natural two-and-a-half foot drop in the Cedar River between
Park Avenue and Sixth Street gave Waterloo its original
name: "Prairie Rapids." It was a good place to
cross the river and an excellent site for mills.
Charles Mullan and James Virden arranged for James Eggers
to build a dam and sawmill here in 1854. Eggers received
land from the three in exchange for his work. He soon sold
out, however, to new owners who built a millrace and flourmill
on the site of the former YMCA Building, 154 West Fourth
These new owners,
led by George Couch, formed the Waterloo Mill Company in
1871. Their competition included the Cedar Milling Company
formed in 1868. The two firms merged in 1873 as the Union
Mill Company, operating mills on both sides of the river.
Union Mill merged with Cedar Falls Flour and Feed Mills
in 1901 to form the Waterloo and Cedar Falls Union Mill
Water was used
to power sawmills and flourmills in Waterloo, but it had
other uses, too. A woolen mill operated here from 1866 to
1875. Part of the building was used from 1879 to 1883 for
a hydroelectric generator that powered arc lights in a handful
of Waterloo stores.
The growth of
the milling industry in Minneapolis and other cities made
Waterloo's small mills less competitive. The switch from
waterpower to electricity, after a 1922 flood destroyed
the Waterloo dam, was expensive, and an embezzlement in
the Union Mill Company led to substantial losses. As a result,
the company closed all of its Waterloo mills in 1924.
The Union Mill
Company's water rights were sold to Iowa Public Service,
which built a new dam to provide cooling water for its generating
turbines. The remaining mills were demolished and the millrace
was filled in. The mills are gone, but they did much to
establish the industrial heritage and prosperity of Waterloo.