Linn County

Spring 2010

Spring 2010 aerial view of Cornell campus in Mt. Vernon. © Jamie Kelly 


The county was named for Sen. Lewis S. Linn of Missouri and organized in November 1837 while Iowa was still part of the Wisconsin Territory. The county is traversed by the Cedar and Wapsipinicon Rivers. In 1895 prairie lands interspersed with beautiful natural groves. Settlers added artificial groves and hedges until the entire county presented the appearance of a beautiful well-kept park.

After settling in 1837, commissioners found the location for the county seat and named it Marion in honor of General Marion of Revolutionary fame. For many years the Cedar River and wagons were the only transportation.

In the rural areas, the principal occupations were stock raising and dairying. The county was well supplied with creameries, condensed milk factories, and cheese factories.

In 1840, the first jail was built. The first prisoner, arrested for horse stealing, was confined in it even before the logs were higher than his shoulders. The first courthouse was built in Marion, the county seat, in 1842 at the cost of $40,000. As early as 1855, there were debates over whether to move the county seat to Cedar Rapids. It wasn’t until November 1919, that there were enough votes and Cedar Rapids became the county seat.    

In 1859 the first railroad was completed and it gave Linn County a through connection to Chicago. After the Chicago and Northwestern railroad, the CM and St Paul built into Marion in 1864. The BCR and N came in 1870 and it still has general offices there. Two other competing east and west trunk lines, the CR and P and the CB and O both do through billing on its lines.

The railroads came first, but soon roads followed. Fine limestone found in the area furnished good quality building stone, at very little expense. It was used in the building of many principal roads and highways.  

Today, Linn County is the largest participant in the State’s native vegetation roadside program. The county still has that appearance of a “well-kept park”.

Linn County and The Lincoln Highway
Photo Courtesy of Bill Sankot

© Bill Sankot

The Lincoln Highway’s early educational program operated under the “theory that one permanent mile established and built under proper specification will lead to further connecting miles of the same standard. And this theory has never failed to work out.”

Iowa’s seedling mile was built in 1918-1919 in Linn County. The cement was donated by Northwestern Portland Cement Company through the Lincoln Highway Association. The County would still need to pay $2100 just to haul it to the site. The location was noted as “eastward of the point where the road known as the “shortcut” connects with the Lincoln Highway.

Cement was delivered and stored in local barns. The job was let, but all bidders were too high. Upon re-letting the bids, Ford Paving won the bid at $3.15/sq. yard. The State Highway Commission talked Ford into doing the job for $2.84/sq. yard. The negotiated change was from a two course concrete paving to a one course concrete paving using Muscatine gravel as aggregate instead of crushed rock.

Towns Along the Lincoln Highway in Linn County 


Lincoln Highway sign at Lisbon's history center. ©Hoehnle

Lincoln Highway sign at Lisbon’s history center. ©Hoehnle

The city was laid out in 1851 and named after Lisbon, the capitol of Portugal. In 1858, it was predicted that Lisbon and Mount Vernon would someday be joined. Today they function as two independent cities, but appear almost as one continuous community.

The Sutliff Bridge is in Johnson County, but is near Lisbon. The historic bridge was lost in the flood of 2008.

The Lisbon History Center has a research library, military display, Lincoln Highway display, taped interviews and family history books.

Mount Vernon

The first settler arrived in 1837, with settlers arriving in force a year later. Original claims were made by stepping out 1500 paces each way and allowed squatter rights for 6 months. If a cabin was built, an additional 6 months was added. The U.S. Government sold land for $1.25 per acre. William Abbe built a cabin in the northeast corner near the school that bears his name. Traders and merchants took land on the “Hilltop” as it wasn’t as suitable for farming. Around 1847, that area was called “Pinhook” because of the wooden pins used to hang up goods in the stores. That same year, Mount Vernon was laid out by A.J. Willits and others where Cornell College is located today. It was renamed Mount Vernon after George Washington’s home. A large group of Czech settlers came in the early 1850’s. Groups also came from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Illinois, and Indiana. In 1869, the town was incorporated.

Aerial view of Cornell campus in Mount Vernon. © Jamie Kelly

Spring 2010 aerial view of Cornell campus in Mt. Vernon. © Jamie Kelly 

Early buildings were made from local clay and sand from the Red Cedar River, baked on site. The Northwestern Railroad came in 1859. The town was tied somewhat to the economy in Cedar Rapids, but has been able to remain a strong, independent town in its own right. Historically, it has been centered on education and services.

Cornell College is located in Mount Vernon and was founded in 1853 by George Bryant Bowman, a Methodist minister from North Carolina, with a passionate belief in higher education. Originally it was called the Iowa Conference Seminary. It was renamed in 1857 after William Wesley Cornell, a prosperous and devout Methodist and distant cousin to Ezra Cornell who would found Cornell University a decade later. Today, the school still maintains an affiliation with the United Methodist Church. It was the first college west of the Mississippi to grant women the same rights as men. In 1858, Cornell was the first Iowa college to graduate a woman. Cornell’s department of geology is the oldest in Iowa, having started in 1855. Now the school offers the “one course at a time” concept as students take only one class in 3 ½ week course terms. The largest Gingko tree in the state is on the “Hilltop” near the president’s home.

Abbe School is a one-room school house. See their website for more information.


The Sac and Fox encamped in this area as they journeyed to trade ports and hunting grounds. In 1838, the first settlers arrived. These early people had to go to Rochester or Muscatine to get mail. Prairie fires often swept away houses and the creeks were not bridged. The roads were few and settlers had to go to Muscatine to get grain. Oxen were used to open up land for farming.

The town was laid out in 1839 with a store and hotel built that same year. The courthouse was built in 1840. Marion was named for General Francis Marion, the famed Swamp Fox of the Revolutionary War.

Cedar Rapids

The Cedar River flows over a rocky ledge in the water, creating extreme rapids. Red cedars abundantly lined the banks. For these two reasons, this community was named Cedar Rapids. The town was laid out in 1842. A dam was built across the river and a sawmill erected.

The first cabin was built in 1838 by an outlaw named Shepherd. It was, for a very long time, a rendezvous of horse thieves that infested the region in the early days. The gang was not broken up until 1851.

The town grew quickly and in 1858 it had 8 flour mills, 5 sawmills, 2 planing mills, one paper mill, one foundry, a woolen factory, two sash door and blind manufacturer, 8 brickyards, 83 general stores, 3 banks, and 3 newspapers. The amount of lumber sawed in 1855 was 2,200,000 ft. of timber taken from the banks of the Cedar River. Coal was discovered 10 miles from the city on the banks of the river.

The Chicago, Iowa, and Nebraska Railroad comes from the east and turns north in Cedar Rapids and heads to South Bend, MN. The main line of the Northwestern Railroad runs through Linn County from east to west. It was the first built to Cedar Rapids which became one of the most important railroad centers in the state.

Cedar Rapids is home to the only Masonic Library. It also has the second largest packing plant. Cedar Rapids is the second largest city in Iowa. Only Des Moines, the state capitol is larger.

Coe College is in Cedar Rapids. Rev. Willison Jones founded it in 1851 as “The School for the Prophets”. He was Cedar Rapids’ first minister and wanted to teach men to serve the new churches in the Midwest. Jones went to the East looking for donors. Daniel Coe, a Catskill farmer, gave him $1,500 and said the only stipulation was that women needed to be admitted too. Jones purchased land and built the school. In 1868, it was renamed the Parsons Seminary in hopes they would be a benefactor in the Parsons’ estate. It did not work out and the school suffered financial difficulties. In 1875, it was reestablished as Coe Collegiate Institute. Tim Sinclair, founder of Sinclair Meat Packing Company, helped turn things around and it was eventually known as Core College. It is affiliated with the Iowa Presbyterian Synod.

Mount Mercy University was started by the Sisters of Mercy. They leased the land in 1906 and bought the Mound farm and Greene Mansion in 1907. The school was established as a junior college for women in 1928. In 1960 it was changed to a 4-year school and in 1969, it became co-ed.

Other Towns in Linn County

The town was founded in the1870’s as a local trade community and rail stop. Albert C. Burnett was a local businessman and the town as first called Burnett. The post office confused Burnett with Bennett and it caused misdirected mail. It was incorporated in 1912. Check out the Alburnett Community Historical Society’s Rockwood Store.    

The town was founded in 1858 and named for Captain John Bertram who was instrumental in bringing the railroad to the area. The town is close to Palisades-Kepler State Park and the Bertram Bridge which spans Big Creek and is on the National Register of Historic Places.

This town was once known as McGonigle’s Point, after a settler names Bartimeas McGonigle. Center Point was the halfway station on the mail route for the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Northern Railroad between Cedar Rapids and Waterloo. The town retained its name. Check out the Center Point Historical Society Museum.

Central City was a trading center for farmers and settlers within a ten-mile radius, established in 1859 along the Wapsipinicon River. Pinicon Ridge County Park, Brendel City Park, Courtyard Park, Wapicada Natural Area, Matsell Bridge Natural Area offer visitors lush areas to explore. Several summer youth camps are in the area- Camp Hitaga (Camp Fire), Camp Waspi Y (YMCA), and the Boy Scouts of America’s Howard Cherry Boy Scout Reservation with Camp Wakona and Camp Waubeck.

There are several museums in Central City . The Sawyer House, circa 1878, is referred to as the “wedding cake” house. The Old Library Museum was built in 1916 in the Prairie School style. The Paris School is a one-room schoolhouse used from 1894-1954. The Brown Farm, circa 1872, is a Century Farm of Iowa and has horse-drawn machinery to early tractor farming displays.

This town was originally known as Manhattan and founded in 1850. It is along the banks of the Buffalo Creek. Then it was commonly known as Green’s Mill and later as Nugent’s Cove. The railroad printed maps and called it Nugent’s Cove. The post office likes one word names, so they shortened it to Nugent. It was against the law to have 2 towns with the same name. The Green family wanted it to go back to their name, but the Nugent family objected. Both agreed on a third party choosing a name. The railroad was hosting a large party and Supt. Spaulding from England was in attendance. He suggested Coggon as he had just gotten a letter from his cousin, William Coggon of England. The town’s motto is “The One and Only” as no other town in the world shares the name.

The Coggon Historical Society owns the Clemons House, built in 1887. It was the first structure on Main Street. It was first a hotel, then a barbershop, doctor’s office, restaurant, care center, and warehouse. A 1915 Opera house has been restored and is a gathering place for many events, including productions and plays.

  • Ely

The first settler came in 1838 from Germany. The railroad bought 60 acres and laid out the town in 1872 under the proprietorship of Dr. John F. Ely, who was the treasurer of the BCR and N railroad, vice-president of the Union Bank, and one of the directors of the First National Bank of Cedar Rapids. By 1878 half of the population was of Czech or Bohemian ancestry. It still has a strong Czech ethnic identity.

The Dows Street Historic District is on the National Register of Historic Places as is the Ely Community Center that once served as a school.

Fairfax was laid out in 1863 when the railroad came through the area and is named after Fairfax County, Virginia. It was originally called Vanderbilt in honor of an early settler.

This town began as a vision of Fay Clark in 1946. (That is not a typo!) He had already bought 11 acres west of Robins Road where he had a Quonset building with a lunch room and a welding shop. He established a trailer company and built a “modern trailer court” on 20 acres east of Robins Road. In 1950, Clark and 45 others petitioned the Linn County Court to be the 17th incorporated town in Linn County. His vision of turning farmland into a town with houses and a road running through it became a reality.

Clark was born in LaCrosse, WI and at the age of 16, lived with Chief Red Cloud and the Winnebago Indians for 2 years. He received an engineering degree from the University of Wisconsin. One of his hobbies was to photograph a person’s aura. He and his first wife helped a lot of people get started in life. After the war, they aided veterans in getting homes. He served as mayor from 1950-58 and 1961-63.

  • Palo

The first settlers arrived in 1839 and chose to live her e because of the river and timber. It was first known as “Camp Cedar”. The post office gave it the name Palo after the Battle of Palo Alto in the Mexican-American War.   The town was founded in 1854.

The Western Stage Company operated a line through Palo for Cedar Rapids to Vinton. A second stage line traveled from Cedar Rapids to Cedar Falls and traveled through Palo.

The citizens of Palo, Shellsburg, and Vinton banded together to form the Cedar Valley Railroad but the Civil War halted any building for 4 years. The Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Minnesota Railroad organized after the war and the locals donated money and lumber. In 1869, the line was completed.

The downtown is on the National Register of Historic Places. Some of the historic buildings were lost in the 2008 flood.

The Duane Arnold Energy Center is a nuclear power unit and generates 615 million watts of electricity for 600,000 homes. It is run by NextEra energy. Duane Arnold was raised in Sanborn, Iowa and educated in Grinnell College. He worked for Iowa Electric Light and Power from 1946 until his death in 1983. He was the chairman of the board and CEO of the company and committed to nuclear energy.    

  • Prairieburg

Prairie is a common word used in town names. At one time there were 22 combinations in Iowa alone.

  • Robins

Robins was named for its first postmaster and storekeeper.

In 1837, the Sac and Fox ceded to the US Government an elongated arrowhead-shaped stretch of land known as the Second Blackhawk Purchase. The first settler staked his claim in 1838 and purchased the land in 1840 from the government. In 1842, the first post office was established and mail received weekly. It was incorporated in 1881. The name comes from the large, sparkling springs that were found in the locality.

This town lies in 2 counties- Linn and Benton County.

  • Walker

The town began as an outgrowth of the Burlington, Cedar Rapids, and Northern Railroad in honor of W.W. Walker, chief engineer of the railroad