautification Plan: This project, costing $60,000 dollars, focused on dredging and widening the Iowa River from City Park to Burlington Street, while “beautifying” it along the way. The plan included 1) dredging soil from the riverbed north of the University Theater and filling land where Iowa Field once stood, preparing it for future construction, and 2) protecting Dubuque Street from flooding. With this project, levees and stone retaining walls were built by WPA workers and the river was widened from 25 to 100 feet.

City Park today.

What can we see today from these two 1939 work projects? Terrell Mill Park now lies atop The Island. City Park’s ball fields are built on dredged materials. Huge half-buried stones quarried in 1843 for Terrell’s mill dam can still be seen along the western side of north Dubuque Street just south of Park Road Bridge at the slope bottom. The stone Lagoon Shelter House marks where ice skating lagoons were. Stone walks can be seen in the woods along the western bluffs and river walls still stick out of the river bank near Park Bridge.

Mature trees in Terrell Mill Park today mark the shape of The Island.

City Park – 1940’s to today.

Before we close, we must tell you about two additional stories associated with City Park:

#1 – City Park Swimming Pool.

On June 6, 1947 The Daily Iowan reported the drowning of a ten-year-old boy named Keith Howell who, with his friend Jimmy York, had been playing in shallow floodwater on City Park property. The boys were playing in the west section of the park when the log Howell was floating on rolled, sending him under water. York and other young bystanders were unable to swim out to help Howell. York found the park superintendent, George Turecek, who instructed him to call the fire department while he went to the scene of the accident. Firefighters found the boy’s body in deep floodwaters over the west pond.

An editorial, titled “How Much is a Child’s Life Worth?,” appeared alongside the front-page article on Keith Howell’s death. R. Bruce Hughes, the editor of The Daily Iowan, calls for the construction of a municipal swimming pool because of the recent drowning. He asks not only for a safe space for children and families to play and swim, but for a place to teach children how to swim, so that future drownings might be avoided. In October of 1947, City Park was approved and government funds secured for the construction of a new municipal swimming pool for Iowa City residents. With consistent renovations, City Park’s municipal pool, open each year Memorial Day to Labor Day, has lasted more than 70 years.

#2 – City Park Amusement Rides.

From 1952 to 1999, three generations of the Drollinger family of Iowa City ran the children’s rides in City Park. Guy Drollinger’s grandfather started it all with the infamous train.

According to Guy, his grandfather never intended to start a family entertainment business. He managed a lumberyard, but one day learned someone had a small train they wanted to sell. Apparently, Mr. Drollinger, like Walt Disney, always wanted to buy a train, not for business, but because he’d been fascinated by trains ever since he was a boy in a small town in southwestern Iowa in the 1890s.

Drollinger bought the train, which was in poor condition, and repaired it. Soon, a friend asked him if he could set the train up for a celebration in a little town. Drollinger agreed and the train took in more money than he made in a month! At that point, the Drollingers started touring with a major carnival, running the train in towns around the country. By the early 1950s, they were ready to settle down and chose Iowa City. Drollinger talked to city officials about the possibility of setting up the train in City Park for a Fourth of July celebration, but the train proved to be so popular, the city suggested leaving it in place and running it on Sundays. The next year, the Drollingers added the carousel, and the amusement ride area grew from there, eventually adding a ferris wheel, whale ride, and airplane ride.

(the above pics came from www.govdeals.com when the city sold all the equipment in 2019)

“My grandparents started it all originally (1952) and they ran it for 25 years or so,” Guy Drollinger said. “My dad then ran it for about 20 years, and then I took over for six years, starting in 1993.” The city purchased the rides from the Dollingers in 1999, keeping the rides going until 2018, when finally, maintenance and insurance costs overtook any desire to keep the rides alive.

“There are a lot of memories,” Drollinger said. “One thing you’d see every year was young parents would come up with three or four little kids and buy tickets for the merry-go-round, but one of the kids would be too afraid to ride it. But over and over, it seemed like the children who were afraid at first were the ones who came to love the merry-go-round most of all.”

“My grandparents were so proud of those rides,” Drollinger said. “My grandfather used to have a little journal and he’d do a lot of math in it. I remember one day, he was adding some stuff up, and I asked what he was doing. And he says, ‘Well, we’ve been out to the park now for almost 40 years, and I was trying to add up the number of tickets…how many children we’ve had on the rides.’”

“I walked away thinking, he wasn’t adding up how much money he’d made. He was adding up how many children had enjoyed the rides.”

The City Park Express is no longer with us (or are the other rides), but thanks to one mom’s desire to video tape her kids’ ride in 2011 – now you can go ’round the park one more time…


City Park – Iowa City 1906 – Today.

Now, over a century later, the park’s 107.3 acres offer Iowa Citians basketball, bocce, tennis and horseshoe courts, baseball and softball fields, a boathouse, dock, boat ramp, grills, picnic tables, walking trails, and the City Park swimming pool.

Because of the low density of oak trees in the Lower City Park area, grasses and other vegetation dominate the habitat.

Surrounding the pool in Upper City Park is an oak savanna with picnic tables and shelters. The openness of the oak savanna (see map below) allows for a variety of plant, animal, and insect species to thrive, and nearly 50 bird species have been observed on City Park’s land.

From 1839 to today – hats off to the Iowa City City Parks.

In closing, enjoy this video from the City of Iowa City website:

Here’s to many more years of fun, frolic, and recreation – thank you City Park – Iowa City.


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

Iowa City – City Park, Think Iowa City

City Park, Iowa City Parks, Laura Hayes, University of Iowa Library

After almost 70 years, City Park is closing down its amusement rides, Paul Brennan, photos by Zak Neumann, Little Village Magazine, July 2, 2018

City Park Virtual Tour, City of Iowa City.gov

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