116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Cedar Rapids ‘seawall’
Effort to build flood protection along the Cedar led to legal fight in early 1900s
By Jessica and Rob Cline, - The History Center
Jul. 26, 2022 6:00 am, Updated: Jul. 26, 2022 7:59 am
Summers in Cedar Rapids are known for many things: the Freedom Festival, children’s programs at the public library, corn humidity, and (among much else) Cedar Rapids Municipal Band concerts.
It was while we were at a Municipal Band concert in Ellis Park — we both work for the band — and listening to the Cedar Rapids “Song of Dedication,” which closes every Muni Band performance, that we found ourselves thinking about the river.
For those unfamiliar with the lyrics of the “Song of Dedication” (which audiences first heard when the Municipal Band premiered it in October 1962), the fifth and sixth lines of the piece are: “Time and the river flow along; Time and my life are like the river.”
Those particular lyrics stuck with us as we listened to them given how the Cedar River was in view, flowing along.
But as we all know all too well, the Cedar River has a tendency to do a bit more than flow along — and that got us thinking about development along the river over the years.
Our interest was further piqued by a recent History Center acquisition of printing blocks dating to 1908. The blocks were made by the River Front Improvement Commission to illustrate flood control plans along the Cedar River.
Tara Templeman, The History Center’s curator, was able to provide us with more information about the commission and its efforts to provide flood protection to the city, its businesses and its residents.
“The first mention of the ‘River Front Improvement’ is in 1901,” Templeman told us. “The issue was to be debated by the Commercial Club in November and seemed to focus mostly on whether or not ‘the island’ (May’s Island, that is) should be purchased.
“By 1908, an official commission was established to help define the channel of the river and keep the water from overflowing. $1,004 was spent on surveying and platting that year.”
The printing blocks are likely the result of that work. Several years later, construction of a sea wall was under discussion, but the conversation was, ironically, complicated by the 1915 flood.
“The construction on the west side seemed to go fairly well,” Templeman said. “But business owners on the east side had more to say after the 1915 flood. In 1915, there was heavy rain which caused the Cedar River to rise 5 feet, ‘so high that all hope of completing the new dam and the riverfront improvement sea wall has been abandoned,’ according to reports at the time.”
Who owns riverfront?
Property owners expressed grave concerns about the improvement plans because the proposed sea wall and 15-foot sidewalks would impinge on their land.
A contentious meeting was held in May 1916 and was announced on the front page of The Cedar Rapids Republican on May 10 with an overwrought, multilayered headline: “Mass Meeting Called on the River Front Proposition/Rampant Circular Stirs Interest in Much Discussed Project/ … Go and Hear Truth/False and Malicious Statement Alleged to Have Been Made in Circular and a Warm Time is Anticipated.”
The project seemed doomed when, In 1917, the City Council passed an ordinance prohibiting the commission from spending any money (including hiring lawyers) without first getting approval from the council.
The legal battle continued all the way to the Iowa Supreme Court in 1919, and the court ruled that commission could proceed with construction. The ruling dealt a blow to the claims of property holders along the Cedar River.
“The ruling was that all the land on the 1849 map on the river side of the high-water mark was public land and did not belong to the business owners who had constructed buildings there,” Templeman said.
“No title could be obtained ‘by occupancy of the land, erection of buildings or payment of taxes, no matter how long continued.’ This land could then be used in whatever way was necessary to prevent future flooding.
“By 1929, the legal battle was finally over, and the decision was made to build a sea wall.”
Of course, here in the present, work continues in the effort to ensure the Cedar River stays within its banks — work that, like that of the River Front Improvement Commission, has sometimes seemed to be fighting against a strong current.
Nevertheless, we might argue that progress, like time and the river, does in fact flow along.
College student Jessica Cline wins awards for historical research and presentation. Her dad, writer Rob Cline, does not. They write this monthly column for The History Center. Comments: HistoricalClines@gmail.com