Iowa City was created by an act of Legislative Assembly of the Iowa Territory on January 21, 1839, fulfilling the desire of Governor Robert Lucas to move the capitol out of Burlington, Iowa and closer to the center of the territory.
Commissioners Chauncey Swan and John Ronalds met on May 1 in Napoleon, a small settlement south of present-day Iowa City, to select a site for the new capitol city. The next day they chose a site on bluffs above the Iowa River and by June of 1839, the town had been platted and surveyed from Brown Street in the north to Burlington Street in the south, and from the Iowa River eastward to Governor Street. Today, the downtown district makes up the majority of this area, where businesses share buildings with those established alongside the city itself.
While Iowa City was selected as the territorial capitol in 1839, it did not officially become the capitol city until 1841, after construction of the capitol building had begun. The capitol building was completed in 1842, and the last four territorial legislatures and the first six Iowa General Assemblies met there until 1857, when the state capitol relocated to Des Moines.
The development of Coralville began after the 1843 construction of what was then the largest dam in Iowa along the Iowa River and the mills that eventually made use of the dam’s power. By its 1873 incorporation, Coralville’s population had grown to almost 300 and operated a blacksmith shop, wagon shop, meat market, lumberyard and dry goods store. The name was inspired by Harvard zoologist Louis Agassiz who spoke at the University of Iowa about the “Coral Reefs of Iowa City” and was impressed by the samples of fossilized coral he found in the limestone around the mills along the Iowa River.
By 1900, all of the mills had closed and the Iowa City Electric Company had acquired all the waterpower of the dam. After this economic decline, Coralville began to grow again in the late 1920s and boomed after World War II, when a large number of students arrived to attend the University of Iowa. Coralville offered inexpensive housing, lower taxes and close proximity to campus.
The population of Coralville grew to 977 in 1950. Automobile travel and tourism became common, and the “Coralville Strip” became well populated with retail shops, service stations, discount stores, restaurants and motels. During the same period, the Coralville Dam was built 4 miles upstream from the city. Authorized in 1938 by Congress and begun in 1949, it was completed in 1958 by the US Corps of Engineers.
North Liberty incorporated on November 10, 1913, when its population was approximately 190. Population growth accelerated in the 1960s, and the Iowa City Community School District opened Penn Elementary there in 1961. A 1967 special census placed the city’s population at 782. The population grew to over 2,000 by 1980, and in response, the North Liberty Community Library and Penn Meadows Park opened in 1984. By 2000, the city had established its own police and fire departments, and built a community center and administration building to serve a population of over 5,000. The city has since continued to grow as one of the fastest in the state and now has over 18,000 residents.
These communities collectively experienced and grew from the great floods of 1993 and 2008 and have seen tremendous revitalization over the years due to perseverance and a commitment to its sense of place. A vision for transforming the area to become the best it can possibly be remains even today.