Located in the heart of the Midwest, Iowa is probably best known for its vast cornfields and state fairs, but it’s also a surprisingly rich destination for urban explorers. If you plan to be in the area in 2021, make sure to visit the following 10 best abandoned places in Iowa.
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The Best Abandoned Places in Iowa
Union Park (Dubuque)
Though it was built in the late 19th century, Union Park came of age in the early 1900s, when General Electric purchased it and transformed it into a celebration of the wonders of electric power. The company installed a roller coaster, theater, swimming pools and other exciting attractions, all of which glowed with the newly-popular electric light bulb.
The park quickly became the social center of Dubuque, enjoying more than a decade of prosperity until a massive storm walloped the region in 1919. The storm and subsequent flood severely damaged nearly every structure in the park and killed several citizens. Although the attractions were repaired and the park reopened, it never again reached the popularity it had previously enjoyed, even after a dance pavilion and Olympic-sized pool were installed in 1923. The amusement park shut down for good in 1934.
Today, remnants of the old facility linger on the property, including portions of the theater walls, which are covered in brush and ivy; the foundation of the swimming pool; and a few sidewalks and stairs. In recent years, the local YMCA installed a zip-line course on the property.
Sans Souci Island (Waterloo)
This 100-acre island in the Cedar River was the region’s main source of timber for bridges and other infrastructure as far back as the mid-1800s. Over the decades, residential developments, a hotel and a golf course were built on the island, and its tranquil setting reflected its name—French for “no worries.”
The island lived up to its carefree moniker until 2008, when devastating floods swept across the river valleys of eastern Iowa, including the Cedar River. Though a system of dikes spared the mainland from the worst of the flooding, San Souci Island was completely overwhelmed by the rising waters.
The roughly 50 residents of the island were forced to evacuate when their makeshift sandbag barriers were breached, and the flood waters rendered the island uninhabitable, destroying all existing utilities and other infrastructure. Instead of attempting to rebuild, San Souci’s stakeholders simply abandoned it.
In the years since the flood, nature has moved quickly to reclaim the island. Herds of white-tailed deer roam the thick foliage, interrupted only by the occasional intrusion of the hikers and bird-watchers who visit the island. The only remaining paths are near the island’s entrance, although explorers may come across chunks of concrete and other remnants of buildings as they pick their way through the twisted tangle of trees and brush.
Searsboro Consolidated School (Searsboro)
About an hour east of Des Moines, the remains of the Searsboro Consolidated School continue to decay after being abandoned decades ago. Enough of the building’s exterior remains to show the school building was once quite grand, with its red brick exterior, arched door frames and decorative concrete etched with the institution’s name.
Little information is publicly available about the school’s history, though it likely closed as the result of a trend toward consolidation that began in the 1960s and continued well into the 1980s.
Access to the building is simple, given that the main door is no longer attached to its frame. Based on the condition of the interior, the years have been harsh on the facility. The paint has long since peeled from the walls, and even the concrete underneath has begun to crack and crumble. Large patches of ceiling tile have either disintegrated or fallen off, exposing a network of rusted metal beams.
A dilapidated, water-damaged organ missing many of its keys sits decaying on its side. A few of the classrooms still have panels of green chalkboard attached to their walls, but most have tumbled from their rotting wood frames to join the filthy mix of deteriorating building materials on the floor.
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Dubuque Shot Tower (Dubuque)
Well before the first shots were fired in the Civil War, this 120-foot tower was built to manufacture ammunition for the U.S. Army’s muskets. Constructed of Galena Dolomite stone and red brick, the tower was designed to produce as much as eight tons of lead shot in a single day using the most common manufacturing technique at the time: Workers at the top of the tower would pour molten lead through a sieve; as the lead descended through the tower, it would form perfect spheres as it cooled. A basin of water at the base of the tower would catch the balls, where they would finish cooling.
A year after the tower’s completion, the financial crisis resulting from Great Panic of 1857 kept production idled through the Civil War. After the war, the Standard Lumber Company converted it into a fire watchtower, and it was never used for its intended purpose.
Several suspicious fires in 1911 destroyed the wooden framework inside the tower, leading to its abandonment. It was restored and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1976.
Lehigh Brick and Tile Company (Lehigh)
The rural Iowa town of Lehigh was founded on two main industries: coal mining and brickmaking. On the banks of Crooked Creek, evidence still exists of the latter in the form of the abandoned and crumbling Lehigh Brick and Tile Company facility.
The business was established in the late 19th century, producing bricks as well as ceramic pipes. In 1896, the company was selected to produce all paving brick for the City of Dubuque, but when a major fire the following year temporarily halted production, other regional brickyards stepped in to fulfill the contract. Rebuilding the facility took several years, but it was again operational and prosperous by 1903.
The facility was rebranded as Iowa Brick in the mid-20th century, and most of the structures that now exist on the site were added or expanded during that time. At some point during the 1980s, operations ceased and the brickyard was abruptly abandoned. Forklifts and other equipment are still visible in some of the buildings, and workbenches are still scattered along the walls.
Stacks of unused bricks dot the property, which is gradually being taken over by trees and other growth. The collapsed roof of the main workshop has allowed moss and other plants to flourish on the workshop floor, and a dome-shaped kiln peeks out from the underbrush. A handful of brick chimneys stand watch over the site, with piles of rubble at their bases from the structures that have crumbled over the decades. Now, the Lehigh Brick and Tile Company sits as one of the best abandoned places in Iowa.
Oak Park Academy Boarding School (Nevada)
About 10 miles east of Ames, the tiny town of Nevada holds the remains of Oak Park Academy, a coed boarding school built by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church. When it was first established in 1902, the high school held classes in a rented hotel ballroom in the nearby town of Stuart; it spent several years on a farm property in Stuart before the permanent campus was established in Nevada in 1911. It continued educating students until its closure in 1980.
Though the school facilities are now vacant, the campus has been nominally maintained by the Seventh-Day Adventist Church that still operates on the property. One of the former dormitory buildings has been renovated and reopened as the Oak Park Estates apartments. The remaining four school buildings are empty and covered in a thick web of ivy and a few patches of graffiti. Most of the windows have been broken out, and several derelict cars litter the lawn.
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Clutier Public School (Clutier)
For more than half a century, this once-stately red brick building has sat empty and decaying in the small eastern Iowa town of Clutier.
The school building dates back almost to the founding of the town itself, which was settled mainly by Czech immigrants at the turn of the 20th century. The community of around 200 is famous in the state for its summer polka concert series, Czech restaurants and the annual Bohemian Plum Festival.
The Clutier Public School building opened in 1925. Its women’s basketball team, the Chargin’ Czechs, soon established dominance in the region, making it to the state championships six times between 1939 and 1948. The team took the state title in 1942 after playing a remarkable 31-game season without a single loss, and a monument at the town entrance stands in their honor.
During a wave of school consolidations in the 1960s, Clutier merged with the Traer School and later the Dinsdale Community School, ultimately forming the North Tama County Community School District and leaving the old Clutier School building vacant.
Over the decades, water damage and vandalism have taken their toll on the facility. Most of the windows in the three-story structure are broken, and small plants and moss grow uncontrolled over the damp, decaying carpet. Large swaths of drywall and rotted ceiling tiles are littered across the peeling, mildewed tile floors.
Edinburgh Manor (Scotch Grove)
Built in 1911, Edinburgh Manor was designed to house the mentally ill, elderly and disabled residents of Jones County. The 12,000 square-foot, three-story facility featured two wings: female patients on the east side of the building and male patients in the west wing. The Manor, as it was known locally, operated until 2010, when a dwindling patient census and staggering operational costs forced the county to shutter operations and relocate several dozen remaining residents to a facility run by nonprofit group Community Care, Inc.
Many of the patients’ personal effects and medical records were simply abandoned along with the building, and when a husband and wife purchased the property in 2012, they opted to leave the historic building in its existing state and open it up for paranormal investigations and similarly-themed tours, making it one of the most popular abandoned places in Iowa.
Squirrel Cage Jail (Council Bluffs)
This uniquely-designed correctional facility was built in 1885 during a brief period in which “rotary jails” were the dominant trend. These rotating, Lazy Susan-style cells were intended to reduce interactions between jail staff and prisoners; a hand crank was used to spin a center carousel so that only one cell would be accessible from the single entryway at any given time.
Though most rotary jails of the time featured only single-level cells, the facility in Council Bluffs had multiple three-level stacks of these cells, giving them the appearance of a cage that might be used to contain small rodents—hence the “squirrel cage” nickname.
As the building aged, the rotary turntable got stuck with increasing frequency, ultimately leading to the closure of the facility in 1969. The Historical Society of Pottawattamie County took possession of the building, preserving it as a museum open to the public. Though the cells no longer rotate, the building offers a fascinating glimpse into the evolution of prison design, and is one of the most interesting abandoned places in Iowa.
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Le Grand Bridge (Le Grand)
Completed in 1915, the Le Grand Bridge carried vehicular traffic over the Iowa River for more than 50 years. The concrete girder bridge was part of a massive infrastructure program pursued by Marshall County between 1909 and 1920, and it was one of the largest and most complex structures of its type at the time.
When the county rechanneled the river and rerouted the roadway in the 1960s, the bridge was abandoned, but the obsolete structure remains one of only a handful of multi-span concrete girder structures still standing in the state.
In July of 1914, the Marshall County Board of Supervisors inspected a bridge spanning the Iowa River on the eastern edge of the county in Le Grand Township. One of nine metal spans over the Iowa River in the County, it had by then deteriorated to the point of replacement.
The supervisors contracted with Des Moines-based Capital City Construction Company to build the structure, which was completed early in 1915. The Le Grand Bridge carried traffic as a major transportation link for over fifty years. When the county later rechanneled the river and rerouted the road, however, the Le Grand Bridge was bypassed. It now stands abandoned in deteriorating condition over a backwater of the river.
Part of an extensive bridge-building program undertaken by Marshall County between 1909 and 1920, the Le Grand Bridge is one of the largest and most complex of the hundreds of reinforced concrete structures constructed by the county. It typifies the bridge-building process in Iowa in the 1910s, codified by the Brockway Act in 1913, in which counties used ISHC standard designs as the basis for contracts with private bridge companies.
The bridge is further distinguished as an early, multiple-span example of concrete girder construction in Iowa-one of only a few such structures remaining in the state today, making it a historical example of abandoned places in Iowa.
Our Final Thoughts on Abandoned Places in Iowa
Those who are into urban exploration in the Iowa state area, and wanting to explore abandoned places in Iowa, should get comfortable with Iowa trespassing laws. Luckily, in the state of Iowa, the laws are easy to understand and are pretty cut and dry.
For these cases, you should familiarize yourself with x. For more about obtaining permission to explore abandoned places in Iowa, check out our guide Explore Abandoned Buildings: How To Get Permission.