The Wild Wapsipinicon River and the Floods of 1858 and 1865
Buchanan County, Iowa
The Wapsipinicon River is so scenic and its current so swift that it is the object of legend. One legend of star-crossed lovers is told about its name. A young man, Wapsie, of the “Sioux” (Lakota/Dakota) people and a young woman, Pinicon, of the “Sac” (Sauk) people fell in love though their communities fought over hunting and fishing rights in the river’s territory. Their families, especially Pinicon’s father, attempted to keep them apart. They ran away together nonetheless, and her father pursued them. Together the determined, tragic lovers jumped into the swift current. Pinicon’s father arrived at their rendezvous spot in time to see them “sinking, rising, struggling in the waves.”
The river, once flowing amidst 400 acres of timber in Cono Township, was “always changing the features of the landscape.” In the dry, late summer it might shrink substantially but in the spring amidst snow melt or in June amidst heavy rains, the river overflowed its banks or washed them away, cutting a new path for itself. The early years of EuroAmerican settlement in the 1850s and 1860s saw the river repeatedly washing out bridges built in Buchanan County.
1858 was one such flood. In that year the river rose 15 feet in 24 hours. The bridge at Quasqueton, built in 1852, was “destroyed by high water in 1858.” Its replacement was carried away in 1865.
On March 21, 1865, heavy snow followed by 36 hours of rain produced powerful results. The bridge at Independence washed away. “Crowds of people stood watching [at the dam] anxiously for what might happen.” At 3pm “the ice came crashing down and took what had previously withstood the raging, dashing torrent. It came up to the lower windows of the stores.” As with Quasqueton and Independence, the bridge and much of the dam at Littleton was taken. Fairbanks also lost its bridge as well as a new mill. A bridge over Otter Creek at Otterville and another north of there were also no match for the Wapsipinicon and its tributaries. The county hardly had a bridge remaining, a financial challenge for the settler communities.
Their response was to institute a free ferry system in the short run while they voted to use public subscription to finance a new bridge. To get the ferry up and running a committee of citizens contracted to have a boat built that would accommodate 3 teams of horses or oxen and up to 160 people. Some days as many as 200 teams were ferried across the river. Ferrying new immigrants’ teams proved a source of substantial revenue.
The ferry had its drawbacks. When the river was low, it could not be used. When the guy ropes broke, as they often did, passengers were left to float down the river and wade ashore wherever they landed.
Until the repeated floods of recent decades, more than not, the settlement communities, through the twentieth century, found ways to build stronger bridges and otherwise contain the once wild river using it for their pleasure.
Sources: SHSI: An Abridged History of Four Townships, Quasqueton Area Historical Society, 2002; History of Buchanan County Iowa and Its People, 1914.