Our Iowa Heritage: On the Road to Iowa City.

As they say in sales and marketing, success is determined by three factors: Location. Location. And Location. And in 1839, Iowa City, and Johnson County for that matter, had the right location, being smack-dab in the center of the Territory (north and south) and positioned far enough west that it could remain centered even as Iowa expanded westward in the future.

Iowa City – New Capital of Iowa Territory . . . So, How Do I Get There?

But, in 1839, the one big problem with building a whole new city from scratch, is that there were very limited options on how to get people in and out of Iowa City! This 1838 diagram of Napoleon (above right) shows the only three transportation options in Johnson County: 1) The Iowa River south to the Mississippi, 2) an old Native American trail running north/south (now called Sand Road), and 3) a roughly cut wagon road going east to Bloomington (Muscatine).

1838-1840 Building a Road from Dubuque to the Iowa/Missouri Border.

In 1838, when Iowa became a U.S. Territory, there were less than 23,000 people in the entire region. The map above indicates that most of Iowa was comprised of either rich prairie-land (yellow) or forested woodlands (green), with countless creeks and rivers winding their way southward toward the Mississippi River

When Territorial Governor Robert Lucas was governor of Ohio, he advocated a forward-looking transportation system through the building of canals, so now, here in Iowa, he envisioned a similar plan, only this time by developing a network of roads that would connect our growing communities from north to south. And, with Iowa City being at the center of that network, the focus was to build reliable roads that would lead in and out of our new capital city.

On Dec. 14, 1838, Governor Lucas approved a law requiring the establishment of a road from Keokuk (in southeast Iowa) to, the soon to be announced capital, Iowa City. On December 31, U.S. Congress passed a bill appropriating $20,000 for Iowa’s first “Military Road,” requiring it to pass through as many county seats as practical. President Martin Van Buren, on March 3, 1839, signed the bill into law and Iowa’s Military Road was underway: one north/south road stretching from the mining and river town of Dubuque in the north to Keosauqua, near the Missouri border on the south.

The Lyman Dillon Story…

“Plowing the Dillon Furrow” by Shirley Shotwell (1958).

Lyman Dillon was employed to plow a furrow from Dubuque to Iowa City to serve as a guide for road builders. Dillon hitched his five oxen to a heavy plow and dug a deep, straight furrow from Dubuque to Iowa City (86 miles). This segment of the Military Road was known as “Dillon’s Furrow,” and was completed in about 10 weeks (by the end of 1839). Click here to read the full story.

1840 – The National Road.

While originally called Iowa’s Military Road, it was rarely used as such, and soon became better known as The National Road, part of the well-worn trail used by thousands to go west between 1840 and 1856 (when the railroad finally reached Iowa City). When completed in 1840, Iowa’s National Road passed through the cities of Dubuque, Cascade, Monticello, Solon, Iowa City, Ainsworth, Crawfordsville, Mount Pleasant, Hillsboro and Keosauqua – nearly 200 miles in length, making it the longest continuous furrow in the world at the time.

A closer look at the L. Judson’s 1839 map of Iowa City reveals The National Road crossing at what is now the Iowa Avenue bridge over the Iowa River. The Swan Hotel was first called The National Hotel since it was located on The National Road, coming from Dubuque (1840), and near the only ferry crossing of the Iowa River. Click here to read more about The Swan Hotel.

In Iowa City, The National Road came into town from the north (see map above), along what now is Highway 1 from Solon, crossing the countryside west of the current Interstate 80/Highway 1 overpass, hooking up with what is today Dodge Street (Old Dubuque Road) and Dubuque Street, winding its way onto Jefferson Street beside today’s Pentacrest. It’s here, Chauncey Swan and his wife, Dolly, opened, what was first named The National Hotel (after the roadway), later calling it The Swan Hotel (northeast corner of the Jefferson-Capitol intersection, a site now serving Gilmore Hall).

Click here to read more about Iowa and the early maps that helped settlers find their way across this beautiful land.

All Roads Lead to Iowa City – Stagecoach is a-coming.

Stage Ready – 1855 – an oil painting by Iowa City artist Mildred Pelzer (1934). Click here to read more about Mildred Pelzer’s amazing mural.

In 1840, a traveler could pay Frink & Walker $3 for the thirty-mile trip to Bloomington (Muscatine) via a two-horse stage coach. By 1842, another firm advertised tri-weekly service for only $1.50. These early companies were all stationed at The Swan Hotel. By the mid-1840’s, other roads were connecting Davenport, Muscatine, Burlington, Des Moines and Marion with Iowa City, and by 1854, The Western Stage Company, located on Iowa Avenue, entered the Iowa City market, announcing daily four-horse coaches running in all directions.

Click here for more information about the stagecoach era in Iowa City.

In October of 1851, Iowa City artist, George W. Yewell, writes of his stagecoach experience to Chicago…

There was no railroad out of Chicago farther than Aurora. We went there in stage coaches, traveling day and night, taking our meals often at rude, log-built taverns, where, in early morning, we would awaken sleeping inmates and gather, ourselves, the chips and bark from the woodpile, with which to boil our coffee, whilst the females were dressing the children.


The National Road. Now, it’s important to put all this in context with the other happenings in the East.

1840 – the surveyed section of Iowa Territory – published by J.B. Colton. Click here to see more maps of early Iowa.
The National Road. Extending 600 miles from Cumberland, Maryland, it crossed the states of Pennsylvania, West Virginia, Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois, terminating at Vandalia. The Road served as a major migration route for pioneers heading west in the first half of the 19th century.

Historian Alice Hoyt Veen, with Iowa ancestor roots much like mine, puts it this way…

Between 1835 and 1865 pioneers headed to Iowa would have had plenty of company as thousands of settlers streamed west over the National Road. My Ohio ancestors probably picked up the route at Zanesville, then traveled west at least as far as Indianapolis. They may have left the main road there and cut across Illinois on lesser-known trails, perhaps through Peoria to Burlington, Iowa. Or they could have traveled all the way to Vandalia then on to St. Louis where they would have found transportation north on the Mississippi River to Keokuk or Burlington. Either way, it would have been an arduous journey.

The National Road from Dubuque into Iowa City served Gold Rush ‘49ers, stagecoaches, and pioneers in Conestoga wagons. Of course, one of the most amazing “road-trips” of these early days was The Mormon Trail, made up of two routes: the earlier 1846 route across southern Iowa, and when the railroad finally came into Iowa City (1856), the Mormon handcart trail (see map below).

Click here to read about how parts of Iowa’s National Road (Hwy 1) evolved over time.

All in all, between 1840 and 1860 – The National Road became a national treasure!


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

Iowa City Parks: Terry Trueblood Recreation AreaSand Lake, Sarita Zaleha, Iowa City Parks website.

Migration Routes: The National Road, Alice Hoyt Veen, May 15, 2014, Prairie Roots Research

Military Road, Encyclopedia Dubuque website

Early Transportation in Iowa Before Railroads-Chapter One, Iowa Department of Transportation (IDOT)

Iowa City’s Irving Weber – A Biography, Lolly Parker Eggers, 2006, Trafford Publishing, pp 43-44

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