Time Machine: Mining the Cedar River's sand

William King used it to build state's biggest plaster company

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For centuries, the sandbars in the Cedar River drifted and flowed with the river current. Then, in the late 1800s, William King thought about how useful that sand would be in making plaster and cement.

King, the son of David King, grew up on the west banks of the Cedar where David King had founded Kingston, later known as West Cedar Rapids.

In 1882, William King established a business near a spot where he had once fished at First Street and I Avenue NW. He sold coal and fuel for heating but needed to sell something else in the warmer months. He chose plaster and building materials.

Soon William King & Co.’s secondary enterprise became its primary business as King created and refined a plaster that was more convenient and less caustic than the lime and horsehair plaster then in use. The lime plaster’s major disadvantage for builders was that it took weeks to dry.


The formula for King’s plaster was a well-guarded secret. It was easier to use, required much less water to mix and dried considerably faster than lime plaster. It withstood frost and didn’t deteriorate over time. It didn’t conduct heat and was considerably stronger than lime plaster.

The main ingredient for King’s plaster was sand dredged from the Cedar River. King discovered the river sand was the perfect consistency for mixing plaster. He also bagged and sold the sand separately.

In 1902, King changed his company’s name to King’s Crown Plaster Co.

By 1921, it was the largest plaster mixing mill in the state. The company’s dredges pumped 300 cubic yards of sand a day — a yard was about 1-1/2 tons — from the Cedar to make the plaster. The company also made 700 concrete blocks a day and sold brick, building stone, colored mortar and building finishing materials.

While King and other companies were dredging sand from the river, the city’s riverfront commission was struggling with limited funding to maintain and improve the riverbanks. In 1910, the commission decided to revive a temporary fee charged several years before for companies taking sand and ice from the river. The commission — looking at Waterloo’s sand-extraction fee that brought in $1,500 in 10 months — set Oct. 1, 1910, as the date it would begin collecting 5 cents per yard of sand. Eventually, those fees were turned over to the state conservation fund.


When William King died on Oct. 21, 1929, the company’s vice president, J.W. Pichner, took over. When he died in 1935, King’s nephew, William C. Crawford, took over the company with Ira R. Brooks as his vice president.

As the ice went out of the river in the spring of 1950, two King’s Crown barges broke loose from the company’s dock and headed for the old Cedar River dam. One barge was totaled, but the other was pulled from the river and returned overland river to the dock.

By 1951, King’s chief business was ready-mixed concrete made with sand from the Cedar. Its dredging operation kept the river open for boaters near Ellis Park. Sand bags for flooding came from King’s stockpile. The sand was used for other city purposes through the summer.

The company had 20 trucks to mix the concrete in transit to construction sites, usually within a 30-mile radius. Crawford estimated that by 1951, the company had taken a couple of million tons of sand from the riverbed.

King’s last barge was built by Iowa Steel and Iron Works in 1963. The 30,000-pound vessel replaced a sand dredge that had been in use for 25 years. The river sand collection ended when that barge was pulled from the water.

In the 1970s, King’s merged with Builder’s Material, a masonry supply company. In 1978, that company was bought by C.P. Rhode.


Other sand dredges that plied the Cedar were operated by Larimer & Shafer Co. and Concrete Materials & Construction Co.

Robert I. Larimer’s father, Alexander, served in the Civil War as a member of the 54th Pennsylvania Regiment. After the war, he moved to Cedar Rapids and in October 1866 married Martha Listebarger. After farming for several years, he and Gustav A. Shaffer opened their sand and gravel company in 1905 at O Avenue and First Street West.

Within five years, they were able to build a new sandboat, shipping timbers to build it to the Fay Brothers Lumber Co. on First Street SE.

A 1909 newspaper story said that at 70 feet, the timbers were the longest ever shipped to Cedar Rapids.

Larimer & Shaffer’s steamer and big sand dredge cut a channel through a large sandbar to Kelsey’s Bend, near Covington, for the Cedar Rapids Motor Boat Club in 1911, keeping it open for the summer. It also eliminated several other sandbars, including one across from the Ellis Park island.


In 1913, the sand barge and steamer took part in a rescue when Dr. William Finn found himself stuck on the dam with a boat motor that had stopped working. To keep from going over the dam, he held on to a cable that had been stretched across the river. Ed Sheftic of the west-side boat house came to his rescue and promptly found himself clinging to the cable when his engine also failed. Larimer & Shaffer’s steamer rescued the stranded pair and their boats.

Larimer & Shaffer began to move off the river in 1932 when the company landed a $40,000 contract for crushed rock from Benton County. Workers installed $90,000 worth of equipment in the company quarry adjoining the main line of the Rock Island Railroad.

By 1936, at the height of the Depression, Larimer & Shaffer was bankrupt and in receivership.

The third company to dredge the river was Concrete Construction Co., founded in 1908 by Harry D. Bellamy. Martin Marietta bought the company in 1959 and moved dredging operations off the river and onto a pond on its site. When the pond was depleted in 1997, Martin Marietta returned to the river, launching a barge near the company’s Otis Road SE facility.


With major floods on the Cedar in 2008 and this year, talk repeatedly returns to the feasibility of dredging the Cedar River as a flood-prevention tool.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ Dennis Hamilton told The Gazette in 2008, “There’s always a certain amount of sediment, and that’s continuously moving across the bottom, so if there’s a low spot, the river will naturally fill that in. It can be very expensive to dredge on a continual basis. ... It just generally is not a sustainable process.”

The question arose again in 2011, and the Corps said, “Dredging the Cedar River at Cedar Rapids is an expensive flood-protection method. It results in limited, temporary flood reduction. The benefits do not justify the cost. It has negative environmental effects. And any limited benefit is only sustainable with continued dredging.”

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