As with so many communities in Iowa, the site for Cedar Falls was selected because of the potential of water power, in this instance the dramatic 14-foot-high falls of the Cedar River. An initial platting of the site took place in 1851, but the north-south, east-west grid of streets south of the river, which actually established the town pattern, was made in 1853. When first settled, this section of the river contained extensive stands of trees, but by the 1870s most of this “native” forest had vanished. Very quickly a number of mills were built to take advantage of the water power of the river. These included a number of flour mills, a woolen mill, a starch factory, and a factory that made wooden pumps. South of this river-oriented manufacturing district was the downtown, site of a good number of two- and three-story masonry buildings. The residential area developed to the south and to the west. Here were eventually located three of the city's early parks. Later residential development occurred still further to the south, and from the 1920s onward it moved to the east.
The railroad reached Cedar Falls in 1861, and by 1875 the community was served by two lines, the Illinois Central and the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Minnesota. Separate depots were built for each of the railroads, and the later stations still exist (see NO012; NO015). The community was selected for the Iowa State Soldiers' Orphans Home in 1865. Permanent buildings were erected for the home in 1869. These consisted of a large combined school and residence three-story masonry structure on a raised basement, a chapel, and other buildings. The home was located on a 40-acre site which is now encompassed within the University of Northern Iowa. All of the principal buildings of the former home are now gone.
Though parks had been established within Cedar Falls early in its development, it was in the teens through the forties that the city acquired its major parks. Four of these (Pfeiffer Springs Park, Washington Park and Golf Course, Look Out Park, and George Wyth Memorial Park) were located on the river itself. On the northwest outskirts of the city, at the north end of Ellen Street and South Park Road, is Riverview Park, established in 1916 as the Iowa Conference Center of the Evangelical Church. The double gates, some remaining conference buildings, and a number of private riverside cabins create a strong sense of an informal, somewhat rustic 1920s resort community.
The former milling district along the river has lost most of its buildings; the only remaining mill building ( NO011) is now a restaurant. There are still a few early commercial buildings to be found in the downtown. The most important of these is the four-story Burr Hotel (now Black Hawk Hotel) at 115 Main Street. This was built as a hostelry in the late 1870s in the French Empire Style, with mansard roof, central roof pavilion, and projecting iron balconies. Much of the more exuberant exterior detail has now been removed (including the balconies), and the interior has been extensively remodeled.
One can still visually read Cedar Falls as a separate community, yet it is slowly being encompassed within the continual expansion of the Waterloo metropolitan area directly to the east. George Wyth Memorial Park now serves as a boundary between the two cities, and the Waterloo Airport situated in the far northwestern section of Waterloo serves both communities.
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