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​      ​Des Moines Historical Society of Des Moines, Iowa

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1909 - Laying the cornerstone for the Municipal Building

Des Moines History - 

The history of Des Moines can be traced to 1834, when John Dougherty, an Indian Agent at Fort Leavenworth, Ks, recommended that a military post be established at the point where the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers merge. Nine years later, May 1843, Captain James Allen and a company of dragoons from Fort Sanford arrived on the site. Captain Allen proposed to name the garrison Fort Raccoon but was directed by the War Department to use the name Fort Des Moines. The origin of the name is uncertain, but most historians agree that the name probably initially referred to the river. Some people feel that 'Des Moines' is derived from the Indian word 'moingona' meaning river of the mounds which referred to the burial mounds that were located near the banks of the river. Others are of the opinion that name applies to the Trappist Monks (Moines de la Trappe) who lived in huts at the mouth of the Des Moines river. French voyagers referred to the river as La Riviere des Moines. The consensus seems to be that Des Moines is a variation of Moingona, Moingonan, Moingoun, Mohingona, or Moningounas, as shown on early maps.

Settlers began locating almost immediately near the fort, which is now the site of Sec Taylor Stadium. Streets were platted in 1847. The date of incorporation was September 22, 1851 and the first town election was held October 18 when 25 voters unanimously approved the town charter. On October 20th, eight councilmen were elected, and at their first meeting on October 25th, the Reverend Thompson Bird became the first president of the town council. The town continued under the 1851 charter until January 18th, 1853 when the Iowa Fourth General Assembly passed "An Act to Incorporate the Town of Fort Des Moines in Polk County, Iowa. In 1857, Fort Des Moines was shortened to Des Moines and later that year the city was designated the capitol of the State of Iowa.

The first City Hall Building was built in 1870 and was located at the corner of Second and Locust, now the site of the Civic Center Apartments. At that time it also housed the Fire Department and the Court House. That building stood until 1882 when it was demolished and replaced with a structure known as the City Market. On Christmas Eve 1909, the City Council approved the construction of the present City Hall building, which interestingly enough was called the Municipal Building in an effort toward a more positive connotation. Bids were tabulated and the low bidder was the firm of Charles Weitz and Sons, with a bid of $301,960. The cornerstone for the building was laid on June 13, 1910 to the great excitement of the community. Newspaper headlines heralded the event and noted civic leaders from all over the country that would attend the ceremonies. The dedication was preceded by a large parade through downtown which featured a platoon of police officers, civic groups, and a unit from the Sixth Cavalry.

During the 1900s issues such as the development of permanent roads, new health laws and women's suffrage dominated debate. But with the onset of World War I in August of 1914, expansion slowed as the country braced itself for war. To aid in the nation's war effort, Camp Dodge was established in 1917 and more than 100,000 Iowans were trained for combat.

Des Moines suffered the loss of many young men during the war. As those who were lucky enough to survive returned home, they faced unemployment. In January 1919, Mayor Tom Fairweather estimated that over one thousand veterans needed jobs and urged businesses in the City to assist with this growing problem. Local construction programs helped ease the situation, and the early 1920s saw an increase in building, particularly for Des Moines schools.

Although much of the boom that Des Moines experienced in the 1920s came to a halt with the stock market crash of 1929, the City fared surprisingly well throughout the 1930s. Federally funded projects supplied work that improved the City, including new bridges and streets. By 1941, Des Moines' populations had grown to 160,000 but as 1942 began, the City changed significantly as the nation entered WWII. As in most U.S. cities, food became scarce and thousands of men left the workforce to join the service.

By the end of the War era, Des Moines began to pick up the pieces and concentrate on improving the quality of life. Many businesses flourished in the post war climate, and the City soon emerged as a major insurance center. Other businesses located in Des Moines prospered and the City breezed through the next three decades with a healthy economy. Current information on business and employment statistics in the City of Des Moines indicate that the city continues to thrive.

Today more than 200,000 people live in Des Moines, and the City is recognized as a center for government, education, business, culture, and the arts. Des Moines also has gained national recognition as a major insurance center (the third largest in the world) with nearly 60 life, health, and casualty companies. The City's climate-controlled skywalk system serves as an important link to parking garages, hotels, restaurants, stores, and businesses. Skywalks make up more blocks per capita in Des Moines than in any other city of comparable size in the U.S. The City's numerous tourist attractions and facilities have established it as a popular and thriving Midwest city.


This logo of the Des Moines Historical Society brings together several important elements of Des Moines’ history.  Each element has been carefully considered to create a symbol that represents and celebrates the most important facets of the history and development of the city. These elements are: the Des Moines and Raccoon Rivers and their convergence, Des Moines City Hall, the Polk County Courthouse, the Capitol, Fort Des Moines, and a flag. They were also used to show Des Moines’ importance on a city, county, state, and federal level.

The convergence of the Des Moines and Raccoon rivers is very prominent in the logo, because the rivers were the foundation upon which the city was built, and the reason for Des Moines’ location. The rivers also represent history and its connection to life, flowing from the past and toward the future. The Des Moines River has been mapped under various names since it was first seen in 1673 by Marquette and Joliet, and even at that time it was known to be a major waterway for exploration and growth.

Fort Des Moines is another prominent element in the logo and represents the importance of Des Moines on a national level. Placing a United States military garrison at the confluence of the Raccoon and Des Moines rivers was first mentioned in the early 1800s and Fort Des Moines II was there from 1843 – 1846.  The cabin on the right represents not only this fort, but also the important role the city plays today in the administration of U.S. laws, with the Federal Building, Federal Courthouse and Veteran’s Administration Hospital, and the early beginnings of Indian relations and settlement of the area. 

To the left of Fort Des Moines in the logo is a simplified version of another Des Moines building of great importance, the Des Moines Municipal Building (City Hall). In June of 2009, Des Moines celebrated the centennial of laying the cornerstone for the building in 1910.  The City Hall was of major importance and introduced the United States to a new form of open, citizen-centered government known as “The Des Moines Plan.”  The City Hall and the early 20th century ‘City Beautiful’ movement were also some of the first efforts to beautify the riverfront and downtown.  Just like the Riverwalk and new bridges of today, it is part of the continued emphasis placed upon the riverfront of the city.

The Courthouse represents the historic role Des Moines plays as the county seat for Polk County.  Polk County received this honor in 1846, in preparation for Iowa becoming a state.  In the logo, the courthouse is represented by its most prominent feature, the clock tower.

A representation of the State Capitol Building presides at the top of the logo to signify the biggest honor the city has received—becoming the state capital in 1857. In Des Moines, the capitol sits on a hill prominently overlooking the city, and in the logo, it completes the top “point” of the logo’s shape.

These important elements in the history of Des Moines have been placed together in diamond-shaped logo. The diamond shape is similar to a compass and symbolizes the northwest-to-southeast flow of the rivers. It also has four points, symbolic because Des Moines is important on four levels: city, county, state and federal. The rivers cut through the middle of the diamond as the most prominent element, because Des Moines’ location and importance is centered around the convergence of the rivers. The four historic buildings are placed together in a “skyline” formation to represent the city, and a flag is included to represent government and also on an aesthetic level to repeat the river curves found elsewhere in the design. 

This logo brings together symbols of some of the most important elements of Des Moines history, and has been carefully constructed in an attractive and practical format to be used as an identity symbol for the Des Moines Historical Society.

Our Vision

​In the future, the Des Moines Historical Society will be the foremost authority on Des Moines history, with active members who are engaged in carrying out our mission.

​DMHS will provide excellent educational programs in which members find personal value and in which they are given opportunities to study, research, discover and learn about Des Moines history. 


The Des Moines Historical Society is a 501c3 nonprofit organization with the mission to promote the preservation and study of the history and heritage of Des Moines, Iowa. 

Des Moines Historical Society Code of Conduct Policy (pdf)

Des Moines Historical Society Collecting Plan and Policy (pdf)

Des Moines Historical Society Deed of Gift Form (pdf)

Photo courtesy The Des Moines Register

Our Values

History needs to be honest.
History should not be manipulated for an agenda.

It helps us understand who we are.
If we don't have knowledge, we are doomed to repeat our mistakes.
If we don't educate, our history dies.
Education helps us gain new perspectives.

It promotes understanding
History deserves a voice.
It's the vehicle to understanding. 

It's a support system. History is rooted in community.
It offers diverse resources.
It identifies shared values and experiences.

What We Believe

​As an organization, the Des Moines Historical Society believes: 
...history is important to maintaining and developing the character of a city.
...history brings a community together.
...preserving our past helps guide our path to the future. 
...history is meant to be shared. 
...bringing together like-minded individuals has greater impact. 
...we must stop the loss of Des Moines history.
...everyone has a story. 
​ ...learning history can be fun, engaging and worthwhile.
1909 - Laying the Cornerstone for the Municipal Building

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