Why is selecting a capital city such an important choice for a new state?
Investigation Tip:
Knowing where each of the suggested locations for the new capital are is an important part to understanding why Des Moines was selected. Review the Modern Day Iowa DOT Map and locate the cities and towns mentioned in this article.

 

The Brick Capitol in Des Moines

The Brick Capitol BuildingDes Moines is the capital city of Iowa, but in 1840 Iowa City was the capital. In 1855 the decision was made to move the capital to Des Moines.

Only four years after legislators moved into the capitol at Iowa City, Iowa became a state. When the state boundaries were decided, talk began about a more central location for the capital. Cities and towns competed to be the chosen place and three commissioners went in search of a location. They were told to choose a site "as near the geographical center" of the state as could be found. The commissioners journeyed up the Des Moines River valley, but found nothing there. They finally agreed on a beautiful prairie area between the Des Moines and Skunk Rivers in Jasper County.

They named the site Monroe City. Two of the commissioners immediately bought lots in Monroe City hoping to make a good profit when the capital moved there. Other people purchased land there too, thinking it would be a good investment. But the legislature did not accept the commissioners' recommendation. Instead, they considered other locations including Oskaloosa, Pella and Fort Des Moines. Finally in 1855 the decision was made to locate the capital within two miles of the junction of the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers in Polk County.

Building and Moving In

The controversy over the exact location was not over yet. Even though the place had been narrowed down to the fork in the river, the question of which side of the river remained. The value of land would surely go up once the capitol location was decided. Offers of free land came from both sides of the river. In the end, ten east-side acres donated by Willson Alexander Scott and Harrison Logan were selected. It was a beautiful spot. The land rose above the river to provide a grand view of the Des Moines River valley.

The east-side developers were ready to do even more to assure the transfer of the government to their location. When the time came to move the papers, books and other government materials from Iowa City to Des Moines, Willson Alexander Scott offered to help pay for the moving costs.

Moving the contents of the Old Capitol was a big task. There were no railroads in the state. Roads were only dirt ruts across the prairie. Bridges across streams and rivers had not yet been built. Along with the state papers, furniture and books four large safes had to be hauled to Des Moines. When the teamsters ran into a blizzard, they had to leave the treasurer's safe on the prairie for several days until the storm passed. Then the safe was hauled on a bob-sled over the frozen ground to Des Moines.

Mr. Scott also paid most of the costs for the three-story brick building which served as the capitol. It then was leased to the state for one dollar a year. Mr. Scott borrowed money to pay for some of the services he donated. He planned to earn the money back by selling some of the land he owned around the capitol site. Unfortunately, a period of depression arrived about the time the capital was moved and Scott's business did not do well for a time. In order to pay back the money he owed, he decided to open a sawmill in the gold country at Pike’s Peak. Unfortunately, he never reached Colorado. He died of cholera near Fort Kearney, Nebraska. Scott was buried in Iowa on Capitol Hill, and in 1923 a marker was placed at his gravesite.

The brick capitol at Des Moines was surrounded by woods on Capitol Hill. Although the brick capitol had been intended as a temporary meeting place, it remained home for Iowa's government for 26 years. After a new capitol was completed to replace the brick one, the brick building remained unused and fell into disrepair. The building burned in 1892. The Civil War Soldiers' and Sailors' Monument stands on the site today.

Adapted from original article in The Goldfinch 5, No. 4 (April 1984). Iowa City: State Historical Society of Iowa.
© State Historical Society of Iowa

 

 


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