Country Facts and Folklore
By Andy Reddick

The Coleman Road

East of Hillsboro Van Buren County ends and Lee County begins. Shortly thereafter, a sign on Highway 16, reads “Coleman Road.” This special section of road continues for about ten miles to Hwy. 218.

Back in the 1950s, when Hwy. 16 was gravel, it was nice to drive on the Coleman Road pavement, except that it was a little bumpy and the first few miles had only one narrow lane. The novel little pavement went around two nearly perfect right angle hairpin curves that were dangerous and hard to negotiate without going off onto the gravel.

Around 1959, a business man in Houghton told me that Mr. Coleman willed the State of Iowa money to build the first pavement in the state, but they had run out of money in the process.

A Henry County web site by Rich Lowe has an interesting article about the Coleman Road that explains its fascinating history, as taken from newspaper articles at the time it was happening. The story is considerably different.

Alex Coleman died in Fort Madison in 1933 at the ripe old age of 95. He was born in Ohio, served in the cavalry during the Civil War, and never married. He “never lost his military manners nor his love of horses.”

His total wealth was never revealed, but he made a lot of money in Nebraska, and was 80 years old when he returned to Iowa. Before spending his final years in Fort Madison, Mr. Coleman was a farmer for awhile, living near Hillsboro.

It was quite a surprise when the 90-year-old man walked into a state office and gave them money to build a concrete highway in southeast Iowa. It was to connect Highway 218 with Hillsboro, and the only stipulation was that it must go past the place where he once lived, and the cemetery where he intended to be buried.

An article in the Davenport Democrat and Leader, on July 1, 1928 says that the man handed over to the public the sum of $300,000 to pave a 10-mile stretch, which was now finished, and the community planned a July 4 celebration near his old home, as a grand opening ceremony. It does not label this as Iowa’s first concrete highway. It was, however, one of the first pavements in southeast Iowa.

Unfortunately, his relatives contested the gift, declaring that he was senile, and the matter went through the courts. The state of Iowa won the case, but when it was all over there wasn't enough money remaining from the gift to complete the paving, at least according to the man’s stipulation. The state tried to get permission to use blacktop, which would be cheaper, but the judge ruled that he not only gave specific instructions when he handed over the money, but it was also mentioned in his will, and the road must be built as a concrete highway.

In order to complete a concrete highway from 218 to Hillsboro, a portion of it east of Hillsboro remained only one lane--a 9 foot slab that went around two hairpin curves in the process. A graded gravel lane accompanied the cement road, but people used the highway for both directions of travel. Drivers who met one another on the highway, had to make a fast decision, as one of them had to go off onto the gravel portion.

Louis Cook, Jr. Reported in the Van Buren County Register, on Thursday, August 2, 1951, that Alex Coleman spent a total of a half million dollars for what he called “the most peaceful monument in Iowa--twelve miles of concrete paving through which the grass luxuriates, and over which the wind flows free.” (the earlier reported figures for the project were 10 miles at $300,000)

By then, the Coleman Road was not traveled as much as it had been when it was new and unusual. For one reason, Road 16 was gravel. And the other reason was that grass was showing through the pot-holes of the old highway, which had become a relic of the past. When Hwy. 16 became a hard-surfaced road, the Coleman Road portion needed resurfacing. Not only was a second lane added and the road repaired, but the direct angle was taken out of both curves so that they were no longer dangerous, and could be negotiated easily at 45 miles per hour.

But the signs “Coleman Road” remain to remind drivers that this stretch of highway was originally built with private funds.

(Contribution from Van Buren County IAGenWeb site:

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Contributed to the Van Buren Co. IAGenWeb Project by Andy Reddick