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The Millrace


Cedar Falls
Between First Street and the Cedar River
The Cedar River drops about six feet during its half-mile course from Franklin Street to the U.S. Highway 57 Bridge. This geological fact had great consequences for Cedar Falls. It determined the town's location, its name and its principal early industry: milling.

The first settlers at the falls, William Sturgis and Erasmus Adams, recognized the site's waterpower value. They tried to build a dam and mills along the river but were unsuccessful.

Investors Ed Brown and John and Dewey Overman acquired water rights at the falls in 1847. The new owners began to develop the power that Sturgis and Adams had dreamed of. They built a dam across the river and a millrace in a channel between an island and the riverbank. The county's first sawmill was operating along the river in 1848. A flourmill was built two years later at East Second and State Street, and the original brush and log dam was replaced by a plank-covered frame structure.

The mills prospered. A six-story stone flourmill was built in 1856, followed by another in 1869. Oatmeal, cornmeal, starch, straw paper, metal machinery, pumps and wool were among the items that were eventually produced using power supplied by the millrace.

A series of financial reverses for the principal milling company, the Waterloo and Cedar Falls Union Mill Company, plus the replacement of waterpower with electricity, brought an end to milling in Cedar Falls during the 1920s.

The Cedar Falls dam washed out in 1937 but was rebuilt in 1940 for a hydroelectric generator on the millrace. The generator was in use until 1970. Shortly thereafter, the entire millrace was filled in during the relocation of U.S. Highway 20.

The Broom Factory, once part of a starch mill, is the only building surviving from Cedar Falls' great days as a mill town. Today, the river's rapids are merely a beautiful part of the scenery, not an economic necessity.

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Last updated Wednesday, June 16, 2004

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