County History

Woodbury County, Iowa

Brief Histories

The following county history summary was adapted from Project Completion Report Volume 15, Number 58. It was written by Marlin R. Ingalls, Project Architectural Historian for the Highway Archaeology Program at The University of Iowa.

On their trip to the Pacific Northwest, the explorers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark passed through present-day Woodbury County in 1804 where the expedition's only fatality, Sgt. Charles Floyd, was buried on a bluff overlooking the Missouri River. Permanent white settlement of the area that presently comprises Woodbury County only began in 1848 when William Thompson built a log house and grist mill near this bluff. The following year, Theophile Bruguier, a French-Canadian fur trader and son-in-law of the Yankton chief War Eagle, settled at the mouth of the Big Sioux River (Warner 1974:50-51 Writers' Program 1942:5, 16; Fulton 1940:12).

In 1851, the Iowa State Legislature established a new county encompassing the two settlements. Originally named Wahkaw, the county was renamed Woodbury when the legislature passed an act organizing the county in 1853. Later that summer, a state-appointed commission designated Thompson's log house at Floyds' Bluff as the county seat. A rival community, Sergeant's Bluff City, attempted to wrest the seat of government from Floyd's Bluff. In late 1854, a third town was established when Dr. John K. Cook platted Sioux City. The following year the new community gained a post office and a General Land Office. By 1856 when the voters of Woodbury County approved the removal of the county seat to Sioux City, the town had two hotels, a bank, and a population of 150 people. A sawmill on Perry Creek provided lumber to merchants who constructed false-front stores along Pearl and Third Streets (Marks 1904:756; Warner 1974:73-75, 79; Iowa Writers' Program 1942:17, 27-29; Fulton 1940:15-16; Sioux City Art Center 1983:9-10; O'Connor 1932:39-40).

While overland transportation to Sioux City was made possible by a road from Fort Dodge, river travel would be the principal means of transportation. Beginning with the arrival of the steamboat Omaha in 1856, Sioux City soon became an important stop for riverboat captains heading up the Missouri River. In 1857, Sioux City was incorporated and the citizens held their first election. Also that year a steam ferry began service on the Missouri River, and the county's first newspaper, the Sioux City Eagle, was begun. Two years later, the county awarded a contract to S. H. Cassady to construct a brick courthouse. However, the effort was abandoned and it was not until the 1870s before the first building especially intended to be a courthouse was completed. In addition to its businesses, Sioux City boasted two schools, five churches, and a Masonic lodge on the eve of the Civil War (Iowa Writers' Program, 1942:35-38, 69-73; Warner 1974:75, 192-201,213).

Railroad Construction

More significant to Sioux City's development than Missouri River steamboat traffic were the railroads constructed in Woodbury County during the late 19th century. Although a rail line running east from the town was surveyed in 1856, a railway did not become a reality until 1867 when the Sioux City and Pacific entered the county. The line which connected with the Union Pacific in Nebraska via Missouri Valley reached Sioux City in 1868. A branch of the Chicago and Northwestern, this railroad had a major impact upon the town. Freight shipped from New York reached Sioux City in eight days. During the summer following the start of rail service, a boom in real estate sales occurred when 145 lots in the East Addition sold at auction in a single day. The Sioux City and Pacific also led to the creation of the towns of Salix and Sloan (Iowa Writers' Program 1942:79-87; Warner 1974:122-123).

During the next two decades, other railroads built lines to Sioux City, including the Dubuque & Sioux City (1870), a branch of the Illinois Central, the Sioux City & St. Paul (1872), the Sioux City & Pembina (1873), the Northwestern (1887}, the Union Pacific (1889), and the Sioux City & Northern (1890), which later became part of James G. Hill's Great Northern. In funding the Sioux City & Pembina, promoters from Sioux City and Yankton, South Dakota, collected over $200,000 to construct a line between the two towns. This railroad had mixed blessings for Sioux City because the Missouri River steamboat trade, which had continued to play an important role in the town's economy even after the arrival of the first railroad, moved up-river to Yankton. However, the railways were the unchallenged transportation system; by 1890 Woodbury County had a total track of 121 miles, and with six trunk lines and the branch lines of 16 other railroads, Sioux City had become an important railroad hub (Iowa Writers' Program 1942:82-85; Warner 1974:123-130; Petersen 1965:202-203).

Industrial Growth in Sioux City

Through its railroads, Sioux City became a thriving commercial center. In addition to 13 banks and many mercantile establishments, by 1890 the city boasted a growing industrial base. The total manufacturing output of Sioux City that year was an estimated $14,000,000. Among its 70 manufacturers were an engine works, a stove factory, a paving-brick and tile works, a butter tub factory, a sash and door factory, and a planing mill. The city's two auxiliary printing houses produced as many "ready-print" sheets as four other cities combined, and were surpassed only by New York, Chicago, and Kansas City. Many of the industries in Sioux City, such as its flour and oatmeal mills, linseed oil mills, and agricultural implement works, were related to farming (Warner 1974:182, 219-222, 231; Iowa Writers' Program 115-116, 120).

The most significant industry was the city's meat packing houses. This business began in 1859 when a local retailer, James E. Booge, bought water-damaged grain salvaged from a sunken steamboat to fatten his hogs. Unable to locate a market in which to sell the animals, Booge decided to slaughter the hogs and sell the meat to customers. Because the pork sold quickly, he invested the money in more animals and hired several butchers from St. Louis. Demand increased during and after the Civil War, and the enterprise prospered. After enlarging his packing plant in 1871, Booge built a new facility in 1880 which covered ten acres and could handle 800 hogs and 100 cattle per day (Iowa Writers Program 1942:114-115; O'Connor 1932:34}.

The packing industry of course benefited from railroad construction in Sioux City, but it also received a boost from the completion of the Union Stock Yards in 1887. By 1888, James E. Booge & Sons had been joined by two other establishments: W.H. Silberhorn, whose machinery was powered by a pair of 225-horsepower Corliss engines, and Edward Haakinson & Company, whose complex of buildings included a 5-story packing house. In 1890, the town's meat packers slaughtered a total 12,000 hogs and 2,000 cattle daily. With an annual output of 680,000 hogs and 33,500 cattle, Sioux City ranked fifth among the nation's packing houses (O'Connor 1932:34-35; Warner 1974:222-224; Iowa Writers' Program 1942:116).

Urban Development in Sioux City

As a source of jobs, the packing houses and other manufacturers attracted many people to Sioux City. Between the 1880s and 1890s, the town experienced phenomenal population growth. In 1880, 7,500 people lived in Sioux City; ten years later the federal census counted more than 38,000 citizens living there. Consequently suburbs such as Leeds were developed to house the expanding labor force (Warner 1974:182; Sioux City Art Center 1983:15).

The increase in commercial activity and population created demands that required the expansion of Sioux City's infrastructure. During the economic boom of the 1880s many substantial buildings were built along lower Fourth Street such as the 1889 Lexington Block. A medical establishment, St. Joseph Hospital opened in 1889. Among Sioux City's attractions were its 1892 public library, the Peavey Grand Opera House, and the exhibitions held at the Corn Palace during the years 1887 to 1891. In 1890, classes began at the University of Northwest. Four years later this institution merged with Charles City College to become Morningside College (Petersen 1965:200-201; Sioux City Art Center 1983:15-17; Iowa Writers' Program 1942:89; O'Connor 28, 35-41; Federal Writers' Project 1938:312).

Sioux City's gas company, which began operation in 1872, was expanded in 1889 when four miles of pipe were constructed. The town's electric service was inaugurated in the 1880s. By 1890, the glow of 118 gas lamps and 76 electric lamps illuminated Sioux City streets. The town also had 20 miles of streets paved with wood blocks, a water system that included 30 miles of water mains, and 32 miles of sewer lines. The total valuation of Sioux City's improvements in 1890 was $16,000,000 (Warner 1974 179-182, 231-233; O'Connor 1932:40-41).

In 1884 five horse-drawn street cars began operating on three miles of track. By 1890, the system included 16 miles of track and 66 electric powered cars. Cable car service began in 1889 with 16 cars and a 3 -mile long track. The most ambitious mass transit transportation system in Sioux City was the elevated railway. The ell was the creation of several influential financiers including Arthur S. Garretson, who was treasurer for the Sioux City & Northern Railroad, and packing-house pioneer James E. Booge. King Bridge & Iron Company of Cleveland Ohio built the 25-foot high steel structure at a cost of $242,000 (Warner 1974:234-235; O'Connor 1932:32-33; Petersen 1965:197).

In 1891, cars pulled by coal-burning locomotives began running on the elevated between downtown and Morningside Avenue. One year later, the Floyd River flooded 218 downtown blocks. Stories about flood refugees who escaped drowning by climbing upon the ell's platforms were well publicized and purportedly led to Chicago's famous elevated railway. Following the Panic of 1893, the ell's owners declared bankruptcy. Following its conversion to electricity, the system was abandoned around 1899. Before its demise, however, the elevated spurred the development of Morningside, a suburb southeast of Sioux City (O'Connor 1932:33; Iowa Writers' Program 1942:119; Thompson 1989;117-119}.

Turn-of-the-century Agriculture

In addition to making it a desirable place to live for its citizens, Sioux City's growth helped to secure the town's position as an important trade center in northwestern Iowa. To the people who tilled the land outside of Sioux City, the town was important for its stockyards, where farmers sold their livestock, its linseed oil works, where they sold the flax they raised, and its railroads that the farmers used to ship other farm products to larger cities. Each of these features encouraged farmers to increase agricultural acreage and make improvements to their farms (Thompson 1989:40-43).

In 1860, when only 28% of Iowa land was used for agricultural purposes, the estimated market value of Woodbury County farm real estate was $9 per acre; statewide this figure was an estimated $12 an acre. By 1900, when Iowa farm acreage had increased to 96% of the state's area, the estimated value of farmland in the county was $37 per acre. The increase in land values during this forty-year period was due in part to improvements such as new buildings and fences (Murray 1967:456-460, Farm Real Estate Values by County table). Hence, Sioux City's prosperity not only shaped the built environment in Sioux City, but also influenced the surrounding rural landscape.

While railroads and urban industries encouraged farmers to place more land in production, other factors would play a role in increasing Iowa's agricultural output at the turn of the century. Significant among these factors were technological advances in farming such as mechanized farm machinery, hybrid corn, new crops, better breeds of livestock, and improved planting techniques. Advocates of this more scientific approach to agriculture, known as Progressive Farming, included the faculty of the state agricultural college at Ames and the state's county extension agents. Through their extension agents, county farmers learned the latest information about crop rotation and proper tillage. Starting in 1918, home demonstration agents taught farm women food storage methods such as canning, which helped to improve the nutrition and health of farm families. The Farm Bureau would also play an important role in educating farm men and women about good agricultural practices. In 1920, the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation assisted in the formation of the American Farm Bureau Federation (Wall 1978:129; Ross 1951:123-127,142; Sage 1974:304-305}.

References Cited

Federal Writers' Project
1986 The WPA Guide to 1930s Iowa. Reprinted. Iowa State University, Ames. Originally published under the title Iowa: A Guide to the Hawkeye State in 1938, Viking Press, New York.

Fulton, A. R.
1940 A History of Woodbury County. An 1868 manuscript transcribed by the Works Progress Administration, Iowa Historical Records Survey Project, Des Moines. Ms. On file, State Historical Society of Iowa Library, Iowa City.

Iowa Writers' Program
1942 Woodbury County History, Iowa. Ms. On file, State Historical Society of Iowa Library, Iowa City.

Marks, Constant R.
1904 Past and Present of Sioux City and Woodbury County, Iowa. S. J. Clarke Publishing Company, Chicago.

Murray, William G.
1967 Iowa Land Values: 1803-1967. The Palimpsest48:441-504.

O'Connor, Rose A.
1932 Sioux City: A True Story of How it Grew. Hoyt-Purcell Company, Sioux City.

Petersen, William J.
1965 The Great Northern in Iowa. The Palimpsest 46:193-208.

Ross, Earle D.
1951 Iowa Agriculture: An Historical Survey. Iowa State Historical Society, Iowa City.

Sage, Leland L.
1974 A History of Iowa. Iowa State University Press, Ames.

Sioux City Art Center
1983 Sioux City, Iowa: An Architectural View. Sioux City Art Center.

Thompson, William H.
1989 Transportation in Iowa: A Historical Summary. Iowa Department of Transportation, Ames.

Wall, Joseph F.
1978 Iowa: A Bicentennial History. W. W. Norton and Company, New York.

Warner, A.
1974 History of the Counties of Woodbury and
Plymouth, Iowa. Reprinted Unigraphic, Inc. Evansville, Indiana. Originally published 1890-91, A. Warner and Company, Chicago.

You can read more about Woodbury County History at the Iowa Office of the State Archaeologist, a research, service, and educational unit of The University of Iowa.

If you know of any corrections or missing information please contact me.

Woodbury County Coordinator


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