Iowa City Parks

Lower City Park

by Chris Dolle

As we gaze into the mirror it holds up for us, we too easily imagine that what we behold is Nature when in fact we see the reflection of our own unexamined longings and desires.
-William Cronon

Founded in 1906, the 107-acre City Park is Iowa City’s primary public park. Lower City Park is home to an outdoor swimming pool, boat ramp, numerous picnic shelters, and a small amusement park, which includes a carousel and several small rides, and houses the station for the fifteen-inch gauge railroad that runs through part of the park.

Lower City Park, Iowa City (Fall 2015)

Lower City Park, Iowa City (Fall 2015)

The origins of this small amusement park can be traced back to 1952, when Charlie Drollinger brought a small train and merry-go-round into the park for a 4th of July celebration. Drollinger and his family continued to operate the amusement park every summer until it was devastated by flooding in 1993. In an interview, Charlie’s grandson, Guy remembered this flood and the clean-up effort that followed[1]: “[T]here was a sandbar sitting over top the amusement park that was four feet deep. The river was originally six foot deep over top of the amusement park and then it receded; it left a sandbar right down the middle…well, we had to clean up and we removed everything from the lot and scooped up sand with a bobcat and backhoe. The city brought in gravel and graveled the lot and we put the towers back up and rebuilt everything. It was a labor of love and as you stand out here with me you can tell that it is real important to the kids…It is a little place where families can spend time together…It does tug at your heartstrings even when it doesn’t make money, it makes you feel like a million bucks.[2]

Iowa City bought the merry-go-round, the train, and a small ride with airplanes from the Drollinger family in 1999 for $85,000. “If it was completely gone,” Guy said, after the sale, “I think the city would be losing something. In some way, I think if university students came to Iowa City and didn’t find a carousel and train ride, things would be very different…I’m really proud of the city. We’re lucky to live in a community where the city would operate a small little amusement park for kids.[3]

 June, 2013 Aerial Photo of City Park (source http://www.iihr.uiowa.edu/)

June, 2013 Aerial Photo of City Park (source http://www.iihr.uiowa.edu/)

In 2013, it cost Iowa City $66,000 to remove sand deposited by the river and $30,000 to remove various other debris. It cost an additional $15,000 to reseed the baseball fields, and moving carnival rides and playground equipment cost the city roughly $50,000[4].

When the Iowa River flooded in the summer of 2014, the city estimates it lost around $80/day without the amusement rides and nearby pavilions[5]. Since 2008, flooding has closed the park for a total of six months during peak times, and total flood-related costs have amounted to roughly $1.6 million[6].

Today, the city is considering some changes to the park to alleviate flooding: these changes include repositioning the park entrance away from the edge of the Iowa River, which would leave areas along the banks as a natural buffer between the river and park, reducing the number of baseball fields from eight to six, and removing two of the ponds within the park used for ice skating in the winter[7]. Debates continue as to whether the park should include additional amenities such as basketball and tennis courts, a climbing wall, or a zip line, or if the city should utilize more natural spaces, such as a wetland area around the river.

The struggles with flooding in Lower City Park remind us of our, at times, tenuous relationship with nature: City Park offers citizens of Iowa City a beautiful place to experience the environment but the river remains uncontrollable, overflowing its bounds and interrupting our planned uses of the park. We must negotiate this delicate relationship with nature with respect as we continue to enjoy and make use of it.

[1] Iowa Folklife: link

[2] Iowa Folklife/Lesson 2.2 from UNI’s Iowa Folklife website.

[3] “City Park rides change ownership,” The Daily Iowan, September 10, 1999

[4] Brent Griffiths, Lower City Park reopens in Iowa City, The Gazette, August 1, 2014: link

[5] Brenth Griffiths, Lower City Park reopens in Iowa City, The Gazette, August 1, 2014: link

[6] B.A. Morelli, “Iowa City rethinks City Park,” The Gazette, July 27, 2014: link

[7] Andy Davis, “Public reviews proposals for Lower City Park,” Iowa City Press-Citizen, October, 22, 2015: link


City Park Zoo

If wilderness can stop being (just) out there and start being (also) in here, if it can start being as humane as it is natural, then perhaps we can get on with the unending task of struggling to live rightly in the world — not just in the garden, not just in the wilderness, but in the home that encompasses them both.
– William Cronon, from The Trouble with Wilderness

In a letter to Elizabeth and Robert Lowell, a poet who taught in the Iowa Writers’ Workshop from 1950 to 1953, Flannery O’Connor wrote: “When I was [in Iowa City] there was a zoo with two indifferent bears in it and a sign over them that said: ‘These lions donated by the Iowa City Elks Club.’ But they had a good collection of game bantams that I used to go and admire.[1]”.

One of O’Connor’s classmates at the University of Iowa recalled:

“Her favorite place to go in Iowa City was out to the City Park. Once, I walked out there with her on an especially bleak February Sunday afternoon to look at the two sad and mangy bears, the raccoons, and the special foreign chickens they had. It seemed a particularly desultory thing to be doing, and I was puzzled at how completely absorbed and interested Flannery was that day looking at these things which I knew she’d looked at may times before.[2]”

While it’s debatable whether Iowa City’s small zoo was the inspiration for the zoo we encounter in Wise Blood, O’Connor’s first novel, Iowa City did have a small zoo located in Lower City Park and O’Connor did frequent it.

 This article celebrates the arrival of a new bear to the City Park Zoo in 1947. Note the examples of anthropomorphism used throughout. (Source: The Daily Iowan, October 30, 1947)

This article celebrates the arrival of a new bear to the City Park Zoo in 1947. Note the examples of anthropomorphism used throughout. (Source: The Daily Iowan, October 30, 1947)

Today, there is relatively little known about Iowa City’s City Park Zoo that once housed chickens, monkeys, rabbits, raccoons, bears, and — yes — lions.

Zoos were popularized during the Age of Enlightenment in the 18th century. Science, reason, and logic were principle goals of Enlightenment society, and scientists and zookeepers wanted to research and study animal behavior and anatomy. Zoos would act as locations to house these animals while they were studied.

 Stories such as these were commonplace in reporting about the City Park Zoo. (Source: The Daily Iowan, April 2, 1955). Bears can live upward of 30 years in the wild.

Stories such as these were commonplace in reporting about the City Park Zoo. (Source: The Daily Iowan, April 2, 1955). Bears can live upward of 30 years in the wild.

Early zoos, however, were more similar to living museums than the more natural, sprawling habitats — the technique of building realistic habitats for zoo animals is called landscape immersion — that make up many modern zoos. Animals were located in small display areas with as many different species as the space would allow. Unfortunately, the zoo once located in Iowa City seems to have been much closer to the former than the later.

 City Park Zoo Lions, now inside of Mammal Hall, University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

City Park Zoo Lions, now inside of Mammal Hall, University of Iowa Museum of Natural History

The lions that once lived in the City Park Zoo have both an interesting and troubling history: the pair were purchased by Harry Bremer while visiting relatives in South Africa. According to Irving Weber[3], who wrote over 850 weekly columns on local history for the Iowa City Press-Citizen, when the two lions “arrived in Iowa City, their cage at City Park Zoo had not been completed.” The lions were held for a time in the carriage house on Bremer’s property at 1036 Woodlawn Avenue, where the metal posts to which the pair were chained still stand. Weber goes on to write that, understandably, the lions were “somewhat less than pleased with the arrangement and expressed themselves with loud roars in the middle of the night, much to the uneasiness of the neighbors.”

 The male lion died in July of 1931 from the extreme summer heat at only 2 1/2 years old. His early death and poor physical condition explains his lack of a full mane.

The male lion died in July of 1931 from the extreme summer heat at only 2 1/2 years old. His early death and poor physical condition explains his lack of a full mane.

After being moved from the Bremer’s carriage house to the City Park Zoo, the male lion died in July of 1931 from the extreme summer heat at only 2 ½ years old. The female lived a number of years beyond, until she was found dead in her cage in February of 1939. The two are now mounted in Mammal Hall inside of the University of Iowa Museum of Natural History.

Debates swirled for years regarding the presence of Iowa City’s zoo, and opinions both for and against the zoo can be found within the pages of historical local newspapers. Undebatable, however, was the condition of the zoo’s animals. Whether described in O’Connor’s accounts or reported in The Daily Iowan, City Park Zoo was dilapidated at best and life-threateningly cruel at worst. Ultimately, the Iowa City Council voted to close the City Park Zoo on Tuesday, March 30, 1976[4].

 Articles such as this, both for and against the zoo, debated the zoo’s merits until its closure in 1976. (Source: The Daily Iowan, October 5, 1967)

Articles such as this, both for and against the zoo, debated the zoo’s merits until its closure in 1976. (Source: The Daily Iowan, October 5, 1967)

The troubled and troubling history of the City Park Zoo exists as an important marker in the progress we’ve made and the work yet to be done in our relationships with animals. Zoos today operate in a variety of ways, from educating visitors about the incredible and diverse animals with whom we share the Earth to acting as tools in the fight against the extinction of critically endangered species. It’s vital to remember the mistakes humans have made in the past and work to foster respectful and mutually beneficial connections between humans and other animals in the future.

[1] Flannery O’Connor, The Habit of Being: Letters of Flannery O’Connor, p. 57

[2] Jean Wylder, “Flannery O’Connor: A Reminiscence and Some Letters,” North American Review, 7 (197), 60

[3] Irving Weber’s Iowa City: link

[4] Dave Hemingway, “Zoo controversy ends, likewise zoo,” The Daily Iowan, March 31, 1976

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