August 2017

The Peace Tree and Lost Towns

Marla Mertz, Marion County Conservation

The Lake Red Rock area and all of Marion County is rich in diversity and historical attributes as with most areas if you look back far enough. So many people have handed down awe inspiring stories, mapped historical areas, renamed roads and have written down some of the most interesting reflections within their community.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers implemented plans to build the reservoir on the Des Moines River in the 1960s. Red Rock is the largest lake in Iowa with over 15,000 acres of water and 35,000 acres of public land. Located on the Des Moines River downriver from Des Moines, the reservoir collects runoff and drainage from over 12,320 square miles of Iowa and southern Minnesota. Here are just a few noted years in Marion County history that may have seemed so long ago, but still show their respect and honor in Marion County.

A grand old sycamore tree called the “Peace Tree” was an early meeting place of Native Americans and fur traders along the Des Moines River, as well as, Treaties being negotiated in the shade of its branches.

This tree was either close to or ‘marked’ the Red Rock Line, which separated the Native American and white man’s territory in 1843. It has been told that this historic tree was estimated to be the 2nd largest in North America and as much as 500 years old. The tree was left standing as the town of Red Rock was lost in the development of the Red Rock Reservoir.

The sign above left is on a memorial commemorating the Red Rock town site and the sign above right is at the intersection of county roads D35 and S55 in Hardin County.

The following is a brief description of lost towns that sit below Lake Red Rock. You can find a complete map and descriptions prepared by the Rural History Buffs of Marion County, Iowa.

Red Rock - Red Rock existed longer than any other town under the lake. Its early existence and growth were partly due to its close proximity to the red rock bluffs, a familiar landmark to both Native Americans and early settlers.

Rousseau - Many horse drawn wagons crossed the river on the ferry at Rousseau. Rousseau was part of a Star post office route (1872-1903) that started in Knoxville, stopped at Rousseau, Red Rock and ended in Otley, then in reverse. The mail carrier and his horse spent an entire day working the route and was run three times a week.

Coalport - The first coal to be mined in Marion County was dug out of the bluffs at Coalport to fuel the passing ships that were previously fueled by wood. The river changed course in 1903 and left the town one mile from water, which led to its demise.

Cordova - The town of Cordova was platted in 1887 by the Wabash Railroad and was located on the north side of the lake on Hwy 14 and south of G28. Cordova had a depot, a grain elevator and office, stock yard, a coal loading ramp, two stores, post office, newspaper and a machine warehouse.

Dunreath - Dunreath owed much of its success to the Wabash Railroad, which build a depot there, and formed the Red Rock Coal Mining Co.

Fifield - Known as the White Breast settlement. The Wabash railroad was very important to Fifield. The community had a depot, but had a railroad repair crew, a refueling station, and a large water tank to fill the steam boilers.

What kinds of history lies in your neck of the woods? Don’t let it pass you by.

Links for more learning:


    • Saga of the Des Moines River Greenbelt by Harriet Heusinkveld

    • Red Rock, Iowa; Annals of a Frontier Community 1843-1969 by Harriet Heusinkveld

    • Coal Mining Days in Marion County, Iowa 1880s-1990s by Harriet Heusinkveld