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A river runs through us
The Hawk Eye | 1.28.2018
The Mississippi River — the name derives from the Indian phrase “Misi-ziibi,” meaning “Great River” — curves through our backyard; flint rock bluffs carved during the Great Ice Age, a region shaped by a freeze and thaw thousands of years ago. Both lively and ancient, the river runs through us.
From the gentle beginnings when tribes of Native Americans nestled on the bluffs to the territorial rights divided out of the Louisiana Purchase, people took refuge here. A river party organized by President Thomas Jefferson and lead by Lt. Zebulon Pike laid claim to our bluff in 1805.
The natural landing of Burlington soon was bustling with steamboats rolling on the river, providing a rich history full of commerce, charm, danger and excitement that flourishes to this day.
For the next eight days, The Hawk Eye clarifies our connection to the Big Muddy through history, floods, politics, nature and fun. Are you a proud river rat? Read the stories and find out.
Shoquoquon turns into Burlington
BY WILL SMITH
Before Burlington became a city, the land it now occupies was known as Shoquoquon — the Native American word for Flint Hills.
It was a land of peace and neutrality for the Native Americans who lived around it — a land abundant in the flint that was needed for everyday survival.
"The various tribes would come here, get flint, and they agreed not to fight," said Burlington historian Russ Fry.
Legend and history often intertwine, and the truth is somewhere in-between.
"I've read that (the peace between Native American tribes in Shoquoquon) may not be true," Fry said.
Of course, the history of human interaction with the Mississippi River goes back much further — thousands of years. According to Fry, the river sits on a fault line that shaped it.
"The fault caused it to sink it, creating bluffs on both sides," Fry said.
The Perfect Spot for a City
In 1805, Lt. Zebulon Pike landed at the bluffs below what would become Burlington and raised the U.S. flag for the first time on what would become Iowa soil.
It was the perfect spot for a city. While many of the bluffs made it impossible to build a town right on the river, the future site for Burlington sat right on the shore line. There wasn't much worry about flooding, either. The lay of the land kept the high water north and south of Burlington, and the rest of the flooding occurred on the east side of the river, all the way to Biggsville, Illinois.
"This was an ideal place for river traffic, which was one of the major means of transportation," Fry said. Of course, the ease of transportation was a giant boon for industry. Logs cut in Wisconsin and Minnesota were floated to a number of Burlington lumber companies. Steamboats brought in passengers and new residents.
Settlement began in 1833 after the Black Hawk War, and Burlington was booming by the 1850. It hit it's peak in the late 1800s, Fry said.
"There were a lot of people headed west who came through Burlington. In the 1850s, there would be months where 20,000 people would pass through," Fry said.
The streets were in horrible condition back then, which led to the construction of the wooden plank road. Logging was also prominent in the Burlington area, and the deforestation of the area caused the formerly mild Hawkeye Creek to flood regularly. Flash floods would swamp Division Street with little warning.
"People had to get on top of their houses," Fry said.
Until the early 19th century, Iowa was occupied exclusively by Native Americans and a few European traders, with loose political control by France and Spain.
Iowa became part of the United States of America after the Louisiana Purchase in 1803, but uncontested U.S. control over what is now Iowa occurred only after the War of 1812 and after a series of treaties eliminated Indian claims on the state. Beginning in the 1830s, Euro-American settlements appeared in the Iowa Territory, U.S. statehood was acquired in 1846, and by 1860 almost the entire state was settled and farmed by Euro-Americans.
Subsistence frontier farming was replaced by commodity farming after the construction of railroad networks in the 1850s and 1860s. Iowa contributed a disproportionate amount of young men to fight in the American Civil War. Afterwards, they returned to help transform Iowa into an agricultural powerhouse, supplying food to the rest of the nation.
The Capital of Iowa
Burlington was the second capital of the Wisconsin territory, and the capital of the Iowa Territory after Wisconsin became a state. Not until nearly twenty years had passed was the seat of government located at Des Moines, the present site. The capital moved westward by degrees, being for some years at Iowa City.
Burlington has twice been a capital. When Wisconsin Territory, which included what is now Iowa, was organized, in 1836, its Legislature met at Belmont, a small town which would now be in the state of Wisconsin.
The capitol at Burlington was to be used until March 4, 1839, unless the public buildings at Madison were completed before this limit. But only a few meetings were held in the structure, for fire destroyed it during the second session of the Wisconsin Legislature, in the fall of 1837. Legislatures used to assemble every year, instead of every two years, as now.
After the fire the Council, as the Territorial Senate was termed, met in the upper room of a store building; the House in a frame dwelling.
The third Wisconsin Territorial Legislature also convened at Burlington, in extra session, in the summer of 1838. This session received the notice from Washington that Congress approved an act making Western Wisconsin a territory, with the name of Iowa.
After he had seen a number of towns in Iowa Territory, Gov. Robert Lucas selected Burlington as capital, until the legislature should change the location.
The first Legislature convened in November, 1838, in Zion Church. The Council had 13 members, the House, 26.
The first Territorial Legislature decided to move the capital farther west. A commission sent out to select a location in Johnson County, in May, 1839, fixed on a site at Iowa City, or City of Iowa, as it was thought the town would be called. At this time the only building in sight from the spot where the stake had been driven was a half-finished log cabin.
Gov. Lucas issued a proclamation in 1841 changing the capital from Burlington to Iowa City. Pending the completion of a capitol building, a two-story frame structure, called the Butler Hotel, was used as headquarters, and here, in December, 1841, the fourth regular session of the Iowa Territorial Legislature was held. For five or six years, however, much of the executive business was transacted at Burlington.
Iowa became a state, with Iowa City the capital. But there was a feeling the seat of government should be near the center of the area. Des Moines was selected for the honor, and in November, 1857, the state effects were moved from Iowa City and the old capitol, to the new capitol, then hardly more than half finished. It was not until the close of the year that the last loads of State goods — in bobsleds drawn by oxen — reached Des Moines.
Commonly known as the "Crookedest Street in the World," Snake Alley has been a source of tourism pride since it was constructed in 1894.
The physical limitations and steep elevation of Heritage Hill inspired the construction of Snake Alley. The alley was intended to link the downtown business district and the neighborhood shopping area located on North Sixth Street, of which Snake Alley is a one-block section.
Three German immigrants conceived and carried out the idea of a winding hillside street, similar to vineyard paths in France and Germany: Charles Starker, an architect and landscape engineer; William Steyh, the city engineer; and George Kriechbaum, a paving contractor. The street was completed in 1898, but was not originally named Snake Alley, as it was considered part of North Sixth Street.
Some years later, a resident noted that it reminded him of a snake winding its way down the hill, and the name stuck.
Rail Bridge and MacArthur Bridge
The railroad bridge across the Mississippi River between Burlington and Illinois has been a fixture of the landscape in 1868, and has been rebuilt twice since opening. The first was a single-track bridge that opened in 1868, and the second, a double-track bridge, was built in 1893.
While the Great River Bridge has only been around for the past 25 years, the bridge that was there before — the MacArthur Bridge — had a history that reached back to 1916.
Replaced by the Great River Bridge in 1993, MacArthur Bridge generated millions in toll revenue by the time it was closed and dismantled in 1993. The bridge operated for 76 years, closing less than a quarter century short of its 100th birthday.
Nicknamed the “Golden Goose,” the MacArthur Bridge was constructed between 1916 and 1917, and stayed active until Oct. 4, 1993, when the Great River Bridge opened to take its place. For a short while, they existed side-by-side.
“I crossed that bridge thousands of times, and when it was replaced, we did a lot of work on the replacement bridge,” said Mac Coffin II, owner of Frank Millard and Co.
The Great River Bridge carries with it the Frank Millard legacy, which seems appropriate. MacArthur Bridge’s namesake is taken from John A. MacArthur, who developed an innovate financing plan to convince city leaders how much the bridge was needed. MacArthur, a son-in-law of Frank Millard who led the company into the coal industry, is Mac Coffin’s great-grandfather.
Though Coffin never had the opportunity to meet his great-grandfather, he moved into the man’s historic home about four years ago.
“When I was a kid, my parents had free passes to cross (MacArthur Bridge) in the 1950s. But that stopped,” he said.
Boating and skating
Despite popular misconceptions, people in the 1800s didn't work all the time.
They liked to play, too.
"The river was always a big part of recreational life," said Lindsey Schier, co-director of the Des Moines County Heritage Center. "You would have kids and adults who used the river for ice-skating. There was even a slide that went into the river in 1902."
Only the bravest skaters ventured out to skate on the Mississippi, and a few broke through the ice and drowned in the river.
The first ice skating rink in town, Champion Skating Rink, opened in December 1866 at the foot of Jefferson Street. But most preferred using the river over the rink, and it eventually closed. Other rinks also were unsuccessful due to a preference for skating on the river, until Lake Starker in Crapo Park opened up for the youth.
Boats can be just as fun, though, and Burlington was teeming with boat clubs.
"These places (boat clubs) were also social clubs. The Burlington Boating Association, their annual ball was one of the biggest social events. But you had to be a member or know a member to get a ticket to the event," Schier said.
Afternoon and evening boating excursions were quite popular throughout much of the mid to late 19th century. In the 1880s, boat clubs were so popular folks could charter a boat any time they liked.
"The Boat Club Band was one of Burlington’s leading musical organizations for many years. Other organizations include the Cascade Boating Club and the North End Boating Association," Schier said.
Cascade Boat Club
The Cascade Boat Club was founded in 1890 and located on the south side of Burlington. The 1888 bylaws indicate that the purpose of the organization was to promote hunting, fishing, shooting, and boating among its members and all citizens in the Mississippi River Valley around Burlington. It was also to maintain a club house and promote and manage social and recreational activities for its members and their guests.
One of the fundraisers for the organization was a shooting event that was held on Thanksgiving Day. This evolved from a turkey shoot to trap shooting. Later on this event also coincided with a feather party.
Feather parties were used by many organizations as fundraisers. These events were meat raffles. At the earliest feather parties, attendees had a chance to win turkeys, chicken, geese, or ducks; hence the name “feather party.” Eventually, other types of meat also were part of the event. Attendees would buy raffle tickets or enter drawings for a chance to win one of the prizes.
Master boat builder James Jordan died in 1939 in Burlington, but built quite a few boats before he did. He, along with local jeweler Charles Walden, promoted one of the first boat races held in Burlington in 1869.
"He was an avid rower himself, and competed in many boat races," Schier said.
Jordan primarily built the more rounded St. Lawrence skiffs, and transitioned to flat bottomed boats that were more common in Burlington. He built more than 150 boats, starting in 1860.
Jordan competed in boat races and also won a few wagers. In his early 20s he and a friend won a $10 bet by beating out two members of the Burlington Boat Club. This race was 1 1/2 miles upstream and three-quarters of a mile with the current. Jordan and his partner finished in 13 1/2 minutes, and the representatives of the boat club came in a minute behind them.
Drinking and eating from the Mississippi River
The nice thing about a river is that it provides most of what the average person needs. Food. Water. Recreation.
Thanks to the industrial-scale ice harvest of river ice, the Mississippi played a part in cooling down drinks on a hot summer day. But those drinks didn't always taste the best — unless you like dirt and debris in your ice cubes.
"The city eventually put in sanitation regulations on the purity of ice that could be sold," Schier said. "There was so much debris that washed down the river, you couldn't use it (ice) for anything other than putting it into an ice box."
The Mississippi is also perfect for hunting and fishing — even in the winter. A January 1852 newspaper article stated that the ice fishing in Burlington was “excellent.” In the 1840s, there was a claim that a 40-pound salmon was pulled from the river, and catfish could weigh as much as 175 lbs.
Big Slough was a one of the most popular fishing spots in the area. Perch, bass, salmon, and catfish were all common. Fish were so plentiful in the 1880s that sportsmen would use artificial lures over live bait to create more of a sport.
At its peak, the American ice industry would be recorded harvesting around 8 million tons of frozen water annually, of which around 3 million tons would account for melt loss while awaiting sale.
Harvesting at this time took place primarily along the banks of the Hudson river (near New York), where over a 150 mile stretch, 135 ice houses could be found (an average of one every 1.1 miles of coast). The industry's first major supply crisis arrived not due to warm winters or from the invention of commercial ice machines but rather pollution from one of the world’s fastest developing cities — New York. Regardless, ice harvesting would last as late as the 1950s and establish a global revolution for the chilled drink.
A Gentle Decline
It was the river industry that made Burlington. And it was the lack of river industry that started the city's decline in population. A decline that continues to this day.
Fry pointed out two major events that reversed Burlington's fortunes. The advent of the railroad, and the advent of corporations.
"Initially, the railroad allowed farmers to send their goods, livestock and grain out, so money was pouring in. It was the late 1800s, and Burlington was in it's heyday," Fry said.
Back then, corporations were formed for a single task — such as building the railroad bridge in Fort Madison — then disband when the mission was complete. That changed after the Civil War. Corporations became permanent, funded by the kind of cash that encourages monopolies.
"You could have a huge brewery in St. Louis and ship beer all over the country on rails. It would be cheaper than making the beer in your hometown. The money started going out of town," Fry said.
Progress continued to roll through Burlington, and not always for the better. Construction of the river levees began in the early 1900s, which caused persistent flooding in Burlington that continues to this day. The largest of the those floods —the Flood of 1993 and the Flood of 2008 — crippled Burlington's downtown for months and caused millions of dollars in damage.
But all hope is not lost. Fry said the Iowa Army Ammunition Plant helped the town survive and the Case company on Burlington's north side is a big employer, as is Great River Medical Center and General Electric. Over the past few years, downtown renovations have turned Jefferson Street sidewalks into social spaces.
The past of the river is set. But not even the encyclopedic Fry can see its future.
Great River Bridge through the lens
The Great River Bridge opened Oct. 4, 1993 and replaced the old city-owned toll-operated MacArthur Bridge. The five-lane cable-stay bridge spans across the Mississippi River from Burlington to Gulfport, Illinois. It has become a visual icon for the city of Burlington.
Photographer captures river's beauty at every sunrise
BY JULIA MERICLE
The first thing Alice Tjaden does every morning is look out her window to see if the sky over the Mississippi River is cloudy or clear.
Tjaden has been taking photographs of the sunrise over the river almost every morning for the past five years.
Equipped with a camp stool, two cameras and a cup of coffee, she captures the quiet moments of early morning while most of her neighbors are still asleep. The first flecks of sunlight glitter on the water.
Tjaden snaps her camera at the same time and in the same location nearly every day, but somehow she comes away with hundreds of unique photos. The sun and the river never look quite the same, she said.
Her best shots make it onto the Pictures of Burlington Facebook page, to share the beauty with over 11,000 members of the social media group.
Tjaden does not have to travel more than a few steps for her photography. Her backyard overlooks the expanse of water beyond a short, stone wall and framed by trees. Once covered in leaves, the trees now sit bare, their silhouettes still beautiful against the dark, early morning sky.
As she holds her camera to her eye, birds flit through the frame. Geese and gulls fly over “big island,” and if lucky, she captures an eagle mid-flight.
Tjaden said as the seasons change, the sunrise moves across the sky– in the far left of her yard in the middle of the Summer and in the far right by mid-Winter.
Her ideal circumstance for good photos is when there are a few clouds, the river is absolutely still, and when the sun comes up it turns the clouds into reflections on the water.
Tjaden often takes photos during the 30 to 45 minutes before full sunrise, just as the first spots of pink start to appear on the horizon.
“When it starts up you see a little bit of color, and a lot of times, when the clouds are up above it, the sun starts going up and all the clouds turn red,” Tjaden said. “Sometimes when everything is reflected on the river and everything on the sky it makes you feel like this is all one and you are part of it.”
Some days the sun paints a gold streak across the water. Tjaden has been trying for a while now to capture a towboat going through this “golden path.”
Other days puffy clouds cover the morning sky, and rays of light shoot through whatever spaces they can find making the “Jesus picture,” as Tjaden’s children called it when they were younger.
Tjaden has always taken photos, but they were not always of sunrises over the Mississippi River. She originally learned on a Brownie camera, and the switch to digital and its ability to “snap, snap, snap,” led to her interest in sunrises.
When the weather is warm, Tjaden also likes to capture images of cardinals and warblers perched on the fountain in her yard, next to big, overflowing pots of impatiens. She calls it her “bird photo booth.”
Every morning, she takes between 15 and 20 photos, and then sorts them into folders on her laptop, deciding which ones to delete and which ones to keep.
“You look and you look and you look,” said Tjaden. “Which one is absolutely in focus. Which one is the best.”
By the time the sun is high in the sky, and Burlington begins to stir, Tjaden is already packing up her camera and heading inside.