How May's Island got its name, place in Cedar Rapids history

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CEDAR RAPIDS — Located near the city’s core — shaped like an earthen battleship in the middle of the Cedar River — is an island iconic to Cedar Rapids.

While many Cedar Rapidians easily can identify the landmass as May’s Island, the isle itself has no sign indicating its name, history or origin.

“There’s nothing on that island that says it’s May’s Island,” said Mark Stoffer Hunter, research historian with The History Center. “We always call it May’s Island, but you don’t see a single sign out there.”

With the emergence of a new partnership program between the city of Cedar Rapids, The History Center, Coe College and the African American Museum of Iowa, historic Linn County sites such as May’s Island at last will get their signs.

The program, called History Happened Here, is meant to showcase the hundreds of historic locations in the community, many of which have stories unknown to the general public, said Jeff Hintz, planner with Cedar Rapids community development.

One of those stories is that of a somewhat eccentric individual and his dream of creating a municipal island near downtown Cedar Rapids.

The Island

It was the early 1850s when a man named John M. May, originally from New York, surveyed and platted a sandy tree-covered island on the Cedar River. Often flooded and difficult to access without any permanent bridges, the low-lying landmass was more of a swamp than an island.

“Most people knew it notoriously as a place where they thought people were dealing in illegal horse trades. They would store their stolen horses out on May’s Island because nobody could really get to them,” Stoffer Hunter said.

A 1948 Gazette article noted the island as being perceived as “nothing but an apparently useless tract of ground surrounded by water” at the time of its platting.

Commissioned as a military engineer, May didn’t serve in the Civil War but rather paid for a substitute in the Union Army. Yet he often identified himself with the honorary title of Major he received by New York state and later Colonel by Wisconsin, according to an 1875 Biography of Linn County.

While most viewed the island as useless, May saw potential on the roughly four-acre landmass.

As soon as the island was platted into 62 lots, May began an extensive marketing campaign to entice businesses and residents to his island. At one point, May even had a roller coaster constructed on his island in an attempt to increase foot traffic.

But while a few buildings began to pop up, the wooden bridges built to provide access regularly were washed away by floodwater.

But things were about to change.

A bridge, a furniture store

Nearly two decades after the island’s platting, floods caused the city’s First Avenue Bridge to collapse, leaving the recently completed Third Avenue Bridge as the only means of crossing the Cedar River in the downtown area.

“All of a sudden he’s got a permanent, stable bridge not only crossing the Cedar River, but crossing the Cedar River right in the middle of his island,” Stoffer Hunter said.

A new First Avenue Bridge wasn’t completed until 13 years later, which left the bridge across May’s Island as the primary crossing point for the city for more than a decade.

“For the downtown core, where all the activity was, Third Avenue was the main transportation route from 1871 to 1884, and that finally encouraged people. All that traffic coming through there, it finally made sense for people to take up May’s offer,” Stoffer Hunter said.

The area eventually drew the attention of a Russian immigrant and furniture salesman named Henry Smulekoff, who saw the risk of floods outweighed by the promise of a prime downtown location.

Smulekoff paid $850 for a secondhand store on the island in 1889. By the early 1900s, he had built a larger store nearby.

May died in 1904, but his vision for a prosperous island lived on.

Having purchased several plots of land on the island over the years, Smulekoff was positioned to sell the property to a willing investor with plans to build on May’s dream — the city of Cedar Rapids. The city spent a little more than $70,000 for the entire island in 1908, according to sales documents at The History Center.

“Even though John May had the dream and the vision for what we see today on May’s Island, really it was Smulekoff who made the dream actually happen,” Stoffer Hunter noted.

A civic center

As the city’s population grew rapidly in the 1890s, Cedar Rapids officials began eying May’s Island as an opportunity to create a center for government services and events.

But flooding remained a primary concern, so the city first needed to elevate May’s Island. Thousands of tons of dirt were trucked in to build up the island, but also expand it north to reach the First Avenue Bridge.

Concrete flood walls were installed to shape the island, and the landmass grew to about nine acres. It was renamed Municipal Island.

“It was something that would improve the riverfront, improve the look of the center of the city, create a buzz that would encourage more companies to come to Cedar Rapids and build commerce and bring more jobs. That was the whole goal of the island,” Stoffer Hunter said.

But the island served an even larger role — unifying Cedar Rapids with Kingston Village, which was formally annexed into Cedar Rapids in 1871.

For a time, the community found itself divided more than just physically by the Cedar River, so city leaders decided to relocate to neutral ground — the former Smulekoff building on May’s Island.

“The city realized they had problems with the citizens with east-side-versus-west-side issues,” Stoffer Hunter said. “The building was really meant to be a visible unifying element for Cedar Rapids. The east and west sides are working together, and we’re going to put all divisive natures behind us and move forward as a community in the optimistic 1920s.”

In addition to city hall, Linn County’s government seat relocated from Marion to May’s Island and the Veterans Memorial Building — fitted with a stained-glass window created by Grant Wood — added more services to the isle. The chamber of commerce and county jail also joined the island, and in the 1960s the middle of the island was hollowed out to make room for underground parking.

Over time, May’s vision of the island was achieved: It became a civic and government center positioned in the middle of a river — not unlike that of Ile de la Cité in Paris, France.

While record-setting flooding in 2008 — 100 years after the city took ownership of the island — forced Cedar Rapids City Hall to relocate back to the east side of the river, the county’s structures and veterans building remain.

All the while, despite the changes in ownership of the island, the city’s creation of a civic center and attempts to formally rename the iconic landmass Municipal Island, May’s legacy lived on.

“Every city council member and mayor that I’ve known while I’ve grown up here, they all call it May’s Island,” Stoffer Hunter said. “I love it. I just love the fact that John May’s ghost just doesn’t go away.”

Cedar Rapids’s Hintz said the History Happened Here campaign will address one thing never built on May’s Island — a simple sign.

The History Happened Here program, which kicks off at 1 p.m., Wednesday, at Bethel AME Church, 512 Sixth St. SE., aims to identify historic and lesser-known buildings and sites across the community. The effort involves the installation of plaques with historic photos, information and QR codes to allow access to additional material in an online database.

The program starts with 18 sites this month and should add about 50 plaques by year’s end. There are close to 200 sites planned in total, Hintz said.

“The general goal is to get people out there learning about their community,” he said.

While a date has not been set, May’s Island is on that list.

Stoffer Hunter said he can’t wait to see John May formally get the recognition he deserves in helping create one of the city’s most iconic places.

“I would like to see a picture of John on here, so people can say, ‘OK, here’s why we call it May’s Island,’” he said.

l Comments: (319) 339-3175; mitchell.schmidt@thegazette.com

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