Smithsonian Collections Blog

Highlighting the hidden treasures from over 2 million collections

Collections Search Center

Thursday, October 22, 2015

Sioux City: How the story of one bridge led me to a corn palace

Blogs across the Smithsonian will give an inside look at the Institution’s archival collections and practices during a month long blog-a-thon in celebration of October’s American Archives Month. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

I recently found this silver gelatin acetate film negative of the Corn Palace, Sioux City, Iowa (1890), in the George S. Morison Collection.  Morison (1842-1903) was a “rock star” civil engineer who built twenty-three railroad bridges throughout the United States, many of them in the Midwest.
His contributions to bridge building were significant. He enhanced the profession by introducing certain design specifications, published reports on his construction projects, testing and inspection practices, and he transitioned to newer materials, steel and concrete.  When he wasn’t building bridges and traveling, Morison was a member of the Panama Canal Commission (1899-1901), where his highly influential voice was a major reason the canal was built in Panama rather than Nicaragua.

What was this film negative doing among a box of glass plates documenting bridges? It seemed oddly out of place, yet was a pleasant discovery. I knew Morison didn’t design the Corn Palace; that honor belongs to architect E.W. Loft, who designed the first palace in 1887.  After all, Morison was a man who worked with iron, steel, and concrete, not corn.

Sioux City Bridge, Sioux City, Iowa, south and west portal to bridge, ca. 1889.  Silver albumen print by unidentified photographer.   George S. Morison Collection, 1846-1903, Archives Center, NMAH.
Morison spent considerable time in Sioux City building the Sioux City Bridge over the Missouri River from 1885-1888. The mighty Missouri River was no stranger to him either. He designed a total of seven bridges over the Missouri which posed many engineering challenges, the greatest of which were severe flooding and silt bottoms that made foundation construction difficult. Made of steel, wrought and cast iron, the single track Sioux City Bridge was 1200 feet long and weighed 4,485,807 pounds. The first train crossed on November 26, 1888.  The bridge was replaced in 1982.

The corn palaces of Sioux City are excellent examples of cereal/agri-architecture or crop art. The first Sioux City corn palace was built in 1887 and four more followed from 1887-1891.  The Corn Palace pictured here (the fourth palace) was an architectural gem, constructed and clad with corn, sorghum, cattails, grains and other vegetables. The materials were woven together to create elaborate designs (arches, minarets, buttresses, pinnacles, and domes) that evoked Eastern Roman Empire and
Byzantine-like architecture, styles not commonly found in the Midwest.

Corn Palace, Sioux City, Iowa, ca. 1890.  Silver gelatin acetate negative by unidentified photographer.
George S. Morison Collection, 1846-1903, Archives Center, NMAH.
The palaces rose from the landscape as an expression of gratitude by the citizens of Sioux City for the plentiful crops found in the region and as a symbol of Iowa’s agricultural pride. They were also intended to lure tourists, but especially to promote the region’s agricultural specialty, corn.  The growing railroad network (aided no doubt by Morison’s bridges throughout the Midwest) and the population of the area, coupled with a strong agriculture enterprise, brought visitors from around the United States, including civil engineer George S. Morison.

Most likely Morison toured the Corn Palace on one of his many visits to Sioux City to monitor bridge construction progress. His bridge at Sioux City made possible the movement of more goods and people, some of whom came to see the corn palace. The last corn palace in Sioux City was built in 1891. A flood prevented its construction and in 1892 the Mitchell Corn Palace of South Dakota was built and still stands today.

To learn more about George S. Morison, bridge building, and other civil engineering collections, visit the Archives Center.

Alison Oswald, Archivist
Archives Center, National Museum of American History


Marianos, W.N. “George Shattuck Morison and the Development of Bridge Engineering,” Journal of Bridge Engineering, May-June 2008, pages 291-298.
Schwieder, Dorothy and Patricia Swanson. “The Sioux City Corn Palaces,” The Annals of Iowa. Vol. 41, No. 8 (Spring 1973), pp. 1209-1227.
Simpson, Pamela. “Cereal Architecture: Late-Nineteenth-Century Grain Palaces and Crop Art, Perspectives in Vernacular Architecture, Vol. 10, Building Environments, pp. 269-282.

No comments:

Post a Comment