Cheryl St.John on Historic Council Bluffs

The Missouri River divides Nebraska and Iowa. Just across the Missouri River from where I live is the city we now know as Council Bluffs. Lewis and Clark first came through in 1804, but fur traders had already visited the outposts. During the 1830s, a path appeared where Indian Creek flowed out of the Loess Hills at Caldwell’s Potawatomi village and led west across the Eight-Mile Prairie. The Mormons arrived in 1846, and two years later named the settlement Kanesville in honor of Colonel Thomas Kane who befriended them when they were driven from Navoo, Illinois because of their religious beliefs. Brigham Young was inaugurated president of the Mormons along the path that had become known as Broadway.

When the Mormons deserted Kanesville in 1849, they left behind 80 – 100 log cabins and a post office. The cabins were sold cheap as the gold-seekers moved through. Tens of thousands of pioneers outfitted for the gold rush. It was reported that every available building was converted into a gambling and drinking hall. The resulting conditions were described as a very dirty, unhealthy place. One female settler passing through wrote that she got a taste of such profanity she’d had no idea was practiced in the world, while another claimed she had witnessed a drunken orgy. In 1853 a mayor was elected to deal with lawlessness and a land office opened. A city jail was established  and a vigilance committee sanctioned to enforce order by any means necessary, including limiting sales of gunpowder. MARY CONNEALY HAS BLOGGED ON THE SQUIRREL CAGE JAIL

The city couldn’t tax squatter titles, so instead of property taxes, the city budget came from licensing all the saloons and gambling halls. (I find it interesting that Council Bluffs is once again relying on casinos for city profit. There are no casinos allowed in neighboring Nebraska.) So booze and gambling padded the city coffers.

In 1853 those remaining after the miners moved west renamed the town to Council Bluffs, commemorating the 1804 council between the Otoe Indians and Meriweather Lewis and Colonel William Clark. IN 1855 the Kansas-Nebraska act opened the territory west of the Missouri to settlement and fueled the sectional conflict between the North and South that would erupt into the Civil War less than a decade later.

The first immigrants lived in tents or dugouts in the hills and hollows between the bluffs while they built homes. The following year William Brown, who’d come west with the gold miners and stayed to prosper, sold shares in his Council Bluffs and Nebraska ferry company, The Lone Tree ferry, to former Virginian Samuel Bayless and others and together those men staked out a claim of 322 city blocks on the west bank of the river, laying the plans for the city of Omaha. A hotel was built and a Methodist church held service. Next came a sawmill.

After two fires, most Council Bluffs building were replaced with brick. Abraham Lincoln visited Council Bluffs to examine 160 acres of land he’d received as collateral on a defaulted loan, and he gave a speech at the concert hall. Three years later, Lincoln selected Council Bluffs as eastern terminus of the first transcontinental railroad, which was completed in 1869 with General Grenville M. Dodge as chief construction engineer. Railcars were transported across the river by ferry until the completion of a railway bridge in 1873. By 1940 Council Bluffs had become the fifth largest rail center in the United States.

The Woodward Candy Company once stood at the corner of Broadway and Glen Avenue and for a time was the city’s largest employer. Some of the recipes were sold to Russel Stover Candies in the 1930s.

There are six historical districts, with many of the homes and buildings on the National Register of Historic Places, Registry of Local Landmarks and the National Historical Landmarks Registry.


The Black Angel – Ruth Anne Dodge Memorial
Ruth Anne Dodge, wife of General Grenville Dodge, had a dream or vision shortly before she died in 1916. This vision had an angel at the prow of a boat carrying a small bowl and extending her other arm toward Mrs. Dodge. The daughters of the Dodges commissioned a sculptor, Daniel Chester French, to design a monument based on this vision. French is best known as the designer of the seated Lincoln in the Memorial in Washington D. C.


+ posts

47 thoughts on “Cheryl St.John on Historic Council Bluffs”

  1. Thanks Cheryl for the most interesting post. I love reading about how old towns got their start and the interesting people that were part of that beginning. Well done. 🙂

  2. Once again I am reminded that history never seems to be a straight line to me but overlapping layers of people and events. People coming, people going. Circumstances within and out of their control. Very interesting post!


    Peace, Julie

  3. oooh, i love hearing about places in my home state! always interesting reading on here!!
    thank you for the great post!
    what’s with the angel? why did it become a sculpture?? did anything come of the dream or was it just a random dream?? cause i could have had a lot of weird sculptures crafted just for random dreams 🙂

    thanks for the chance at apaloosa! a dvd…what a twist 🙂

  4. I saw Appaloosa. It’s really good!

    One of my sons-in-law is into genealogy. His research has revealed that my dh’s family has a long history of “service” in Missouri, judges, lawyers, lawmen, legislators, both state and national. In some cases I’d say they were “shady” types since some are reputed to have had a hand in running out Mormons from their area.

    We visited Fulton, MO in the late 60s, where my father-in-law was born. Such a lovely town. One of the things I so admire about towns and villages like Fulton, and Council Bluffs–that you’ve brought to such vivid life, Cheryl–is they have preserved so much history for us to see and enjoy down through the ages.

    Thanks, Cheryl, for an interesting post.

  5. With all the research we do for our books, it’s good to be reminded of the history right in our own backyard. Thanks for a fun post, Cheryl.

    BTW – is it just me or do the candy giants (Mr. and Mrs. Jean Bregant) look like children playing dress up? I don’t know if it is the lack of background in the picture or what, but they look like little dolls. Then again, maybe it was a marketing ploy to appeal to children so they would beg their parents for more candy. LOL

  6. Hi Cheryl! Thank you for the tour of Council Bluffs. I feel like I’ve stepped back in time and gone for walk. “The Black Angel” sure is striking. I could see it being used in a book…

  7. Hi Cheryl, I had no idea Council Bluffs had such an interesting history. I’ve been in that area many times but always on the west side of the river. Six historical districts? Sounds like my kind of place!

  8. Thanks Cheryl, I think that my next stay in Omaha may have to include a side trip to Council Bluffs. All I have ever seen is what can be seen from the interstate passing through to Kansas City. I love touring historic districts.

  9. Hey! It seems that you don’t live to far from me. Sort of. LOL! I’ve been through Council Bluffs but never thought much about the history there. Thanks for sharing!

  10. Thanks Cheryl for a great post. I’m always interested in knowing how towns get their names and where they come from. I love the history behind this town, and learned something, I’ve always called it Council Bluff but now realize it has an “s” on the end. Interesting post.

  11. Karen, I’m glad you mentioned the candy giants because I studied that photo for a long time trying to figure out what was off about it.
    It looks like the faces were superimposed on the bodies and are out of proportion. The man’s face looks like a child, so I’m guessing they didn’t have a photo of him as an adult?
    Cheryl, did you know you were writing a mystery here? LOL

  12. Hi Cheryl, these are some awesome things in history. I love these type of post and learn a lot form them. Thanks for sharing!

  13. Thank you for an interesting and informative post. I keep finding more and more places to visit. We can’t wait until we retire so we can spend time exploring. The Squirrel cage jail was an interesting post and a very unique bit of construction. I showed it to my husband and it we put it on our must see list.
    Have a great week.

  14. Ah, how often do we not discover the history that’s close to us? Thanks for some insight and information I didn’t have a clue about. Of course when my grandparents lived in CB, I didn’t care much about history. 🙂

    It does look like that candy advertisement could use a bit of photoshopping! Odd.

  15. Cher, loved your blog subject! I read about Council Bluffs in history class but didn’t know much about the time before and after Lewis and Clark met the Otoe Indians there, except for a brief mention of the transcontinental railraod. It must’ve been a wild and wooly place in the 1800’s. How neat that it’s really close to where you live. You have history at your fingertips.

  16. Hi Tammy and Julie – thanks for stopping by.

    Tabita, I agree about weird sculptures make from dreams. I had one just last night as a matter of fact. My niece and I were lost in Las Vegas.

    Much of my family is from Missouri, Joyce. My mother was born in St.Jo. My cousin Diana is the one who researches geneology in our family, and she’s amazing.

    Karen, the candy making couple were little people. I thought about mentioning that, but then figured people’s comments would be far more interesting if they saw the photo first without that information like I did. 🙂

  17. Hi Cher, I have been to Council Bluffs a few times and saw the Mormon Bridge but didn’t know all this history, particularlyabout the, duh, Mormons. I love learning new things. Thanks. We hope to get back to Nebraska one day. oxoxox

  18. Hi Vicki and Judy. I especially love the historic homes in Council Bluffs. I have an entire book of big color photos of them called Victorian Architecture of Iowa.

    I planned to visit them all and take my own photos, but I haven’t gotten very far with that goal yet. This is a good reminder for me.

  19. Yes, Connie, do make a stop. There is a train museum and a historical cemetery where many of the founders are buried, including Amelia Bloomer – who invented bloomers to ride her bike – as well as the General Dodge House.

  20. Hi, Cheryl. I’m sorry I didn’t get over here until now.
    I’ve done some looking around Council Bluffs and it’s really a fascinating and OLD town.

    We drove through one of those brick housing historical districts. Really beautiful and Council Bluffs has preserved it well.

    Plus the Squirrel Cage Jail.
    Plus the General Dodge House, really cool.
    I’ve got a friend, Lorna Seilstad, from Council Bluffs who’s writing a book (Making Waves) set in about turn of the century Council Bluffs called The Lake Manawa Series, about the wealthy people who used to live in tents by Lake Manawa (in Council Bluffs) They’d put up huge tents, bring furniture, bring a tent for the servants. They weren’t roughing it.

  21. *lizzie, my dad always wanted to drive to Co. Bluffs for a Saturday or Sunday drive when I was a kid, so I’ve seen the Black Angel many times, as well as a lot of the scenery.

    Tanya, did you visit the Mormon Cemetery in Omaha? There are lovely statues there. And in reccent years they’ve constructed a Mormon temple near the cemetery. All of it is on winter quarters.

  22. So true, Linda. Most of us probably have history at our fingertips. Nearby we have Fort Atkinson, which is a great museum and the Bertrand museum, where a steamship was unearthed along the river. The contents are all on display. We also have the Union Pacific Durham museum, which has static history displays, but exhibits that change out often. There are local photography collections archived there, and they’re a facinating glimpse at the past.

  23. I’ve never been to Council Bluffs, but my sister used to live in Des Moines so I have been to Iowa. I live in Missouri so I’m only a state away. I always enjoy learning about the history of different towns and cities. I like visiting the musuems that some small towns have. They usually have interesting items. We live in a mining area so there are mining musuems around here. Thank you for the very interesting post.

  24. Tabitha, I’ve probably asked you this before, but where are you in Iowa?

    Hi, Linda. You’ve undoubtedly been to the Jessie James home then. They moved it between the time I was a kid and saw it and when I visted as an adult.

  25. how interesting about the coming of Omaha and the candy company.
    I can hardly imagine the railcars being brought over by ferry- what an awesome task.

    Thanks for the very interesting post.

  26. Hi Cheryl. What fun to find my hometown and current home featured! You summarized the cities history wonderfully. It is a fascinating place with so man stories to tell.

    My grandmother actually worked at the Woodward Candy Factory. My dad said he scraped the chocolate off her apron when she got home.

    I can explain the photo, too. The Bregants (Jean and Inez) were former vaudville performers and midgets who advertised for the company. He was 45 inches tall and she was 42 inches. Their home, specially built for the two of them, still stands on 4th street. They also ran a grocery store.

    When they died, they left their estate to the city. Some of the money was used to build a carillon in their honor at Fairmont Park. The carillon played tunes for many years. Sadly, today it is silent because the replacement parts are no longer available.

  27. Hey, Robyn!

    Lorna, I am delighted to hear from you, neighbor! Thanks for filling in the rest of the history about the Bregants. There is another photo similar to this one in the tour brochure, but I couldn’t find it online. I didn’t know their home was still there! Do you know the address? I’d love to see it.

  28. Cheryl, the house is at 517 4th Street. I think I showed it to Mary on the Squirrel Cage visit. It’s a little tiny house that sits back from the street between two larger homes. When it was built, everything was made to fit them. I believe it has since been refitted for a normal sized person. I don’t know who lives there now, so don’t go knock on their door. 🙂

    I actually mentioned the candy factory in book 2 in the Manawa Series and in book three, I think I’ll borrow my dad’s apron story, too.

  29. ooh, i’d so scrape chocolate off an apron too 🙂

    cheryl…i live on the far other side of iowa…right near the tri-state border of illinois, iowa and wisconsin…it’s beautiful here along the river…i work in dubuque–the largest city in the area (though live 25 or so miles away in the country)–it has some cool history behind it too

  30. Oh, thank you, Lorna! I’m going to go see it. And I’m going to walk right up and say Lorna sent me.

    LOL just kidding

    Thanks, Karyn!

    Yes, Tabitha – I just loved that area when we visited. We stayed at a nice hotel near the tram that goes up and down the hillside downtown. And we visited the historic district and homes – oh my goodness, I thought Omaha was hilly! My hubby and I had a wonderful time in Dubuque. I know several of the ladies in the RWA writers’ group there.

  31. Cheryl wow what interesting information I live right here across the river and have went to a few places in CB but I know there are a ton of things I haven’t seen I should be doing that. I have went to the mormon Temple when they first built it and it is very beautiful I went through it 4 times. It is shocking how much is right here under our noses but I am sure glad there are people out there that remind us of what we need to get out there and see. See you are the best.

  32. I’m so sorry but I have to tell you. When I read, to my husband, the part about a drunken orgy in the Council Bluffs history back in the late 1840’s, I swear he laughed so hard he almost fell out his chair. He said, “What are you reading?!” Heehee. What an interesting history. And with the casinos, you always hear that history repeats itself. Thanks for the lesson!

  33. Hi Cheryl! Love the old west history and ghost towns. I live in Lewiston ID just across the river from Clarkston WA and we love our Lewis-Clark history too!

    Thanks for a wonderful post!

  34. Hey Cheryl, thank you for the info. I really enjoyed the photos. Casinos are being used up here, too to raise money. Never thought of it coming full circle though.


  35. Most interesting and insightful history of early Kanesville. I’ve been doing a lot of family tree research and know that my family arrived in District 21 about 1850 (based on the Census) and showed up in Kane by 1852 remaining until at least 1856 … maybe longer. He lost his wife, Delaney, to death about 1854 … but I have been unable to find any record or cemetery.

  36. Joseph John Hall lost his wife, Delaney, to death about 1854 in Kanesville … but I have been unable to find any record or cemetery.

    The outstanding realization of those days, that I am just now starting to grasp, is how very hard life was for the women and wives in the mid-1800’s.
    An early grave was not uncommon, sadly.

Comments are closed.