The Old Stone Capitol: A New Capitol in a New Location

Finding the Best Place

The city of Burlington was the capital city of Iowa for a time, but in 1840 the search for a new capital location began. Many towns wanted to become the capital. The legislators could not agree on where it should be. It was finally decided to build a new capital city which was to be called Iowa City. Three commissioners were appointed to select a site in Johnson County. These men were to meet at the town of Napoleon "on the first day of May, in the year eighteen hundred and thirty-nine" and locate the best site within the boundaries of Johnson County.

When the first day of May arrived, Chauncy Swan was the only commissioner to appear at Gilbert's trading post in Napoleon. Swan believed that at least two of the three commissioners must meet together on that day for their decision to be legal. When half the day had passed and no other commissioners had arrived, he called for a volunteer to make the trip on horse-back to commissioner John Ronalds' home down river about 35 miles. The other commissioner, Robert Ralston, lived too far away to be reached in time. Philip Clark, a settler living in the area, offered to go. A little crowd of people remained at Napoleon and waited. Would Philip Clark find John Ronalds at home? If the commissioners did not meet, would the legislature have to start all over and make a new decision?

As the sun disappeared below the horizon, a small group of people waited for Clark's return. They waited on into the night. Just before midnight the sound of clattering hoofs could be heard. Into the little settlement of Napoleon rode Philip Clark. John Ronalds was with him.

The next day Chauncey Swan and John Ronalds traveled together along the river, looking for a good location. Only two miles north of Napoleon they discovered a hill from which they could view the beautiful river, the surrounding prairie and trees. It seemed the perfect place. Swan and Ronalds prepared to make their report. Although Ralston never arrived, he later met with the other two commissioners. Their selection was presented to the legislature which approved their recommendation.

Iowa City: The New Stone Capitol

By the end of July the town was already laid out, and a map had been drawn. People began to buy lots at Iowa City in August. Log cabins and frame houses seemed to spring up overnight. Plans for the capitol moved ahead rapidly.

The architect for the capitol at Iowa City was John Francis Rague. He had only recently completed the plans for the Illinois capitol at Springfield. Work on the stone building began in 1840. Although the capitol was still under construction, the 1841 session of the legislature was scheduled to meet in Iowa City. To be sure the legislature would meet in Iowa City and not some other town, the citizens promised to provide a rent-free building for the legislature. In fact, Walter Butler, a citizen of the frontier capital, built the two-story frame building for the Legislative Assembly. Once again a citizen had paid for the costs of a capitol.

The following year, the work on the new capitol was completed enough for the legislators to meet there. Sleighs and stages filled with people arrived in the bustling capital city. New hotels awaited those arriving to take care of the government's business. But changes were in store for the new stone capitol.

The capital of Iowa was moved to Des Moines in 1857. All the contents of the capitol had to be moved to the new capitol. Moving the contents 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.

The Old Stone Capitol in Iowa City

When Iowa moved its seat of government to Des Moines the Old Capitol was given to the University of Iowa. The building was used for classrooms and offices and soon became a symbol for the University. In 1970 the University stopped using the Old Capitol so that it could be restored. Six years later it was reopened so that people could visit the building that had become a symbol of both Iowa government and public higher education. In November 2001 a fire caused heavy damage to the Old Capitol, but restoration began soon after the fire.

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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