The City of Keokuk (pronounced /ki:əkuk/) is named for Chief Keokuck, a chief of the Sac and Fox Indians. His bones were brought here in 1883 from Franklin County, Kansas, and reinterred in Rand Park beneath a massive stone pedestal which is surrounded by a life sized statute of an Indian chieftain. On the east side of this monument is embedded the marble slab taken from the grave in Kansas which is lettered as follows:, “Sacred to the memory of Keokuck, a distinguished Sac chief born at Rock Island in 1788. Died in April, 1848.” Keokuck, “The Watchful Fox”, was not a hereditary chief, but raised himself to the dignity by the force of talent and enterprise. He was a man of extraordinary eloquence in council and never at a loss in an emergency. He was a noble looking man about six feet tall, portly and weighing over 200 pounds. He had an eagle eye, dignified bearing, and a manly, intelligent expression of countenance.

On November 23, 1985 a new Keokuk Hamilton (IL) bridge was opened. This bridge which is 3,340 feet long and 64 feet wide eliminates the tie up of traffic from the former swing span bridge, allowing both automobile and barge traffic to move more efficiently.

For years the citizens of Keokuk, Iowa had been dreaming of creating a river museum which would serve as a perpetual reminder of the tremendous amount of river lore that is associated with this community. Their dream came true when officials of the ARMCO Steel Corporation donated their sternwheeler, the George M. Verity. With this generous gift and the cooperation of the American Commercial Barge Lines, along with the cooperation of the Sioux City, New Orleans Barge Lines, the project became a reality. The George M. Verity is permanently berthed in Victory Park, which is on the Mississippi River just a few yards below Lock 19. To passers-by on the river and to tourists traveling on the road, this makes a very interesting and historical stop.


A 1,200 feet long, 110 feet wide lock with new guide walls was completed in 1957. It greatly facilitates river traffic, enhances the riverfront immeasurably and provides one of the greatest improvements on the entire Mississippi River. It replaced a 438-foot lock built with the dam in 1910.

Prior to the construction of the dam across the Mississippi River, the first and largest of its kind when erected, Keokuk was the shipping headquarters of the river. Just above the city were a series of rapids and channels, and further water traffic involved heavy lightening charges and transshipment. Keokuk has always been a natural shipping point due to its excellent location.


The City of Keokuk, located in Lee County, is at the junction of the Des Moines River and the Mississippi River, in the extreme southeast corner of the state. East of the Mississippi River lies the state of Illinois, and southwest of the Des Moines River lies the state of Missouri. The city is located on bluffs approximately 200 feet high and has an average altitude of 655 feet above sea level, Memphis datum.

The Des Moines River is Iowa’s principal stream. It rises in the northwestern part of the state and flows diagonally across the state to Keokuk. Its course has always been a natural highway.

There has been considerable speculation as to the origins of the name “Des Moines”. The first reference to the stream was made by Joliet, who, on his map in 1674 gives the stream the name of “Quacuiantanas”. In 1688, Frankquelin made a map, or “Carte de la Louisiane”, upon which the river appears, as the “Monigona”. De Lisle’s map of 1707 shows it as the “Rivere les Monigona” and the French called the Indians living along its course “Les Moins”. In time the river came to be generally known as “La Riviere des Moines,” which is unquestionably French, and has been interpreted as meaning “the River of the Monks.”

When Lt. Zebulon Pike explored the upper Mississippi Valley in 1805-06, he called particular attention to this stream which he called “River de Moyen”, and expressed the opinion that the name thus spelled is a corruption of LaRiviere de Moines. Charles Rollin Keys, who served as assistant state geologist during the 1890’s, and who made a somewhat exhaustive study of Iowa’s physical characteristics and resources, say the name as given by Pike means “the middle”. He accounts for it on the hypothesis that when the French voyageurs visited St. Louis and were asked from what part of the country they came, they replied “DeMoyne”, meaning the country between the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers, or the middle of the interior. Mr. Keys is inclined to think that this is the true origin of the name, and that the translation from “DeMoyen” to “Des Moines” was a comparatively easy matter.


The history of the early inhabitants of this vicinity was never recorded. However, this section of the country was probably originally overrun by the Algonquin tribes. One of these tribes was called the Illinois, or Illini, and they were probably the first tribe to inhabit this region. In the latter part of the 17th Century, the Illini were a powerful nation, consisting of five subordinate tribes, namely: The Kaskaskias, Peorias, Tamaroas, Michiganis and Cahokias. Besides their country east of the Mississippi, they occupied a large district between that river and the Des Moines, in what is now the southeastern part of Iowa. The Ottawa chief, Pontiac, who led the uprising against the white settlements and post in 1763, was assassinated by some of the Illini in 1769, whereupon the Sacs and Foxes, allies of Pontiac, declared war against the Illini and in time almost exterminated the tribe.

The Iowa Indians (Sleepy Ones), from whom the state takes its name, were one of the southern Siouan tribes included by Dorsey with Otoes and Missouris in his Chiwere group. According to their traditions, they once formed part of the Winnebago nation, with which they lived north of the Great Lakes. In 1848 a member of the tribe prepared a map showing the movements of the Iowas from the time they settled on the Rock River. The legend accompanying the map says that the tribe separated from the Sacs and Foxes and wandered off westward in search of a new home. Crossing the Mississippi River, they turned southward and reach a high bluff near the mouth of the Iowa River. Looking over the beautiful valley spread out before them, they halted, exclaimed “Ioway” signifying in their language, “This is the place.”

The territory thus appropriated by the Iowas included the present county of Lee, though the tribe afterward established its headquarters in what is now Mahaska County, which bears the name of a noted Iowa chief. Lewis and Clark met some of this tribe in their expedition up the Missouri in 1804 and refer to them in their journal as the “Ayouways,” though the name is generally written “Iowa” or “Ioway”, by historians. The Iowa Indians have long since disappeared, but the name remains to designate one of the great states of the Mississippi Valley.

The Sacs and Foxes, the principal Indians in Iowa history, are always spoken of as one people, though originally they were two separate and distinct tribes of the great Algonquin family.

About 1780, the Sacs and Foxes crossed the Mississippi near Prairie du Chien and established themselves in Iowa about where the city of Dubuque now stands. The Sacs and Foxes were ruled over by one chief. At one time Black Hawk was their recognized leader, and at one time he was one of the greatest of American Indian chiefs born of Sac parents, was the leader of both tribes. Black Hawk elected to join them with the English in the War of 1812, and his leadership passed on to Keokuk after its close.

Keokuk (the watchful fox) was born in 1788. His mother was allegedly a French half-breed. He arose to his position of leadership through sheer merit and diplomacy. He was a cunning master of intrigue. He converted most of the tribe to his views in the Black Hawk War and remained peaceful. In a debate in Washington, D. C., he vanquished the Sioux and the other northern tribes and established the claim of the Sacs and Foxes to the territory now comprising the State of Iowa.


In 1493, after Columbus had discovered the New World, the Pope granted to the King and Queen of Spain, all territory inhabited by infidels, thus in a vague way included the present state of Iowa along with the rest of the New World. In 1541 and 1542, DeSoto’s expedition founded Spain’s claim to all land bordering on the Mississippi River. In 1620, the English government granted to the Plymouth Company all the lands between the 40th and 48th parallels of north latitude from sea to sea. In 1628, the Massachusetts Bay Company received an English charter, which included a strip about 100 miles wide through the central part of Iowa. Thus Iowa and Keokuk were originally claimed by both the English and the Spanish.

In May, 1673, Marquette, Joliet and five boatmen in two large canoes moved up Lake Michigan and to the headwaters of the Fox River and crossed by portage to the Wisconsin River, and on June 17 first saw the Mississippi River opposite the present town of McGregor, Iowa. On June 25, they landed near the present town of Toolesboro, the first known whites to set foot there. They entered the Indian village and smoked the pipe of peace near the present Iowa River. They passed on down the Mississippi to the mouth of the Arkansas River before returning to Canada. On April 6, 1682, LaSalle completed his exploration of the Mississippi River and claimed all the territory drained by the great river and its tributaries for France, and gave it the name Louisiana in honor of the French king. English traders and trappers overran the territory of Louisiana, and ultimately the French and Indian War began in 1756. As a result of the war, Great Britain obtained everything east of the Mississippi River according to the treaty of Paris, Feb. 10, 1673. France obtained everything west of the Mississippi River.

After the Revolutionary War, the west boundary of the U. S. was fixed at the Mississippi River by the Treaty of 1783. The right to the use of the Mississippi River for trade and commerce was a controversial subject, and as soon as Spain ceded Louisiana back to France in 1800, the U. S. A. moved to gain free use of the river. President Jefferson sent Robert R. Livingston and James Monroe to negotiate a treaty, which resulted in the purchase of the Louisiana Territory.

Shortly after the Louisiana Purchase, on March 26, 1804, President Jefferson authorized the division of the vast area into the Territory of Orleans, which included all that part north of the 33rd parallel. The District of Louisiana, the north part, contained the present State of Iowa (the Northwest Territory had been organized in 1787). In 1812, the name of the District of Louisiana was changed to the Territory of Missouri. When the State of Missouri was admitted into the Union in March, 1821, the north par of the area, including Iowa, was left without any form of civil government.

By the treaty of Aug. 4, 1824 (7 W.S. Statutes at large, page 229) the tract of land lying south of the southern boundary of Iowa extending across the Des Moines River due east to the Mississippi was reserved for the half-breeds of the various Indian tribes. There has been considerable intermarriage of whites with the Indian women and the offspring were the beneficiaries of the 119,000 acres. In a later treaty the Indian tribes, not including the half-breeds, ceded all their remaining interests to the Federal Government.

Under the original grant the half-breeds had the right to occupy the land as the Indians occupied their reservations. They had no right to sell or convey it, the U. S. holding a reversionary right. In the fall of 1833, a meeting of half-breeds was held at Farnham’s Trading Post, within the present limits of Keokuk, and a petition to Congress, asking for the passage of an act giving the occupants the right to sell the land, was prepared and signed by a large number of those present. Other signatures subsequently were obtained, and in response to the petition, Congress passed an act, approved by President Jackson, on Jan. 30, 1834, relinquishing the Government’s reversionary interest and giving the lands to the half-breeds in fee simple.

The passage of this act was the signal for the land shark and real estate speculator to “get busy”. Lee County quickly became one of the most active real estate markets in the country, and the foundation was laid for a vast amount of litigation. Says a writer of that period: “ A horde of speculators rushed in to buy land from the half-breed owners, and in many instances, a gun, a blanket, a pony or a few quarts of whiskey was sufficient for the purchase of large estates.” There was a great deal of sharp practices on both sides. Indians would often claim ownership of land by virtue of being half-breeds and had no difficulty in proving their mixed blood by the Indians, and would then cheat the speculators by selling land to which they had no rightful title. On the other hand, speculators often claimed land to which they had no right. It was diamond cut diamond, until at last things became badly mixed. There were no authorized surveys, no boundary lines to claims, and as a result, numerous quarrels ensued.

One question the courts were called upon to decide was “who were half-breeds who were entitled to the land”? The popular opinion as to what constituted a Sac and Fox half-breed, was that he was “a person half-Indian, but who did not wear a blanket”. The act of Jan. 30, 1834, was not very specific as to the manner in which the land should be divided and sold, and the liberal interpretation placed upon its provisions led to the organization of several companies to deal in the half-breed lands.

On June 28, 1834, President Jackson approved an act creating the Territory of Michigan, which included all the territory from Lake Huron west to the Missouri River. The Territorial Legislature of Michigan then created two counties west of the Mississippi, known as Dubuque and Des Moines. The division line was due westward from the foot of Rock Island. These counties were rapidly organized, and on Oct. 5, 1835, Gen. George W. Jones was elected Delegate to Congress from Des Moines County of the Territory of Michigan, which contained what is now Southern Iowa. Through his efforts and influence, the Territory of Michigan was divided and the region west of the Mississippi became a part of the Territory of Wisconsin, with Gov. Henry Dodge as Governor. Gen. Dodge immediately ordered a census, and the area was found to have a population of 10,531. The first Territorial Legislature was elected in October, 1836, and at its first meeting on October 26, Des Moines County was divided into Lee, Van Buren, Henry, Muscatine and Cook Counties.

On October 14, 1837, Lee County elected delegates to a convention at Burlington, which petitioned the Territorial Governor of Wisconsin for a new state west of the Mississippi River. The Congress passed an act establishing the Territory of Iowa, which took effect June 3, 1838. Robert Lucas of Ohio, was the first Territorial Governor of Iowa. The Territory of Iowa then included all that part of the Territory of Wisconsin west of the Mississippi River to the northern boundary of the U.S.

One April 14, 1840 a suit was filed in the district court asking for a partition of the half-breed tract. It was divided into 101 shares, and the drawing of these shares was the beginning of the fee title to all real estate in this area. These partition titles were later upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court. The Territorial Legislature called a constitutional convention at Iowa City on Oct. 17, 1844, but Congress refused to accept the boundaries proposed by the Iowans. The second constitutional convention completed its work in Iowa City on May 18, 1846, and was approved by an election Aug. 3, 1846. On Dec. 28, 1846, President Polk approved an act admitting Iowa to the Union as a State.


In 1820, Dr. Samuel C. Muir built the first house near Main and Water Streets on the first benchmark from the river, and established the settlement of Keokuk. In 1839 this house was bought by L. B. Fleak who opened a boat store on the levee and went into the lightning business. July 4,1829 were celebrated on the steamboat Missouri lying at the foot of what is now Main Street. The St. Louis Beacon reported that Keokuk was named by Col. George Davenport and John W. Johnson. Up to the year 1829, the settlement at the foot of the rapids had been without a distinctive name. It was variously known as “Foot of the Lower Rapids”, and “Puck-e-she-tuck” and also just “the Lower Rapids”. Fur traders suggested the name of the great peace chief of the Sac and Fox tribe of Indians. In 1837, Dr. Galland, agent of the New York Lane Company, recorded a map and platted the original city of Keokuk. However, everybody agrees that fur traders named the spot. The New York Land Company had been organized for the purpose of buying up half-breed lands, as had the St. Louis Land Company. The original survey was made by Alanson Ripley, deputy surveyor of the half-breed reservations.

In 1837, the only structures in Keokuk were a single row of buildings along the river. A heavy tide of immigration was going through Keokuk, and its population was largely transient. The first public sale of town lots occurred in June, 1837 and was largely attended. A steamboat came up from St. Louis with a full passenger list, and excitement ran high. One corner lot sold for $1,500.

For several years the business of the town was confined to the levee and mostly to the four corners of the intersection of 1st and Johnson Streets. Keokuk scarcely grew until 1840. The timber bluff, which now constitutes the city proper, remained virginal.

During the summer of 1839, Moses Grey built the old “Keokuk House”. It was 26 x 44 feet and made of split lumber and clapboards. It was the first frame house built in Keokuk. In 1841, an additional 60 x 44 feet was erected and in 1841, Prince DeJoinville and his party stayed overnight in this hotel. They had been to Green Bay to see the Rev. Williams, who, it was claimed, was the lost Bourbon. The Prince disallowed the claim.

The first Keokuk postmaster was John Gains but he had no commission from the Federal Government and merely handled the mail, which was brought in from Warsaw, IL and St. Francisville, MO. L. B. Fleak was the first duly-authorized Postmaster and was appointed June 24, 1841.

In July, 1841 the population of Keokuk was estimated at 150 and in 1846 at 500. The 1850 U. S. Census placed Keokuk with a population of 2,478, which grew to 5,044 by the State Census of 1854. In 1846, Lyman E. Johnson built the first brick house. It was located on the East Side of South 2nd Street, between Main and Johnson.


The City of Keokuk was incorporated under an act approved Feb. 23, 1847. The first election for city offices was held on Monday, Jan. 3, 1848. Three wards were established. The First Ward included all that part of the city lying between the Mississippi River and 2nd Street and was bounded on the southwest by a line drawn from the river to the center of 2nd Street, between the parallel with and at equal distance from Main and Johnson Streets. The Second ward included that part of the city lying between the river and the center of 2nd Street, and was bounded on the northeast by the line aforesaid. The Third ward included all the remainder of the city between the center of 2nd Street and the northwestern boundary of the city.

Voting Place in the First Ward was at the Rapids Hotel; in the Second ward at the American House and in the Third Ward at I. G. Wickersham’s office. Candidates for city officers were plentiful. The name of Capt. Wm. Clark was presented and there being no opposition, he was declared to be the choice of the people for Mayor. P. D. Foster and John W. Ogden were nominated for Aldermen in the Third Ward, and Capt. Wm. Holliday and Herman Bassett were nominated for Aldermen in the Second Ward. The following was the result of the election:

For Mayor, Capt. Clark, Whig, received 175 votes; and E. C. Stone “Possum Whig”, 87 votes; majority for Capt. Clark 86.

James Mackley and Wm. C. Reed were elected Aldermen from the First Ward, Herman Bassett and Capt. Wm. Holliday from the Second Ward, and John W. Ogden and John M. Houston from the Third Ward.

The first meeting of the City Council was held Jan. 10, 1848 at the Mayor’s office, with the Mayor and all aldermen present. John W. Ogden was appointed Clerk Pro-tem. The mayor read his address after which the council proceeded to elect A. V. Putnam, Clerk; L. E. H. Houghton, Assessor; and D. Murray Marshall, Collector and Treasurer. Messrs. Ogden, Holliday, Houston and Reed were appointed to a committee to report resolutions for the government of the council, after which the council adjourned to meet the following Monday. The first ordinance passed by the Council was at the meeting on Monday, Jan. 17, 1848. It was entitled “An ordinance relative to the Clerk of the Council of the City of Keokuk.” There was a great deal of business to claim the attention of the city fathers and they continued in session on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Monday was occupied in getting the city machinery in motion; Tuesday, S. Haight and Co. were granted the privilege of placing a wharfboat at the foot on Main Street. The first tax levy for city purposes was three eighths of one percent.

The City secured the M. E. Church for the first term of the district court held at Keokuk, paying the trustees $2.50 per day for its use. On March 20, the Council allowed a bill of $30 for the use of the church for the first term of the court. In February the Council employ Wm. Telford as City Attorney. A room was rented from L. E. H. Houghton at $4 per month, for the Mayor’s office. The width of pavements was established at fifteen feet on Main Street and twelve feet on the other streets. In February Mr. Dagger was employed by the City to establish the grade of Johnson, Main and Blondeau Streets, at a compensation of $3 per day. Monday, March 6, the council proceeded to elect a “road supervisor and street inspector”. Alderman Bassett proposed Hawkins Taylor; Alderman Houston proposed W. Pattee. Taylor received 3 votes and Pattee 1. The compensation was fixed at $1.50 per day for each day actually employed, and he had to give bond to that.


And thus, commenced the city’s career. Measures were inaugurated for grading and improving the streets; roadways and streetways were cut through the hills and bluffs from the river. Improvement succeeded improvement, and building followed building to the top of the bluffs, along the streets and then began to scatter out along the cross streets. In 1847, the population was 1,120 and in 1848 it was 2,018. In 1849, A. Walcott came to Keokuk to engage in the business of packing pork and Main and 3rd Streets. The first hog seen in Keokuk was brought in a keelboat from Fort Edwards, located across and down the Mississippi at what is now Warsaw, IL by Dan Hine in about 1841. In March, 1848 there were 15 dry goods stores, three iron stores, three boat and shoe establishments, three saddle and harness shops, three clothing houses, six blacksmith shops, four wagon makers, two gunsmiths, one hat manufacturer, four hotels, one surgeon dentist, 17 physicians, 22 lawyers and two printing offices. One cooperage establishment employed from 30 to 40 men. There were five religious societies worshiping each Sunday; 1 Methodist, 2 Presbyterian, 1 Baptist and 1 Catholic. A Lodge of I.O.O.F. and 50 members. In 1848, a Mr. Dowling formed a brass band and in 1849 furnished music for all public occasions.

On Dec. 14, 1848, the second General Assembly of the State of Iowa passed an act incorporating the City of Keokuk and issuing a special charger setting up the aldermanic form of government. The State Legislature recognized that which the people of Keokuk had already accomplished and sanctioned all that had been done. This original charter was amended from time to time by the legislature, the last amendment being an act of the 5th General Assembly of the State of Iowa enacted July 25, 1856.

The cooper shop was owned by R. B. Hughes, father of Kate Hughes, the dashing belle of the village. His shop stood at 2nd and Johnson Streets, and was the largest west of Cincinnati at that time. It burned Jan. 3, 1848, together with 400 barrels, materials, tools, 400 bushels of potatoes, 400 bushels of beans and 100 bushels of onion and miscellaneous supplies, at a loss of $3,000. The new shop, built on the site of the old, was dedicated by a grand ball on the night of Monday, Jan. 17, 1848. At that time Kate Hughes “hoed it down” to the tune of “Fisher’s Hornpipe”, but could not, even in her fondest moments, have dared to hope that as Mrs. George H. Williams, wife of the U.S. Attorney General during the last years of the administration of President Grant, she would be the reigning queen of court society in the nation’s capital.

In 1851, the bulk if the business had been transferred from the levee and Water Street, to 2nd Street between Main and Johnson Streets, and to Main Street between 2nd and 3rd .

At the corner of 6th and Main there was a deep ravine. Up to 1853 this ravine was impassable with only a footbridge extending across the gully. A contract was given to Mitchell Marshall for grading and improving Main Street was well as some of the other Keokuk streets. Marshall was able to hire many of the Mormons from a immigrant Mormon camp northeast of Keokuk. These hard-working men soon had Main Street leveled and graded into a straight unbroken avenue. It is said by Israel Anderson, H. D. Barlett and others, that the Mormons were very liberal in such undertakings and toward each other. If one of them undertook a contract for clearing land, making rails or cutting cordwood, his brethren all joined in and made short work of the undertaking.

When the question of land titles was settled in 1854, speculation in town lots commenced and prices went kiting. This speculation continued until interrupted by the financial panic in 1857. Buying and selling lots was the ruling idea. Agents were sent here from New York, Boston, New Orleans, Charleston, S. C., St. Louis – from all the money centers of the U. S. and from London, England to make investments. People went almost made with excitement.

In the spring of 1857, Hawkins Taylor, Ruffs Wiley and a man named O’Hara organized a company to build a large hotel, one that would be in keeping, every way, with the grand future that seemed to be opening out before Keokuk. The corner of Main and 5th Streets was selected for the proposed hotel and $40,000 was paid for the 150-foot front. The erection of the Estes House was commenced and carried up to the fourth story, when the panic came on. There was a terrible shrinkage in values, and the projectors of the mammoth structure were forced to succumb to the inevitable. In their extremity, they applied to Col. J. K. Hornish for aid to complete the undertaking. Hornish responded and commenced to advance money to finish this metropolitan enterprise. In the end he had to take the building and ground and to assume the management of its completion, the entire cost of which was about $187,000. It was never opened as a hotel, and when the Civil War commenced, it was occupied as a government hospital.

In 1854 the railroad land-grant system of Iowa was organized upon a large grant from the U.S. to the State of Iowa. This grant was manipulated in the exclusive interests of raid centering in Chicago. At that date, there were no railroads touching the Mississippi River and Keokuk was the practical head of unobstructed navigation, and St. Louis was the commercial center of all trade on the upper Mississippi country. But the railroad land-grant, pushed roads from four different points across Iowa east and west of the rapids, and in all the interest of Chicago. The completion of these roads changed the direction and practically superseded the influence of St. Louis and the river trade.

The present Court House serving Keokuk was built in 1856 as a Medical College. Keokuk was the Medical Center of the Midwest until the closing of the Medical College shortly after the turn of the century.

In 1857 the population of Keokuk was estimated at 15,000. When the panic came on in September of that year, everything became flat and business combinations discouraged. Property began to depreciate in value and the population to scatter so that the beginning of the Civil War in 1861, there was a real decrease in value. The U. S. Census of 1860 fixed the population at 8,136. When the war commenced there was an apparent revival of business and prosperity, resulting in great measure, from the large hospital arrangements and recruiting stations which were established here.

The population by the U. S. Census of 1870 reached 12,766 and continued in this area until the turn of the century.

During the Civil War, Keokuk became an embarkation for all Iowa’s soldiers. 80,000 Iowans were temporarily in Keokuk on their way to participate in that great struggle. Five large hospitals were established to care for the wounded that were brought north on the river. As a result, Keokuk now has the only national cemetery for the hero dead in the State of Iowa. Negotiations were successfully concluded under the John L. Ward administration, with the U. S. Government, to enlarge the National Cemetery. In December, 1942, the City of Keokuk deeded to the Government additional ground so that the cemetery has been enlarged and beautified. A new entrance-way and other improvements have been added.


At a special election early in 1910, the City adopted the commission form of government, under which it was governed by a Mayor and two commissioners. These men served full time and were in complete control of the City Government. On Jan. 2, 1966 the City adopted the Mayor-Council form of government and it is now governed by a Mayor, seven aldermen and two alderman at large. Regular City Council meetings are held the first and third Thursdays.

Keokuk has been conscious of the need for better city planning. In 1960 a building code was adopted and in 1961 a housing code was instituted. Keokuk’s present zoning ordinance was adopted and approved by the City Council in January, 1955.

The City has recognized the need for rejuvenating the downtown area, which has resulted in first the adoption of the Keokuk Urban Renewal Project, and later as designation as one of Iowa’s first Main Street communities.

In 1964 a comprehensive plan for the city of Keokuk was made by a group of City Planning Engineers. This plan serves as a guide for the future development of housing, streets, traffic, industry, etc. in Keokuk. Preparation for an update to the comprehensive plan is underway.


On the long list of names of Keokuk men who have gained fame and distinction, none stand higher than Samuel F. Miller does. He was born and raised in Kentucky and educated in medicine. After a few years in that practice, he gave it up and studied law. Because he was an emanicipationist and feared that Kentucky would never free her slaves, he moved to Iowa. In 1850 he began practicing law in Keokuk. In 1861 when the U. S. Supreme Court was depleted by the loss of Southern members, the lawyers of Iowa, Kansas, Minnesota and Wisconsin petitioned President Lincoln to appoint Samuel F. Miller. This appointment was made in July, 1862, and he served on that most august tribunal until his death on Oct. 13, 1890. In Keokuk he was a law partner of John W. Rankin, an outstanding legal light of the Middle West.

George W. McCrary came from Indiana to Keosauqua and then to Keokuk to practice law. He served in the Iowa State Legislature and became partner to John W. Rankin when Samuel F. Miller was appointed to the U. S. Supreme Court.

Major General Samuel Curtis was the first congressman elected by the Republican Party in Iowa. He served two terms in Congress and also as Mayor of Keokuk. A decorated Civil War General, Curtis is credited with keeping Missouri in the Union, thus maintaining control of the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers for the North.

In 1868 McCrary was elected to Congress. After six years there, he was appointed Secretary of War be President Hayes. He resigned this position to become judge of the 8th Circuit of the U. S. District Court. Both of the famous men are buried at Keokuk.

Wm. W. Belknap, another son of Keokuk, was educated in law in the East and served with distinction in the Civil War. He later served for seven years as Secretary of War under President Grant.

Keokuk has always enjoyed the reputation of having a strong and talented bar, and its lawyers have gained distinction wherever the have gone. Judge Henry Bank rendered the original package decision protecting interstate commerce from interference by the states. Although the Supreme Court of Iowa reversed him, he was upheld by the U. S. Supreme Court in the famous case of Leisy vs. Hardin. It is upon that decision that the vast power of the Federal Government to regulate interstate commerce has been anchored.

President Lincoln selected as his secretary, John Hay, who lived just across the Mississippi River from Keokuk, at Warsaw, IL. John Hay later became Secretary of State under President Theodore Roosevelt and U. S. Ambassador to Great Britain.

In the early days, Robert E. Lee, while a lieutenant in the regular army, surveyed the Des Moines rapids just above Keokuk in the Mississippi River with a view toward improving navigation.

Keokuk has been the home to many authors of note. Here, Mark Twain worked on the first City Directory, which was published by his brother, Orion Clemens, who with his wife and mother died in Keokuk and were buried in Hannibal, MO. Other authors include Rupert Hughes, Kate Harrington, Francis Perry Elliot, Cornelia Meigs and Mary Huiskamp Wilkins.

Among other notable Keokuk personages of the past and present may be mentioned John W. Nobel and George H. Williams, Presidential cabinet members, John N. Irwin, Territorial Governor of Arizona and Minister to Portugal; Judge James C. Davis, Directory General of Railroads during World War I succeeding Wm. G. McAdoo; Samuel Ryan Curtis and Hugh T. Reid, Union generals during the Civil War; Hiram Barney, Collector of the Port of New York; Colonels Wm. G. Torrence and James C. Parrott, Civil War; U. S. Senator J. B. Howell; Congressmen Sam M. Clark, Wells Sawyer, head of New York City bank; Eric J. Leech, grandsire of the Sovereign Grand Lodge, I.O.O.F.; Conrad Nagel, film and stage star; Elsa Maxwell, famous international hostess.


Keokuk Community School District has three elementary schools (George Washington, Hawthorne, and Wells Carey), Keokuk Middle School, and Keokuk High School. Private education is provided by Keokuk Catholic Schools and Keokuk Christian Academy.

Keokuk students regularly score above State and National College entrance scores averages.

Keokuk is also home Southeastern Community College. Southeastern Community College is a community college with three campuses located in Burlington, Ft. Madison, and Keokuk. Southeastern Community College was formed in 1967 when Burlington Junior College, founded in 1920, and Keokuk Community College, founded in 1953, merged together.

A few miles north of Keokuk is the Galland School, a replica of the first schoolhouse constructed in Iowa.

Keokuk library service began in 1863 with formation of a subscription library. In 1883, construction of a library building, located at 3rd and Main, was completed. The library operated on a stock-holder and subscriber basis until 1894, when it became a free public library. The present library building was completed in 1962. The upper level was renovated in 2002, and the addition and lower level renovations were completed in 2006.

Keokuk has always had a high degree of appreciation of music. It has many fine musical organizations and clubs, and has always been noted for its artists. The schools strongly emphasize music. A city-owned theater, the Grand Theatre, seats approximately 800 people and brings live entertainment to Keokuk’s citizens.


The colossal dam and hydraulic plant of the Union Electric Co., is the outcome of a dream of many area people. The first attempt to harness the Mississippi River was in 1842, but the wing dam was carried away by a great ice jam.

In 1843, Joseph Smith, the Mormon leader, of Nauvoo, IL secured passage of an ordinance by the Council of that city authorizing a dam at that point. However, he was killed by a mob at the Carthage, IL jail before he could commence work. In 1868 the Government began construction of a channel nine miles long along the dangerous rapids above Keokuk. It was completed in 1877, at a cost of $4,500,000. It contained three locks, $3,000,000 was spent on a drydock.

In 1899 Charles P. Birge called a meeting of some 25 citizens of Keokuk and Hamilton, IL to consider the construction of a dam. In April, 1900 the Keokuk and Hamilton Water Power Company was incorporated with A. E. Johnstone, President, and Wm. Logan and C. P. Dadant, vicepresidents. In April, 1904, Congressman B. F. Marsh of Illinois introduced a bill to grant the company the right to build a dam across the Mississippi River at Keokuk. This bill was passed Feb. 5, 1905 and President Theodore Roosevelt signed it and precipitated a great celebration and holiday in Keokuk. In April, 1905 a prospectus fell into the hands of the late Hugh L. Cooper, the engineer who had harnessed Niagara Falls. On Sept. 15, 1905 he was given a contract turning over the affairs of the company to his syndicate. This contract required that the project be completed by Feb. 19, 1915. It was finished in 1913. The dam is 4,460 feet long and contains 119 arch spans. Each span contains a steel gate by which the level of the impeded lake is regulated. The powerhouse is 1,712 feet long and 177 feet high. The Government lock between the powerhouse and the City of Keokuk is 438 feet long and 110 feet wide, with walls 52 feet high. In 1957 a $14,000,000 replacement lock 1200 feet long and 110 feet wide was completed.

On July 1, 1913 the first power was delivered to St. Louis from the Keokuk dam. In August, 1913 the city took a week’s holiday in celebration. A national regatta was held on the new Lake, and officials from seven states participated in the dedication ceremonies. Since that time this city has been the capital of the electrical center of the Mississippi Valley.

Keokuk’s wealth of electric power has caused a tremendous influx of important power consuming industries and has greatly stimulated the city. The 150,000 horsepower hydroelectric plant was completed July 1, 1913 at a cost of approximately $25,000,000.

The impounded water above the dam has been named variously Lake Keokuk and Lake Cooper. It has backed the water of the Mississippi to a distance of about 40 miles. This lake, for it is virtually without current, is thus more than 40 miles long and averages more than a mile in width. It affords unparalleled opportunities for all water sports. Keokuk has many speedboat and sailboat enthusiasts. The opportunities for fishing are unsurpassed and followers of that sport are all familiar with Keokuk’s waters.


From its early history, Keokuk has been an important industrial center. The chief factors that have brought this about are the presence of substantial businessmen of judgment and foresight, excellent shipping facilities and freight rates and the largest hydroelectric power plant on the Mississippi. A large variety of products are manufactured in Keokuk, including almost everything from breakfast foods to steel castings. The wealth of electric power has brought a cluster of important industries to this city.

The U. S. Coast Guard maintains a close supervision of river traffic and safety on the Mississippi River through its unit stationed in Keokuk.