Time Machine

Time Machine: Believe it or not, steamboats once plied the Iowa River in Iowa City

A portion of the bird's-eye-view map of Iowa City, from around 1868, by artist Albert Ruger, shows a steamboat on an Iow
A portion of the bird’s-eye-view map of Iowa City, from around 1868, by artist Albert Ruger, shows a steamboat on an Iowa River.

When we think of steamboats sailing on Iowa rivers, we automatically think of the Mississippi, the Des Moines, the Big Sioux or the Missouri. The Iowa River, especially as far inland as Iowa City, doesn’t inspire such thoughts.

So no one was expecting a steamer to sail into Iowa City in 1841. The city’s population numbered about 2,300, and the city’s only docking point was a ferry landing on the Iowa River.

Those living in the Iowa Territory — Iowa wouldn’t be a state until 1846 — were astonished when the Ripple landed on Sunday, June 20, 1841.

The local newspaper, the Iowa City Standard, proclaimed, “Arrival Extraordinary!”

“We need not speak of the astonishment caused by such unusual sounds — sounds which were for the first time heard on our peaceful river — nor of the many conjectures which were started as to the course from whence they proceeded,” wrote the paper’s editor. “

Our doubts were soon dispelled by the glorious reality, as the Steamer Ripple for the first time came dashing up the Iowa and landed at the ferry, which henceforth is only to be known by the more appropriate name of the Steam Boat Landing.”

Captain D. Jones had piloted the Ripple from the junction of the Iowa and Cedar rivers on the night of June 18. The next morning, the steamer came to within 4 miles of Iowa City before stopping again. On Sunday morning, the Ripple docked in Iowa City to great celebration.

It stayed until Thursday, when it sailed to Rochester, in Cedar County, on the Cedar River.


Although the Ripple never returned, the following year, 1842, the steamer Rock River, with Capt. Thayer at the helm, made two trips to Iowa City, the first on April 21.


The Rock River, credited with being the first packet to carry passengers on the Upper Mississippi, carried Iowa Citians to the stone quarry where stone for the new state Capitol — in Iowa City — was acquired.

The Rock River came back the same month to unload cargo and passengers, but didn’t return.


The Agatha, a 64-ton, 119-foot sternwheeler made in Pittsburgh, came next in 1844 with a load of freight for local merchants. She returned to St. Louis with pork, hemp and wheat, but it, too, never came back.

A few months later, the Iowa-built Maid of Iowa was the first steamboat to steam up the Cedar River to Cedar Rapids.

It also hauled out a full load into Iowa City as well as a keelboat full of freight. On its return trip, the keelboat caught on a snag and lost its cargo of corn when it split in two.

The Maid of Iowa came back to Iowa City on July 5 and Sept. 1, 1844. It looked like the Maid would be making regular trips until she was impounded in St. Louis after her last trip.

In June 1844, the steamer Emma landed in Iowa City, “the largest craft of her kind that has ever before favored us with a visit,” according to the Iowa City Reporter. “We understand her tonnage to be one hundred and seventy. She was freighted with salt, groceries, etc., mostly shipped on commission.”

The Emma never returned.

reveille, BADGER

In 1846, the Reveille from Burlington was supposed to make semi-weekly runs between Burlington and Iowa City.

The Badger State, a steamer that had been refitted to run on the Iowa and Cedar rivers, began to make trips to St. Louis and back in 1854.

It was on one of those trips that twin brothers Richard and Henry Morton were involved in a mortal battle with the ship’s cook, John Norton. A furious argument led Norton to attack Richard with a knife. In his attempt to escape the attack, Richard fell through a hatchway just as Henry arrived, and Norton turned the attack on him. Henry, however, had a gun and shot Norton, killing him instantly. A coroner’s jury ruled self-defense.

THE iowa city

In 1858, George Greene organized a company to build the steamer Cedar Rapids. That same year, the Export — a steamboat built by the Freeman Smith Co. from lumber sawed by Snouffer & Watrous in Bever Park — began a thriving freight business.

In Iowa City, the Robbins & Co. boat yard, a half mile below Iowa City, began building the side-wheel packet, named the Iowa City. It was completed in April 1866 and launched into the Iowa River before a crowd of spectators.


The Iowa City had a passenger cabin and two freight barges. In 1867, the Rock Island Argus was running ads for the Iowa City runs between Clinton, Lyons and Fulton.

Capt. Ed Thomas piloted the Iowa City between Iowa City, Burlington and St. Louis until June 6, 1868. On that Friday afternoon, the boat was steaming up the main channel of the Mississippi, near the mouth of the Wapsipinicon, when winds from a sudden storm forced the boat toward Illinois.

“Alarmed by the serious danger which threatened, the passengers, with one exception, rushed to the decks,” the Rock Island Argus reported. “When about two hundred yards from the shore, she lurched over until the keel might have been seen by a spectator on shore; the water rushed into the hold, and she immediately righted and settled down to within three feet of her hurricane deck, with the water being thirteen feet in depth where she sunk. Beside the crew, from twelve to fifteen passengers were on board, who all succeeded in reaching the upper deck with the exception of one.”

The boat, valued at $8,000, had just been sold to Capt. Reniger of Iowa City and a Mr. Downs of Davenport. They raised it and continued in business. By 1882, the Iowa City had been rebuilt several times, turned into a stern-wheeler and renamed Minnie.


But steamboats were on their way out.

As early as 1866, business interests were lobbying for railroad terminals in Iowa City and other cities in Eastern Iowa.

Becoming a rail stop meant having a consistent avenue for shipping products during the months when ice or low water closed river navigation. Train shipping also eliminated dealing with the ever-changing river channel and the vagaries of weather.

• Comments: (319) 398-8338; diane.langton@thegazette.com

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