by Laura Hayes
From the mid-nineteenth century to the turn of the twentieth, the land of City Park was privately owned by a resident of Iowa City named Walter Terrell. The Iowa River ran through Terrell’s land, which he used to his advantage by building a functioning dam in 1843 and a successful gristmill in1844. Settlers from surrounding territories came to Terrell’s mill to grind corn, oats, rye, and wheat.
The mill prospered under several owners until the flood of 1881 damaged the land. Terrell’s daughter and mother purchased the land at a low price, intending to restore the dam and mill. Whether the mill continued to operate is not officially known, though stories told by residents attest to its operation. In 1903, the mill flooded again and Terrell’s daughter, Mary, together with her husband, Mr. Euclid Sanders, gifted the dam to the University of Iowa’s School of Applied Sciences. The University paid $600 to repair the dam and promised to protect the family from “possible nuisances” caused by development near their home.
In 1905 the dam was relocated down river and became the University’s Power Plant. In 1906, with the land now cleared, the city purchased the property from the Terrell Estate for $10,000. Iowa City established City Park the same year. Now, over a century later, the park’s 107.3 acres offer Iowa Citians amusement rides, basketball, bocce, tennis and horseshoe courts, baseball and softball fields, a boathouse, dock, boat ramp, grills, picnic tables, walking trails, and the City Park swimming pool.
The addition of the pool has played a large part in the park’s popularity. On June 6, 1947 The Daily Iowan reported the drowning of a ten-year-old boy named Keith Howell who, with his friend Jimmy York, had been playing in shallow floodwater on City Park property. The boys were playing in the west section of the park when the log Howell was floating on rolled, sending him under water. York and other young bystanders were unable to swim out to help Howell. York found the park superintendent, George Turecek, who instructed him to call the fire department while he went to the scene of the accident. Firefighters found the boy’s body in deep floodwaters over the west pond.
An editorial, titled “How Much is a Child’s Life Worth?,” appeared alongside the front-page article on Keith Howell’s death. R. Bruce Hughes, the editor of The Daily Iowan, calls for the construction of a municipal swimming pool because of the recent drowning. He asks not only for a safe space for children and families to play and swim, but for a place to teach children how to swim, so that future drownings might be avoided. His call for a municipal pool came after a city plan for a pool was approved in 1941, but US involvement in WWII halted the project. After the war, the cost of building a swimming pool became too high and the city no longer had funds secured for the project.
The discussion of building a municipal swimming pool filled local papers in the summer of 1947. Articles reminded residents of the Big Dipper Swimming pool that opened in 1923 on City Park land, but was closed only a decade later because of lack of interest. Memories of the failed pool and the expense of building again gave pause to the project. Yet, the drowning of Keith Howell, the communal plea for the value of his life—$40,000 was the cost difference from 1941—and the desire for the safety of their own children moved the plan forward. In October of 1947, City Park was approved and government funds secured for the construction of a new municipal swimming pool for Iowa City residents.
In the summer of 1980, the pool was losing 185 gallons of water per minute, an environmentally and economically costly summer for the city. Repairs were made in 1983, but the pool began to leak again in just two years later, in 1985. That summer, The Daily Iowan reported that City Park pool needed a $715,000 renovation. The report stated that repairs to the pool would give extend its lifespan an estimated 40 more years. The city went forward with repairs to preserve the pool, and in 2013 renovations caught public attention again. This time, large-scale renovations were needed to conform the wading pool to ADA regulations, expand the perimeter of the picnic area, and improve the pool facility. The city also planned to install a splash pad in City Park because of the popularity of splash pads in neighborhood parks. The price tag of the proposed renovations in 2013 (to be completed in 2014) was around $600,000. With consistent renovations, the municipal pool, open each year Memorial Day to Labor Day, has lasted more than 60 years.
Surrounding the pool in Upper City Park is an oak savanna with picnic tables and shelters. Because of the low density of oak trees in the area, grasses and other vegetation dominate the habitat. The grass in Upper City Park’s savanna is denser and the blades tougher than the grass planted in Lower City Park. The oak trees, too, grow full, and their low branches give the savanna a groomed appearance. The openness of the oak savanna allows for a variety of plant, animal, and insect species to thrive, and nearly 50 bird species have been observed on City Park’s land.
City Park and the Iowa River:
City Park’s proximity to the Iowa River has changed the park significantly. For current residents of Iowa City, the park’s flooding has determined landscape, residential spaces, and the availability of recreational activities. Historically, the proximity of the land to the Iowa River changed the shape and the uses of the land. During the years of the Clutch Plague, the city hired workers through the Works Progress Administration to redirect the river. The hiring was a way to create jobs, as Irving Weber points out in a 1981 article in the Iowa City Press Citizen. The soil from the dredging, widening, and redirecting of the river influenced much of the city’s current geography. Where once existed an S-bend in the corner of City Park is now the curved northwest corner of the river. Much of the mud and water from the park was pumped into Lower City Park, raising the land three feet. Of the two City Park ponds that residents used for ice skating, the north duck pond was filled with dredges from the river. The project also eliminated the favored island, 75 yards long and 25 yards wide, that was its own park destination. According to Irving Weber in his many-volume Historical Stories About Iowa City, “‘The Island’ was a favorite spot for boaters, canoeists, picnickers, swimmers. And it is said many a lover’s troth was pledged there.”
Another project taking place in 1939, called the “S.U.I. Beautification Plan,” was allocated $60,000 dollars, $35,000 of which came from the federal government. The plan included dredging soil from the riverbed north of the University theater and filling land intended to become a riverfront park and women’s play field. The river was dredged and widened from City Park to the Burlington Street dam. Along with the widening of the river, the beautification project built a lagoon near the theater building and new stone walls along the river.
City Park and Flooding:
Because City Park is built on a floodplain, it, together with its neighboring residential community Parkview Terrace, has experienced considerable flooding from the Iowa River throughout the last century. Most of the worst floods on record have taken place over the last twenty-five years. While these floods have been particularly devastating to the areas closest to the Iowa River, such as City Park and its surrounding neighborhoods, countless floods have damaged Iowa City on a larger scale and have shown increased intensity in the twenty-first century. The flood that Walter Terrell experienced as owner of City Park land in June of 1851 was 24.10 feet and is now only the fifth worst flood on record. While the floods that stopped the mill’s production under new owners in 1881 (21.10 ft) and eventually completely damaged the mill under his daughter’s ownership in 1903 (15.00 ft), were the fifteenth and fifty-first highest floods on record, respectively.
Since then, the highest flooding has occurred in the late-twentieth and early-twenty-first centuries:
- May of 1973 (22.04 ft.)
- June of 1974 (22.44 ft.)
- June of 1991 (23.35 ft.)
- June of 2013 (24.90 ft.)
- July of 2014 (25.15 ft.)
- August of 1993 (28.52 ft.)
- June of 2008 (31.53)
After WWII, in November of 1947, the University proposed the Coralville Reservoir Flood Control Project to assist in protecting state, university, and residential land. With each flood, the City continues to rebuild devastated areas and plan against future flooding. Currently the city has plans for renovations of Lower City Park that will move the most frequented amenities, such as the ball fields and the theater stage, to safer locations. In July of 2014, The Gazette announced that City Park had been closed a total of 6 months and had spent upwards of 1 million dollars since 2008 in flood cleanup. Flooding damages park constructions, such as the ball fields, picnic areas, landscaping, and roads, and also displaces plant and animal life, leaving harmful remnants in the form of chemical and material pollution.