Turn of the Century Panoramo of Columbus Junction

Turn of the Century Panorama of downtown Columbus Junction

Much information is available about the rich history of Columbus Junction and the surrounding area. The Columbus Community Heritage Museum located 122 Maple Street in Columbus Junction is a great place to find archives, artifacts and stories. Do You Remember? written by Helen Aringdale provides 223 pages of photos and articles of earlier times. The Louisa County Historical Society offers online resources as well and a large museum and research facility on Highway 61 in Wapello, the county seat.

Below please find excerpts from the history of Columbus Junction as written in the book, Portraits and Biographical Album of Louisa County, Iowa.

Establishing the City

The first train of cars on the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific was run to what was then known as a sand bank on the 17th day of November, 1857 and was the end of the road until September, 1858, when it was completed to Washington. The station at the sand bank was then discontinued, and a station at Clifton established.

It was not until it was decided that the Burlington, Cedar Rapids & Minnesota Railroad should cross at this point that a town was decided upon. On the 29th day of December, 1869, August Gilbert came to the sand bank for the purpose of looking up a location. Deciding to locate here, he returned to Muscatine, where he was then residing, had a house framed, loaded upon the cars of the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific Railroad, and shipped to Clifton station, and from there had it transported to the sand bank and put together, and on the 8th day of February, 1870, opened it up as a restaurant and boarding-house, and did a very large business. The building stood about 200 feet east of the present Gilbert House, and was in dimensions 18×24 feet, and a story and a half in height. It was in this house that the first white child in Columbus Junction was born. May 15, 1870, Carrie, daughter of August and Anna Gilbert. Mr. Gilbert is still a resident of Columbus Junction, and is engaged in the same line of business, opposite the Union Depot.

In view of the fact of the town and township of Columbus City having voted aid for the construction of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Minnesota Railroad, they were permitted to name the town, and called it Columbus Junction, from the fact of its being the junction of the two railroads.

When Wortham & Co. purchased the town site of Mr. Garner, they did so with a view of pushing the place, and making its advantages known. The company built the Wortham House, the lower story being used for storerooms, and the upper stories for hotel purposes. In this building was started, July 10, 1872, the Louisa County National Bank, of which Andrew Gamble was President, and John W. True Cashier. E. M. Sargent and M. Carter, under the firm name of Sargent of the same year, when he removed it to a frame building on Walnut street, on the present site of the Hotel Hedrick. In February, 1881, he removed it to the second storeroom in the Murdock Block, where it remained until April 20. 1887, when it was removed to opposite its present location on Main street, in one of the buildings destroyed by the fire of 1888. Mr. Fulton continued to serve as Postmaster until Sept. 14, 1886, covering a period of twelve years and five months, when he was succeeded by George P. Neal, the incumbent. The money order department was established July 1, 1887, and it now does a business amounting to about $15,000 per year. The sale of stamps amounts to about $1,900 per year. The office became a presidential one Feb. 12, 1883, and was designated as a distributing office Sept. 14. 1887. The transfer of registered mail at this office is exceeded by but few offices in the West.

The first express package over the Burlington, Cedar Rapids and Northern Railroad from Columbus Junction was sent on Monday, Feb. 21, 1870, and consisted of a money package of $235, sent to Hon. George Robertson, of Burlington, by Wesley W. Garner, of Columbus City.

For the first two years the town grew quite rapidly, and at the March term of the Circuit Court a petition was presented asking that it should be incorporated under the general laws. The court appointed C. M. Fulton, M. Wheelock, S. W. True, W. F. Hall and William Todd, Commissioners, as provided in the chapter of the Iowa Code for the incorporation of cities and towns. On the 25th day of May, 1874, an election was held at the postoffice, at which there were fifty-five votes cast for incorporation and seventeen against. The following officers were duly elected: Mayor, C. M. Fulton; Councilmeu, George W. Merrill, O. E. Hobbie, Robert Foster,Theo. Crilley, A. T. Lewis; Attorney, R. H. Hanna; Recorder, W. F. Hall. At the first meeting of the Council J. R. Smith was appointed Marshal, but declining to serve, August Damen was appointed in his place.


The first public school taught in Columbus Junction was in a small house erected for the purpose a year or two after the town was started. Miss Sarah White was the first teacher, and she was succeeded by Mr. Slater. Previous to this there was a private select school taught by Miss Kitty Truesdale in a public hall on Front street. Asa Merrill’s building was used in 1874 for school purposes, A. W. Hall being the teacher. Afterward the building erected for a court-house was used for a few years and school held therein. In the fall of 1882 a commodious school building was erected on Front street at a cost of $7,840. It was finished Jan. 1, 1883, and school was commenced therein February 1. Prof. Edwards was the first Principal in new building. The building has two halls and accommodations for about 400 pupils. The school has been exceedingly prosperous, and for five years prior to the fall of 1888 was ably conducted by Prof. J. K. Pickett. He was succeeded by Prof. G. H. Mullen, who is likewise an able instructor.

On the 14th of March, 1881, Mrs. A. A. Barnes and Mrs. W. H. Gray were elected members of the School Board of the Independent School District of Columbus Junction. One week later they entered upon the discharge of their duties, and Mrs. Barnes served for three years. Mrs. Gray served up to the time of her death, April 4, 1882, and was succeeded by Mrs. L. G. Murdock. The ladies were zealous in the discharge of the duties of their office, and it was during the time that they served that the present school building was erected.

The Eastern Iowa Normal School of Columbus Junction is worthy of more than a passing notice. This institution came into existence to meet a want for normal instruction long felt by Iowa educators. While several attempts had been made to establish institutions for the training of teachers, none had been able to stand long against the many difficulties to be met by young institutions of learning, and after a year or two’s struggling had gone down. In some cases their death was caused by mismanagement, perhaps, but these attempts were mostly ephemeral because of untoward political, social or financial circumstances extraneous to these schools themselves. The years preceding 1870 were years full of great social and political struggles, in which the new State of Iowa was an active participant. These mighty struggles called for so much of her power that she could not do all for schools that she wanted to do, but her teachers, although aiding the commonwealth in her public measures, strove to create better educational facilities at the same time, as may be seen by the attempts to establish “Normal Instruction.”

The first effort of this kind that had a lasting effect was the establishment of a Normal and Training School or Institute, at Washington, in the fall of 1870, which held a two-weeks session then, a four weeks in 1872 and eight weeks in 1873. This attempt was headed by the County Superintendent of Washington County, who organized and conducted similar Institutes in Clay, Kossuth, Louisa and other counties, prior to the end of the year 1873. Others seeing the worth of these “Summer Institutes,” had similar training schools prior to 1874.

Col. Alonzo Abernethy, then the Superintendent of Public Instruction, recognizing the worth of such efforts, asked the Legislature of 1874 to make this Normal Institute a State institution, which was done at the close of their session early in April of that year. Now, every county in Iowa has its annual Normal Institute. But the prime mover in all this effort to give teachers special facilities for special training was not satisfied to see that effort stop with this Normal Institute alone, but was determined to go a long step in advance and found something more extensive. If a Normal Institute of two to four weeks per year is a great good, a Normal School of ten or more months per year will be still better, was his thought, and a place was soon found where a trial might be made. A few years prior to 1874 Grand View Seminary had been chartered, its charter providing that it might be raised to an institution of college grade within five years from 1869. In 1871 Prof. E. R. Eldridge was appointed Principal of the institution. Having investigated the liberal provisions of the charter, Mr. Eldridge saw at once that his long cherished hope for a Normal School in Iowa might now be realized, and proposed to the board of incorporation that if they would make of it a Normal School he would accept the Presidency thereof. To this proposition they gave hearty sanction, and created the Eastern Iowa Normal School, which opened its first session Sept. 4, 1874, with the following faculty: Edwin R. Eldridge, Pres.; James A. Kennedy, B. A., Vice Pres.; W. Frank Davis, B. S., Sec.; John A. Thompson, Principal of the commercial department.

At the end of two months arrangements were made by which the public schools of Grand View were made “model schools” for the Normal, and were taught by the Seniors and Juniors for the drill of teaching, being carefully supervised by the President, they working according to instructions given in the classes in pedagogy. By the above arrangement the former teachers of the public schools, Joseph Syphrit and Miss Nettie Hutchinson, became adjunct teachers in the faculty, thus increasing its numbers to keep pace with the demands. The enrollment for the year in the Normal department was 113, and in the model school 103. At the end of the year Prof. Kennedy resigned to become a candidate for the County Superintendency of Louisa County, to which office he was elected. Prof. Davis was made Vice President, and still continued to act as Secretary.

A sad misfortune came to the school during vacation, in the sudden death of Prof. Thompson, one of Nature’s most gifted sons, an artist of merit far beyond his years. He was beloved by all and universally mourned.

The first faculty was composed.of men young, enthusiastic and resolute. A. H. Shotwell succeeded to Prof. Thompson’s place, and P. Ritner to a part of Prof. Kennedy’s work. At the time the school was located at Grand View there was a prospect for a railroad being built there, the nearest station then being Lettsville, nearly six miles distant. The lack of a railroad was keenly felt, but still there was a prospect, and the disadvantages were borne from year to year until the will-o’-the-wisp entirely vanished in 1881.

A professorship in each of two colleges was tendered President Eldridge, and he was elected City Superintendent of an excellent school, the last of which he concluded to accept, until the good people of Columbus Junction authorized N. M. Letts to interview him relative to removing the school to Columbus Junction. A beautiful brick structure, not then finished, was tendered the school for its future home, with a guarantee that it should be entirely completed at once.

The school was chartered, and the Board of Trustees selected under this charter received a warranty deed for a beautiful plat of ground and the fine structure thereon, worth after completion fully $25,000, and furnished, about $30,000. This proved to be a grand move for the Eastern Iowa Normal School, as its subsequent prosperity demonstrated. The removal was demanded because of the difficulty of access to its former location. At Grand View it had warm friends who saw the necessity for the removal and justified it. Prof. Eldridge remained as President of the school until the fall of 1888. when he resigned to become President of the State Normal School of Alabama.


The religious interest of Columbus Junction is represented by the Methodist Episcopal, Presbyterian, Reformed and Evangelical Associations.

The Central Presbyterian Church was organized about 1867, under the pastoral charge of Rev. Mr. Heiser. Its house of worship, a brick structure with a seating capacity of about 400, was erected in 1872, at a cost of $5.000.

The Evangelical Association of Columbus Junction was organized in February, 1883. Its first meetings were held in the old school-house in the western part of town. In 1884 a church building was erected at a cost of $3,200 with a seating capacity of 350. There is a Sunday-school in connection with the church, with an average attendance of seventy-five pupils.

The Methodist Episcopal Church was organized Oct. 9, 1887, with eleven members. The first meetings were held in the Presbyterian Church. In the fall of 1888 a handsome church edifice was erected on the northeast corner of Oak and Second streets, at a cost of $3,500, and with a seating capacity of 400. The present membership of the church is fifty, and it is in good healthy condition.


The various societies are represented by the Masons. Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias and the Grand Army of the Republic.

The brass band of Columbus Junction has been in existence about ten years and has attained a high decree of excellence. The following named compose its membership: Charles Armbright, leader and cornet player; Osmond Barnes, B flat; Ed. Swords, clarionet; F. Koeckeritz, piccalo; A. C. Kelley, solo alto; 1. Carr, first alto; Ed. Baldwin, second alto; W. Oliver, first tenor; Ed. Shellabarger, second tenor; J. M. Klotz, baritone; C. E. Jenkins, E flat; John Raymond, bass drum; R. Paschal, snare drum.


Columbus Junction has two good banks, the Louisa County National Bank and the Farmers’ and Merchants’ State Bank.

The Louisa County National Bank, of Columbus Junction, Iowa, the only National Bank in the county, was organized July 10, 1872, with a capital of $50,000, and began business on the 15th of August following. The first Board of Directors was composed of the following-named gentlemen: N. M. Letts, S. W. True, Andrew Gamble, George Merrill, Cyril Carpenter, J. W. Garner, James Colton, H. C. Wortham and S. C. Curtis. The first officers were: Andrew Gamble, President; S. W. True, Vice President, and John N. True, Cashier. Mr. Gamble served as President until the time of his death, which occurred in the spring of 1876, and was succeeded by S. C. Curtis, on the 15th of April of that year. J. N. True soon resigned his position, and Dr. W. A. Colton was elected Cashier, Jan. 14, 1878, and has held that position continually since, covering a period of more than ten years. George W. Merrill was chosen President Jan. 14, 1879, and served one year. J. W. Garner was elected Vice President Jan. 14, 1878, and was chosen President Jan. 13, 1880, succeeding Mr. Merrill, and has been re-elected at each succeeding election up to this date, 1888. On the 13th of January, 1880, Judge W. G. Allen, of Wapello, was elected Vice President, and has since held that position. E. R. Lacey, who entered the bank in April, 1874, as janitor and assistant book-keeper, was promoted to his present position, that of assistant cashier, Jan. 13, 1880, and is still serving in that capacity.

The bank was first opened in a room under the Murdock House, now occupied by Mr. Ayers as a jewelry store, where the business was carried on until the bank managers erected the present commodious and tasty brick building, at the northwest corner of Main and Oak streets, which was completed in the fall of 1875, at a cost of $5,000. The lower story has since been occupied by the bank, the upper story being used for offices. The history of this bank shows an uninterrupted career of prosperity, especially for the past decade. At this writing, July 18, 1888, its business showing is as follows: capital stock, $50,000; surplus, $10,000; undivided earnings, $12,000; total, $72,000; total dividends to July 12, 1888, $67,500.

The present officers are J. W. Garner, President; Dr. W. A. Colton, Cashier; E. R. Lacey, Assistant Cashier. The Board of Directors is composed of J. W. Garner, W. G. Allen, F. G. Coffin, M. McLean, Wilson Dougherty, L. M. Samson, J. R. Smith, J. H. Johnson and W. L. Curtis. The interior of the bank has recently been remodeled, and an elegantly designed black-walnut counter substituted for the old one. The Louisa County National Bank can now boast of having one of the most elegant and tasty offices in the State, while its able management has placed it among the leading financial institutions of Iowa.

The Farmers’ and Merchants’ State Bank, of Columbus Junction, Iowa, was incorporated March 3, 1888. under the State law of Iowa, with a capital of $50,000, and business was begun on that date. William W. Eckman was elected President; Marion Carter, Cashier, and Walter P. Paugh, Assistant Cashier. The following-named gentlemen compose the Board of Directors: F. A. Duncan, Reuben Stopp, William H. H. Spafford. Frank Wilcox, William Lieberknecht, Thomas J. Maxwell, William W. Eckman, R. S. Johnson, Richard Cotter, E. B. Tucker, J. T. Kinmouth, J. B. Johnston, C. F. Butler and E. L. Bem is. The well-known personal responsibility and high standing of the gentlemen named above is sufficient guaranty of the stability and popularity of this growing institution. While comparatively new, this bank has secured a fair share of the business in its line, and is in a prosperous condition. It is located on Walnut street, in Spafford’s new brick building, next east of the Hotel Hedrick.

The manufacturing interests of Columbus Junction have never been developed to any great extent. Cook’s Brick and Tile Works is the most important. It is situated near the southern line of the city, and was established in June, 1880, being the first enterprise of that kind in Louisa County. Mr. Cook got out the first kiln of ware about the middle of August, and during that year turned out about 40,000 tile of all sizes. A popular prejudice existed in the minds of the people that the clay was not of the right texture, and the outlook was not encouraging. At that time there was no one here who understood laying tile, and Mr. Cook had to send for an expert, who laid the tile and instructed others. The tile proved so good that the business increased rapidly. The first three seasons Mr. Cook used horse power, and then put in a 16-horse power engine and 14-horse power boiler. He subsequently put in a new boiler of 30-horse power. At the beginning he used a second-class machine, and could only make 3,000 three-inch tile a day. He put in a new machine in the fall of 1883, and with that machine he turned out 4,000. Later improvements and better knowledge of preparing the clay, have given the works a capacity of turning out 10,000 a day of three-inch tile. The factory had worked up to 9,000 in 1886 and 1887, and in 1888 ran the number up to 10,000, giving employment to an average of seven men.

Mr. Cook has twenty acres of land, and clay enough for fifty years. The formation of the soil is as follows: The first fifteen inches there is a thin soil, which, used with other clay, makes good brick. The next run of seven feet is of tile clay, then a strata of fine brick clay four feet thick; then tile clay, the best of any. to a depth of fourteen feet, after which the clay becomes intermixed with fine pebbles that increase in size as the depth increases. The tile from this yard has taken first premium at all local fairs, and was awarded first honors at the State Fair of 1884, out of nineteen factories represented.

When Mr. Cook began his present business he had less than $100 cash capital, and his investment capital was less than 1350. His land contract for the lots on which he started proved only a snare, the property being mortgaged, and he was obliged to pay twice for it before getting the title. He has since built up an extensive and important manufacturing enterprise, and now has it on a solid basis. In addition to the manufacture of tile and brick, Mr. Cook has recently invented an ornamental flower bed and walk border, which is very tasty and easily laid. It is burned from the same clay as the brick, and can be adjusted to any form required. He also is the inventor of a ditcher, with which he can cut trenches, and with which he digs narrow and deep ditches for tile laying, at much less expense than can be done by hand. The machine can be worked with two horses, but is designed for four. As already stated, the factory has grown to be one of the important industries of Louisa County, and the energetic and business-like proprietor is entitled to much credit for his success.

The Marsden Horse Compairy, of Columbus Junction, Louisa Co., Iowa, was organized in the fall of 1885, by W. P. & W. J. Marsden, who conducted the business under the firm name of W. P. & W. J. Marsden until Jan. 1, 1886. when they adopted the name of the Marsden Horse Company. On the 1st of January, 1888, John L. Merrill purchased a third interest in the business and became an equal partner. This company do a general business as dealers in Percheron and French coach horses, and always have several fine specimens on hand at their barns at the west end of Walnut street. The business is conducted under the management of W. J. Marsden, an experienced horseman.

The introduction of these fine stock horses is having the effect of improving in a marked degree the later growth of horses. Columbus Junction has long enjoyed the reputation of being one of the best home markets in Iowa, for the reason that the farmers of the surrounding country have spared no expense in breeding from the best horses they could find. With the great advantages offered by the use of the fine stock of the Marsden Horse Company, a new impetus has been given to this important branch of business, until this locality has attracted the favorable notice of dealers in and breeders of fine horses in all parts of the country.

Eckman and Baldwin, (William W. Eckman and F. M. Baldwin) successors to Wilcox and Son, are dealers in lumber, lath, shingles, sash, doors, blinds, lime, hair, cement and general building material, also in coal and fence posts. The firm bought out Wilcox and Son in May, 1884, and has carried on the business continually since. They have the exclusive trade at this point in their line, except as to fuel, and are doing an annual business of $35,000 or over. The proprietors are experienced lumber dealers, having carried on a similar business in Illinois several years prior to coming to Columbus Junction. They keep the best of stock, and are prompt, fair and courteous in all their transactions.

S. W. Alfred while his French number under which he wag imported is 7,708. He is a marvel of beauty and strength, promises to weigh over 2,500 pounds, and his cost was 12,000. The second Percheron is a finely modeled gray horse, six years old, weighing 1,750 pounds. His American number is 5,085 and the French 2,980. The Clyde horse “Wellington,” numbered 134, is six years old and weighs 1,850 pounds. He is a dark chestnut, and is a horse of fine carriage and good points. The English coach horse, “Young England’s Glory,” is a dark bay or light brown, five years old, and weighs 1 ,600 pounds. He is of the kind known as good all around horses, good for either road or draught. The introduction of such animals as these into a county will soon help to improve the grade of horses in a marked degree.

George I. Church, proprietor of Church’s Tonsorial Parlors, Columbus Junction, has the oldest established barber shop in the county. He began business in Columbus Junction in the fall of 1875, and has carried it on continuously since. He has conveniently arranged bath-rooms in the basement of his building, in which a good business is done. The building was constructed by Mr. Church for the purpose for which it is used, and it is well lighted and ventilated. He employs two good barbers, with himself making a force of three, so that his customers are promptly and well served. Columbus Junction is the only town in the State where the people go to Church to get shaved, and always with satisfaction.

John R. Gardner, proprietor of a restaurant, bakery, ice-cream parlor and depot lunch counter, Columbus Junction, began business at the depot as keeper of the lunch counter in January, 1837, and has carried it on continuously since, covering a period of sixteen years. In March, 1885, he bought out Mrs. Young’s bakery and restaurant, which he carried on successfully until the great fire of April 18, 1887, destroyed his establishment, by which he sustained a loss of over $900 above insurance. During the following summer, while rebuilding, he had stored his soda-fountain, his books, and lot of fixtures, including table wear, in the upper rooms of the railway depot, where they were totally destroyed r on the burning of the depot in August of that year.

Having no insurance on the goods, they proved a total loss; the destruction of the books also involved the loss of many accounts. In the month of October, 1887, Mr. Gardner erected his present fine brick building on the site of the old one, at a cost of 12,200, the upper story being yet unfinished. The building which he now occupies as a restaurant, bakery and ice-cream parlor, is twenty feet front by ninety feet deep, the front sixty feet being two stories high, while the remainder of the building, which is used as a bakery, is but one story high, and is fireproof. Mr. Gardner is doing a good business in all departments of the establishment, and well deserves a liberal patronage.

Gottfreid Kern, a harness-maker of Columbus Junction, established business at that place in 1876, which he has carried on continuously since. He carries a complete stock of harness, whips, robes, blankets, collars and harness findings, and does all kinds of repairing in his line promptly and in the best manner. His stock is the largest and most complete in the county, and his obliging manner and honesty of purpose have won for him the entire confidence of his patrons.