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Willard Glazier noted when he visited the city in the 1880s that Keokuk had “broad thoroughfares, handsome and substantial buildings, [and] occupie[d] a beautiful locality.” He also mentioned the advantageous location of Keokuk, “The Gateway City,” at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Des Moines rivers, and at the lower end of the 12-mile-long Keokuk Rapids on the Mississippi: “The situation of Keokuk” he observed, “at the foot of the Rapids has made her a port of considerable importance for steam boats which carry large quantities of grain and other freight every season to St. Louis and southern ports on the river. Steamers touch here daily, some bound through from St. Paul, and others stopping at Keokuk to discharge and take on freight and passengers.” 26

Lock and Dam, plus Powerhouse

The city's grid was laid out in 1837 by Dr. Isaac Galland, an agent for the New York Land Company. Its north-northwest by south-southwest orientation of streets was a response to the large bend in the Mississippi which opened up to its juncture with the Des Moines River. By 1857 a railroad extended from the city, and in 1871 a large iron bridge was built across the Mississippi, constructed to accommodate the railroad, a carriageway, and a walkway for pedestrians. In 1877 the federal government constructed a canal and accompanying locks so that steamers and barges could bypass the Keokuk Rapids. This was supplanted in 1910–1914 by the 4,696-foot-long reinforced concrete Keokuk Dam, which contains locks and a hydroelectric power plant. Hugh L. Cooper, who designed the dam, became one of the world's leading designers of hydroelectric plants and dams.

Like other Mississippi River towns in Iowa, Keokuk was initially established on a flat terrace raised above the river. It then grew along the river and upward into the hills northwest of the downtown. Henry Lewis's drawing of the community indicates that as early as 1849 it spread into the hills and along the river. At first, public open space consisted of three centrally located public squares and Kilbourne Park, an open space given to the city by the family that developed Keokuk's first planned addition to the original city. In the 1850s an extensive cemetery was laid out within the northwestern hills. Later, three large parks were added: Rees Park for softball, Bluff Park for scenic views, and Rand Park for culture and recreation “in the Victorian manner.” Rand Park, on the northeast side of town overlooking the Mississippi, contains a 10 1/2-foot-high bronze statue of the Sac Indian chief Keokuk. This sculpture of 1913 was designed by Nellie Verne Walker. In addition, Rand Park contains a round classical temple composed of eight Tuscan columns and a fountain within (1901), and there is also an openly romantic “witch's hat” pavilion.

On the whole, Keokuk has been fortunate that so many of its nineteenth-and early twentieth-century buildings have been preserved. 27Grand Avenue, which extends along the north bluff of the Mississippi, contains a remarkable array of large-scale houses from the late nineteenth century and later. Several of these, such as the Rich house and the Green house, are of both regional and national significance. One of the city's greatest architectural losses was the Female Seminary building (c. 1855), an impressive stone octagon with cupola. Another was the Iowa Medical College building, later used as a courthouse, which was built in 1859 and finally torn down in 1976.


Glazier, Down the Great River, 297.

Raymond E. Garrison, Tales of Early Keokuk Homes (Hamilton, Illinois: The Hamilton Press, 1959).

Writing Credits

David Gebhard and Gerald Mansheim

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