In 1854 the owners of the land on both sides of the Cedar River at this point decided to join together to plat the new community of Waterloo. The grid in this case was established parallel to and perpendicular to the general southeasterly direction of the Cedar River. (As is almost always the case, much of the later platted additions to the city utilized a north-south, east-west grid.) Though no rapids or falls existed at this point of the river, the flow was sufficient to provide power for milling operations. A log-and-brush dam was initially built across the river, and in 1856 the first flour mill was established. The first bridge across the river, a wooden one, was built in 1859, and the first iron bridge was erected in 1871. In the early seventies, Waterloo instead of nearby Cedar Falls emerged as the key railroad point in this section of the state. The Illinois Central built its shops at Waterloo in 1870, and the roundhouse of this complex of buildings still exists.
By the early 1900s Waterloo had assumed the character of a typical small midwestern industrial city. The John Deere and Company works at 400 Westfield Avenue (which had absorbed the earlier Waterloo Gasoline Engine Company) is the city's largest industry, supplemented by others such as the Rath Meat Packing Plant.
Each of the two parts of the city divided by the river started out with a square-block public park: Lincoln Park for the east, and Washington Park for the section west of the river. As the city expanded, extensive additions were made to the park system. The largest of these are Gates Park, Exchange Park, and Cedar River Park to the east, and Hope Martin Memorial Park and Byrnes Park to the west.
Having developed on both sides of the river, Waterloo did not end up with one single public or business downtown. There has been a tendency to divide equally the major public buildings, and even in the early years of this century not one but two Carnegie libraries were built. The succeeding Black Hawk County courthouses were placed east of the river. The 1857 Greek Revival courthouse with portico and lantern was torn down in 1902 and replaced with a grand “French Renaissance” Beaux-Arts building. This in turn hit the dust in 1964, replaced with the current, rather bleak version of a corporate International-style building.
The normal wear and tear as well as post-World War II urban renewal have pretty well obliterated Waterloo's early past. The sawmills and flour mills situated in and around the Fourth Street bridge are gone, as are the principal Chautauqua buildings (from 1893 to 1906) that were located in Exchange Park.
The most fascinating residential neighborhood of the city is Highland Park, situated between Washington and Cedar, North Second and North Fifth streets. This area was platted in 1900 and again in 1907 in a grid following the course of the river. From the early 1900s on through the early 1930s, it was the upper-middle-class suburban enclave. A good number of the houses were designed by Waterloo's most famous architect, Mortimer B. Cleveland.
The general ins and outs of suburban development went back and forth across the river. At the beginning, the most prestigious area was the hill in and around Washington Park; then in the late nineteenth century attention seems to have shifted to the east side of the river. This focus was replaced west of the river by Highland Park starting around 1907; finally the post-World War II development has followed West Fourth Street, Kimball, Ridgeview, and Ainsborough avenues to the southwest. In this area one will discover wonderful suburban planning: Graceland Boulevard (a real boulevard), plus numerous bent or curved streets accompanied by single-family detached dwellings, often with appreciable setbacks from the street (such as along Sheridan Road).
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