116 3rd St SE
Cedar Rapids, Iowa 52401
Highwater Rock has survived the passage of the Cedar River for centuries, unfazed by construction, floods or a derecho.
It also was a river gauge early in Cedar Rapids’ history, showing when it was safe, and not safe, to cross the river.
The rock sits between the Interstate 380 and First Avenue bridges.
Reports of the rock, which pokes out of the river when the water is low, have been published since 1848, when David King began a ferry service across the river.
People watched the rock. King said he noticed a decrease in the number of passengers his ferry carried when the boulder was showing, indicating the water was low enough to ford the river, assuming you were willing to swim or ride a horse across on your own.
Dip of a paddle
The “History of Linn County,” published in 1878, includes a humorous story about the rock and Osgood Shepherd, who built a cabin along the Cedar in 1838, making him the first white settler in what would become Cedar Rapids.
Shepherd ran a tavern in his cabin and offered hospitality to travelers, which included several young men one night.
“In the river, opposite the cabin, was a large rock, which was covered when the water was high,” the book relates. “When the men crossed the stream, they did not notice the rock, but in the stillness of the night, the swashing of the current, as it swept past, could be heard with distinctness.
“A regular ‘splash, splash, splash’ could be easily distinguished. The unusual noise awakened the men, who inquired what it was. One of the number volunteered the information that it was the dip of an Indian paddle.
“This excited the whole company, and the noise, continuing without cessation, they precipitously fled to the grove to escape massacre. In the morning, they discovered the cause of their fright and each swore that he went to the woods only to help scare the others.”
In 1927, Ralph Clements, a writer/editor and library board member, wrote that the Cedar in the spring — before the days of bridges and ferries — “was not only dangerous but impassable for months.”
“A large boulder, situated near what was then known as Watrous Mill, was the landmark to gauge the depth of the water,” he wrote. “If it were visible, crossing was considered safe. If it were not, the hazard was too great, even for the most venturesome.”
A Gazette photo of the rock in 1946 carried the caption, “The boulder juts out of the river opposite the hydro plant of the Iowa Electric Light and Power Co. on First Street NE. It still can be seen from the First Avenue Bridge or from the B Avenue bridge (later the F Avenue bridge) when the river is low.”
The Gazette’s popular “Around the Town” column related the rock’s story in 1954, but with a few more details.
“Next time you cross First Avenue Bridge, look for a large boulder protruding from the river near the mill race, just north of the bridge. You’ll be looking at history.
“That rock was pretty important to residents of Cedar Rapids and Kingston (today’s west side) before the two communities had their first ferryboat in 1849 and first bridge in 1857. The only means of crossing the stream was by horseback or wagon, or on ice during the winter.
“As a result, that rock became a safety signal for persons wishing to ford the river. If the rock could be seen above the water’s surface, that meant the river was low enough for safe crossing. If it couldn’t be seen, fording the river was risky.”
The boulder got its name — Highwater Rock — after Wayne Rust, an honors student and basketball player at Cedar Rapids Jefferson High School, detailed the rock’s history for his Eagle Scout project in August 1976.
His report was forwarded to the Office of Historic Preservation in Des Moines, and the rock was added to the National Register of Historic Places in November 1977.
There was some concern in 1986 — as the hydroelectric plant was being built on the east side of the Interstate 380 Five-in-One Dam — that Highwater Rock would be moved or damaged.
Lee Coppock, city water utility director, said those worries were unfounded. The rock could not be seen on May 2, but it was just below the water’s surface, he said.
The boulder found its way into a story by historian Harold Ewoldt in 1991 and into a column by The Gazette’s Todd Dorman in 2008 before the massive flood hit Cedar Rapids in June.
We’ve had a rainy spring, and the Cedar is still too high to see the rock. But, as Coppock advised in 1986, it’s still there, just below the surface.