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History: 1892–1947

Samuel Calvin.

Samuel Calvin.

A permanent geological survey, as a separate agency of state government, was established in 1892. In accordance with legislative provisions, a Geological Board was also established to govern the broad administrative policies of the survey and to appoint the state geologist. (This board was dissolved in December 1980, and the state geologist is now appointed by the governor.) The board was composed of the governor, the state auditor, and the presidents of Iowa State University, the University of Iowa, and the Iowa Academy of Science. They elected Professor Samuel Calvin, chair of the Department of Geology at the University of Iowa, as state geologist, and from that time until 1947 (through the Wilder, Kay, and Trowbridge administrations), both positions were held by the same individual.

Frank Wilder.

Frank Wilder.

Offices were maintained in Des Moines and overseen by the assistant state geologist until 1934, when state budget cuts resulted in moving the headquarters permanently to Iowa City, where most of the actual work was done. Since that time, the survey has been housed on the University of Iowa campus, but until 2014, the survey had no administrative ties to the university. Initially the staff occupied limited space in the geology building (Calvin Hall), and in 1938 moved next door to the “Geology Annex,” a former Department of Botany greenhouse and laboratory. According to former State Geologist H. Garland Hershey, on the day of this move, all the well-sample cuttings were put in the greenhouse. A hailstorm a few hours later demolished most of the panes, and considerable time was spent separating glass from samples, and later, building storage space under the greenhouse slab.

Trowbridge Hall on the University of Iowa campus, circa 1940. Photo Courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries.

Trowbridge Hall on the University of Iowa campus, circa 1940. Photo Courtesy of the University of Iowa Libraries.

In 1951, an addition to the main building was constructed, and in 1963, arrangements for off-campus warehouse facilities were completed. In 1975, the survey and the Department of Geology both moved into Trowbridge Hall, and in 1979 the sample library, publications and archives, laboratory facilities, and additional offices were installed on the university’s Oakdale Campus (now the UI Research Park) in nearby Coralville.

It is interesting to note that the 1892 legislative mandate for the Geological Survey called for (in addition to classical geological pursuits):

… investigating the characters of the various soils and their capacities for agricultural purposes; the growth of timber, the animal and plant life of the state, the streams and water power, and other scientific and natural history matters that may be of practical importance and interest.

It is not unusual to see the individual county geological reports published in the Annual Report Series supplemented with extensive botanical reports on prairie and forest flora, as well as meteorological records or information on archaeological remains. In fact, the Bulletin Series (1901–30) devotes entire volumes to the grasses, weed flora, rodents, raptorial birds, and honey plants of Iowa. This broad approach to natural science characterized individual geologists as well as the role of geological institutions of the time. Men such as Calvin, Thomas MacBride, and Bohumil Shimek were equally at home in several fields of natural history now regarded as separate scientific disciplines. Louis H. Pammel, Ada Hayden, and Charlotte M. King were recognized botanists who served as special assistants on the survey staff. Charles R. Keyes, William H. Norton, and H. Foster Bain were other geological authors whose highly readable county reports were written in a personal, almost poetic, style seldom seen in today’s technical literature.

As noted, Iowa’s counties became the geographical unit in which the state’s more detailed geological information was compiled. By 1941, 38 volumes in the Annual Report Series were published (only five out of the state’s 99 counties were not completed), and to a large degree the history of the Iowa Geological Survey during this period is contained within them. In addition to the county reports, these volumes were also devoted to special topics such as:

  • A bibliography of Iowa geology, coal, gypsum, lead and zinc
  • Artesian wells
  • Clays
  • Cement materials
  • Quarry products
  • Devonian fishes of Iowa
  • Peat
  • Underground water resources
  • Pleistocene mammals
  • Road and concrete materials
  • Iron ore
  • Origin of dolomite
  • The Des Moines Valley
  • Iowan drift
  • Pleistocene of northwestern Iowa
  • Extinct Lake Calvin
  • Devonian echinoderms
  • Mississippian stratigraphy
  • Trilobites
  • Altitudes in Iowa
  • Deep wells
  • Pre-Illinoian Pleistocene geology
  • The Maquoketa Shale
  • The Dakota Stage
  • Pleistocene gravels, and
  • Illinoian and post-Illinoian Pleistocene geology.

This listing of some of the more lengthy reports demonstrates the growing diversity in geologic investigations, as well as the attention devoted to economic aspects of the state’s geology.

George F. Kay.

George F. Kay.

These county reports also contain concepts important to the evolution of geologic thought in the United States, as well as worldwide. Iowa played an important role in presenting the stratigraphic facts that established the concept of multiple continental glaciations during the Pleistocene. The complexity of these glacial periods, including the existence of warm, interglacial episodes as interpreted from the “Aftonian” gravels of western Iowa and their classic fauna of Pleistocene mammals, was unraveled by such men as McGee, Chamberlin, Salisbury, Calvin, and Leverett. Confirmation of the windblown origin of loess, based in part on his study of land snails, was presented by Shimek in the Geology of Harrison and Monona Counties (1909). This emphasis on midwestern Pleistocene studies continued under George F. Kay and Arthur C. Trowbridge. Problems related to glacial drifts, gravels, buried soils, peats, and loess were inseparable from economic geology in Iowa. The adaptability of Iowa’s terrain and soils to agriculture, and the importance of agriculture to Iowa’s economy and as a factor in today’s environmental issues ensure the continued justification for Quaternary research.

Arthur C. Trowbridge.

Arthur C. Trowbridge.

Together, these county reports admirably reflect Calvin’s philosophy as set forth in 1892 when he wrote:

The work of the Survey is now fairly begun. The questions of greatest economic interest to the people of the State cannot all be fully settled at once … It must also be borne in mind that the determination of the economic problems, which must ever be kept in view as the end sought after in this Survey, is an impossibility without the preliminary determination of questions relating to the genesis and order of succession of the geological strata.

The significance of Calvin’s influence is best summed up by Melvin F. Arey’s comments in reference to the first 20 Annual Report volumes:

… which will ever stand as a worthy monument to the energy, scholarship, and eminent ability of the great souled man who planned the work and himself did no small part of it and who chose and directed as his assistants men who, in the midst of other heavy tasks, gladly gave themselves to the furtherance of the plans of their great leader, who for 40 years was so identified with Iowa Geology that the one can scarcely be thought of apart from the other. (Arey, 1912, p. 70)

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Last modified on July 1st, 2015
Posted on May 13th, 2014