The city we know today as Charles City had its start as a campground for the Winnebago Indians. As late as 1850, a Winnebago Indian village of 150 wigwams was located on the southwest side of the river, on the site of the present Andres Memorial Park. The Indians called the Charles City area "the Big Timber Village." They called the Cedar River "the Big Timber River (Wa-shood-ne-shun-a-ga-tah)."
Charles City's first white settler was Joseph Kelly, a hunter and trapper from Monroe, Wis., who arrived in 1850. He established a camp on the northeast side of the river, across from the Indian wigwams, where he remained until the fall. He returned in 1852 to build a saw mill on the northeast side of the river. His family arrived in 1854 and lived in a log house at the corner of what is now Clark and Jackson streets. Kelly followed the saw mill with a grist mill, the Frontier Mill, in 1856. It operated until 1875, when it was replaced by the Charles City Water Power Company. The original mill wheel from Kelly's saw mill survives and is on view at Mill Race Park, located on Riverside Drive between Johnson and Main streets. The park is on the site of the original Kelly's Mill.
In 1852, 25 settlers arrived at Kelly's settlement. One of them was John Blunt, who built the first log cabin on the northeast side of the river at the corner of Hulin and Joslin streets. He and his partner, A.L. Collins, built the mill side's first store in 1854. The road between their store and Kelly's saw mill was named Mill Street, later, Main Street. Blunt also operated a trading post and stagecoach stop.
For a very short time, there were two separate settlements on each side of the river. The south side of the river is where the stagecoach came into town from Waverly. The first structure in that area was a combination house and store built by Dr. Robert Freeman in 1852, in the 500 block of what is now Gilbert Street. In 1854, he also operated a post office out of his store. In 1854, Dr. Freeman and a man named Horton Mandeville platted the town of Freeman into 18 blocks. The settlement was called the Village of Freeman. It included a public square that is now Andres Memorial Park, just south of the Floyd County Historical Museum.
Within three months after he founded the settlement, Dr. Freeman moved east to Elkader to practice medicine. Soon after, his post office was relocated to the north side of the river and, in 1855, Freeman was deeded over to Kelly as part of the northern settlement, which Joseph Kelly had named Charlestown after his oldest son.
In 1854, Kelly sold some of his land to a group of capitalists from Rockford, Ill., who joined him as proprietors of the community. They were Duncan Ferguson, R. Miles Waller, Milo Gilbert, William Hulin, Luke Joslin, R.M. Brantingham and William Sprigg. Their names live on in many Charles City streets.
Ferguson platted Charlestown, which extended from Iowa to Harwood streets, Water Street (now Riverside Drive) to midway between Blunt and Ferguson streets. The streets ran perpendicular or parallel to the river.
In 1854, the city was dedicated as St. Charles, after it was discovered that Charlestown already existed in Iowa. It included 19 blocks and six half-blocks and a public square, Central Park. St. Charles was incorporated as a town in 1857. The name was changed to St. Charles City when it was learned that "St. Charles" was also the name of another Iowa community. Since 1860, however, the settlement has been known simply as Charles City.
When Charles City was incorporated as a city, in 1869, Milo Gilbert was elected the city's first mayor. Milo Gilbert's house, built of native limestone in about 1863, still stands at 307 N. Jackson St. Gilbert was a banker and owner of a saw mill.
Some early Charles City businesses were:Blunt & Collins General Store, Ferguson and Sampson Boots and Shoes, Gilbert and Waller Hardware, Ferguson and Stanley Hardware, A.B.F. Hildreth Drugs and Books, Hildreth and Carver Marble Works, Wooley and Snyder Plow Factory.
For years, residents crossed the Cedar River by foot at a ford in the river near the current Main Street bridge or rode a ferry. But plans were made in December 1857 to build a wooden bridge on Mill Street. The bridge was swept away in a flood while it was being built. A new wooden bridge was completed in March 1864 but it, too, was destroyed by spring flooding. A third wooden bridge built in 1867 lasted for three years, when it was replaced by an iron structure that lasted for 23 years. The bridge provided access to the county courthouse, built on the south side of the river in 1861. The current Main Street Bridge was built in 1910. The bridge on Brantingham Street was built in 1967.
The stone courthouse was destroyed by fire in 1881 and replaced by a red brick structure. It was replaced in 1940 with the current courthouse, of tan brick, Bedford stone and polished red granite. It is located at 101 S. Main St.
The city's first school was an 18-by-20-foot frame building opened in 1855 on a site that is now in the parking lot of the Cedar Mall. It was replaced in 1867 by a stone school building, St. Charles Grade School, at 800 Hulin St. It housed all grades. Over the years, additional schools were built around town, including, in 1899, a new high school at 500 N. Grand Ave. The building was destroyed by fire in 1931 and replaced in 1932 by a new junior-senior high school. The building still serves as Charles City's middle school. The current high school was built in 1961 and includes a major addition built in 1972.
In 1891, the German-English College was relocated to Charles City from Galena, Ill., using temporary quarters. It was sponsored by the Northwest German Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church. A brick building for the college was completed in 1892 in the 1700 block of Clark Street, an area now known as College Grounds. The name of the college was changed to Charles City College in 1894. The college was open until 1914, when it merged with Morningside College in Sioux City. Following the closing of Charles City College, the girls dormitory, at 1700 Clark St., was used for a new hospital, Cedar Valley Hospital. In 1970, the building became the home of Comprehensive Systems' Crestview Administration Office.
Charles City's first newspaper was established by Azro Benjamin Franklin (A.B.F.) Hildreth, a Vermont native, who arrived in Charles City at the age of 40 in the spring of 1856. He erected a two-story frame building on the northeast corner of Main and Clark streets, the first floor of which was a store, the second floor a printing office. He published the first issue of the St. Charles Republican Intelligencer on July 31, 1856. The paper was renamed the Charles City Intelligencer in the 1860s.
Hildreth went on to become a member of the State Board of Education and the Iowa General Assembly. He was influential in securing a land grant that later brought the Milwaukee Road through Charles City. In 1893, Hildreth built the three-story Hildreth Hotel and Opera House at 401 N. Main St., which for years was the center of community cultural life. Hildreth was also one of the organizers of the First National Bank (now the Uptown Cafe), at 223 N. Main St., in 1871, and the Floyd County Savings Bank. He also established the Hildreth Electric Light Plant in 1896.
Lodging in Charles City's early days was provided by John Blunt's log hotel and, in 1857, in the Magnolia House and Kelly's Hotel. The two latter hotels burned in the Big Fire of 1862 (a fire that began in the kitchen of the Kelly Hotel) and were followed in 1863 by the Union House, later named the Gilbert Hotel in honor of its original owner, at the corner of Main and Clark streets; and the Leonard Hotel near the train depot.
Charles City's first bank was organized by Balch and Reiniger in 1865. Reiniger is the family of Meredith Willson's mother Rosalie.
Other milestones included the purchase of a site for Riverside Cemetery, in 1857, on the northwest bank of the Cedar River, and the opening of a reading room, a precursor to the public library, in 1878. The city's Carnegie Library building was built in 1904 at 301 N. Jackson St. A Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) was organized in 1908 and a YMCA building erected in 1913 at 713 Blunt St.
The YMCA was called the Raymond YMCA after Henry C. Raymond, who donated $15,000 toward its construction. In 1970, the YMCA was moved to 800 Hulin St. in the former Central School building. A swimming pool and gymnasium addition was added in 1972.
Charles City's first hospital was the May Hospital, which opened in 1901 in a renovated stable at 401 Blunt St. A new hospital was built in 1908 in a Queen Anne style. The May Hospital closed in 1917 and the building was converted to apartments. The city's second hospital, the Cedar Valley Hospital, opened in 1914 at 1700 Clark St. in the former girls' dormitory of Charles City College. Various additions were made to the building over the years. In 1963, the city purchased a 20-acre site south of Charles City and constructed the new Floyd County Memorial Hospital at 800 11th St.
One of Charles City's more famous historic sites is the suspension bridge, located at the west end of Clark St. Completed in 1905, the bridge provided a walkway to the Chautauqua grounds on the southwest bank of the Cedar River. The bridge was the second footbridge in that location, the first having been built in 1904. Originally a limestone quarry, Chautauqua Park was the site of entertainment and special programs held under large outdoor tents. Programs were part of a national circuit that originated in Chautauqua, N.Y. Charles City's first Chautauqua program was held in 1905. By the late 1920s, the community's Chautauqua Park had ceased to exist. One of the speakers on the national Chautauqua circuit was Charles City native Carrie Chapman Catt, a world-famous suffragette. The first Floyd County Fairgrounds was also located in the area of Chautauqua Park. The fairgrounds was relocated to Highway 18 in 1926 and the grounds sold to the Lions Club. The Lions renamed the area Lions Field and converted it into a park. In 1949, the first community swimming pool opened there. The Lions Club sold Lions Field to the city for $1 in 1970.
Charles City endured many disasters, including numerous fires and some major floods over the decades; but the worst disaster in the city's history was probably the tornado of May 15, 1968, which killed 13 people and destroyed much significant architecture. The tornado cut a path four to six blocks wide for three miles through the main business district and residential areas, destroying 60 commercial buildings, three schools, six churches and 500 residences. The town also had tornadoes in 1858, 1878 and 1908. Charles City grew rapidly and, for a time, rivaled Mason City as the dominant center of the region. By 1880, it had a population of 2,421, at a time when Mason City's population was 2,510. By 1920, Charles City had a population of 7,350. The highest population for Charles City was recorded as 10,309 in 1950.