Area History

In 1803 the land that is now Jackson County was part of the “Louisiana Purchase” and by July 3rd, 1832 became known as the “Territory of Wisconsin”. It was part of the “Black Hawk Purchase” from the Sac and Fox Indian tribes in September 1832 and was the first land in Iowa for settlement. Nearly the entire county is underlaid with Niagra Limestone and is exposed in many places by the Maquoketa and Mississippi Rivers, often forming cliffs.

A former Indian village, the spot on which Sabula now stands was laid out in town plots in 1837 and called Carrollport. However there was a man by the name of Carroll in the area who was very unpopular. The settlers were upset with that connection because they did not want anyone to think their town had been named after someone with such a bad reputation. So the name was changed to Charleston, since there was a Savanna (IL) close by and one of the early settlers was named Charles Swan. But another town in Iowa had the same name causing great confusion in letter and package delivery.

So in 1846 the settler’s decided to find a name no one else could claim. Because of it’s sandy soil, William Hubble looked up sand in the dictionary and found the Latin word for sand to be “Sabulum”. Charleston was changed to Sabulum, but did not please some of the ladies in town. At a tea party, one of the ladies suggested that “Sabula” was easier to say and sounded more elegant. Her suggestion was adopted and so named was Sabula.

The first log cabin built in the area, was in 1836 by E.A. Wood on land where IslandCityHarbor now resides. A scow became the first ferry crossing here in 1837. A ferry pulled by horse followed in 1850 and in 1859 – 1860 a steam ferry was started. With these modes of transportation, E.A. Wood established the first sawmill in 1853 and a flouring mill in 1855.

The Iowa Exchange, a hotel, was built in 1839 and by 1871 there were four hotels in Sabula. Several industries were operating here by 1876 and the Iowa Packing Co. had its’ primary plant here. Along with the saw mill, flouring mill and meat packing house, there was a jewelry factory that made combs, brooches, and buttons from clam shell taken alive from the bottom of the river. Later a cigar factory and more sausage plants were built.

In 1870, the Chicago, Clinton, Dubuque, and Minneapolis Railroad Co. built a line from Dubuque to Clinton and passed by the bluff just west of Sabula. Chicago, Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad bought these tracks and ferried cars across at Sabula by steam ferry. In the fall of 1880, the company began construction of an iron bridge across the Mississippi. It took two years to finish many loosing their lives and many more injured. In 1906, this bridge was torn down and a new one, forty percent heavier, was built. It is the bridge you know see in the picture on our home page.

1859 was remembered by the old Sabula settlers as the “Year of the Flood”. The town was completely surrounded by water and the only way in and out of town was by boat. During spring thaws and heavy rains the land to the west of Sabula was often under water. But when the water receded the land left was very fertile and allowed celery to be grown that soon made Sabula famous. When it could be farmed it had a good yield, but otherwise was a mosquito infested swamp.

In 1939 the federal government established the locks and dams up and down the river to facilitate large tow boats. In doing that, the bottomlands of Sabula became large lakes and Sabula became an island year round. Even with the locks and dams flooding was still an issue. A levee was built around Sabula in 1957 for protection which also allowed for the south sand pit to be turned into a boat harbor. Mr. and Mrs. Harold Ehl owned that property and the adjoining property where E.A. Wood’s old rock house sat. It became known as Ehl’s Harbor and began the pleasure boating industry in Sabula. Now known as Island City Harbor, there are 153 slips, a gas dock, ships store and on land storage.