Floods and Early River Transportation
The smallest of Iowa’s counties, Louisa County is nonetheless distinctive. Its early historian Arthur Springer claims Jacques Marquette and Louis Joliet first encountered native people of the Mississippi River basin on the west bank of the river in 1673 at a site now part of Louisa County. Whether or not this cordial meeting between the Frenchmen and members of the Illinois was indeed at this site, Louisa County’s river geography in itself makes it an important territory both before and after the seventeenth-century contact between Europeans and Native Americans.
With the Iowa and Cedar Rivers’ confluence at Columbus Junction and the Mississippi River at the county’s eastern border, the territory has had plenty of experience with the advantages and challenges of living with rivers. It’s not surprising that early white settlers in 1836 rushed to take or buy land on the Mississippi’s west bank from the Sac and Fox (Sauk and Meskwaki) before a treaty was negotiated with the native leadership. It’s not surprising that the agreed upon Keokuk’s reserve extended from either side of the Iowa River where Keokuk’s people could expect to continue their enjoyment of that valuable riverine landscape. Their enjoyment was short-lived, as settlers in the territory soon recognized the value of the Iowa River as much as the Mississippi.
In June of 1841 the “Ripple,” a steamboat, ascended the Iowa from Louisa County as far as Iowa City. Its pilot bragged that he had navigated the “Iowa fork,” apparently the confluence with the Cedar River. In the 1840s and 1850s considerable steamboat traffic transported goods and people up and down the Iowa and Cedar Rivers.
As Mark Twain’s Life on the Mississippi attests, river transportation can be dangerous, and this was true on the Iowa as it was on the Mississippi. On May 8, 1945 the “Iola” was eight or nine miles south of Iowa City when it hit a submerged log. Several timbers of the boat were broken and several planks shattered, causing the steamboat to sink. The thirteen people aboard shifted all the cargo on the Iola and managed to refloat her. But, by the next day, the boat was sinking irrevocably. The cargo had to be removed and placed on the riverbanks. No injuries or fatalities were reported.
In early June 1851, the year of unprecedented flooding, the Iowa River reached the highest point known to-date. About this time the “Uncle Toby” took both freight and vacationing Wapellonians upriver to Iowa City. In Iowa’s early days high water of rivers and creeks seemed to draw pleasure-seekers onto the water rather than driving them away. The Wapellonians apparently survived this trip whether or not they recognized the dangers of their journey. The Iowa River was again almost as high in 1862.
In the 1860s the assumptions about transportation and the river changed. The transcontinental railroad had linked east and west, and a number of railroad bridges had been built across the Iowa and Cedar Rivers. People were said to have wanted wagon bridges as well. On April 10, 1868, following a similar resolution in the Iowa Senate, US Congressman Loughridge of Iowa introduced a bill in the House of Representatives declaring the Iowa river not navigable above Wapello. In Iowa, Louisa County’s Senator, Dr. James M. Robertson, supported the measure. Senator Fairall of Iowa City opposed it. He wanted to substitute Iowa City in place of Wapello. Senator Fairall lost. Both Iowa and the US Congress declared the Iowa River north of Wapello not navigable and not a public highway. Bridges across the river were allowed. Throughout the 1860s and into the 1890s, steamboats continued to run between Wapello and Burlington. Then in 1894 a passage was inserted into a federal river and harbor bill declaring the Iowa River not navigable between Toolsboro and Wapello in Louisa County. Again, bridges and dams across it were permitted.
Source: SHSI: Arthur Springer, History of Louis County, Iowa from its Earliest Settlement to 1912, Chicago, 1912.