See the hidden historic downtown of Independence
By Carson Ode
Underground City? That fires up the imagination. Is it something sinister? Are there layers of civilization under this Iowa town? Do the southern Iowa coal mines tunnel this far north? Keep guessing, but the odds are you won’t come up with the answer.
Independence is a special Iowa town. The iconic Wapsipinicon Mill is the visual most associated with the community — it is classic. The Mental Health Institute’s well-manicured campus consists of elegant buildings including the French Second Empire style main building. And there is a fascinating Mental Health Museum located on the third level of the patients’ wing. One of Iowa’s newer tourist attractions, Heartland Acres Agribition Center, does a remarkable job of introducing Iowa to newcomers and instilling pride in natives. An element of pride in the past and probably news to a visitor is the glory days of harness racing (standard bred) when Independence rivaled Lexington, Ky., as the number one venue for the sport. So, there is good reason to visit this Northeast Iowa town and discover another special attraction — the Underground City.
In recent years, there have been periodic tours — the most recent was on Aug. 20. The tour check-in was 10 a.m. at the Wapsipinicon Mill. The ticket that was purchased listed the venues to visit. At each location, there were informative hosts to explain the sights and help piece together this unique bit of Independence history.
The story begins in the mid-1800s when a settlement was being developed on the banks of the Wapsipinicon River. In 1847, a county seat was established and the settlement was named Independence. Frequent flooding muddied the new town’s love affair with the river. Their unusual solution to this problem is the basis for today’s Underground City.