Among the first settlers of European origin in the Clinton area was Elijah Buell, who built a log cabin on July 25, 1835, and in 1837, established the town of Lyons, named after the French city of the same name. Buell partnered with a John Baker in a successful ferry service across the Mississippi River, at a location called “the Narrows,” between Lyons and what would become the city of Fulton, Illinois. Although Lyons grew rapidly and prospered, it eventually merged into the city of Clinton.
Clinton was platted as the town of New York in 1836 by Joseph Bartlett. Bartlett believed that the region was rich with gold deposits, and he prepared for a boom town to develop. While waiting for the “gold boom” to materialize, Bartlett started a second ferry service across the Mississippi to the village of Albany, Illinois. However, his service was not as popular as Buell’s in Lyons. Bartlett soon became discouraged, and sold his assets. In March 1837, Noble and Sarah Gregory Perrin purchased 136 acres (0.55 km2) of land in what is now Clinton and raised their family in a cabin located approximately at the foot of the railroad bridge. Eve Their oldest daughter, Valeria, married Dr. Augustus Lafayette Ankeny, who participated in the Blackhawk war and came to Lyons in April 1850.
Mary Perrin, born September 26, 1837, was the first female child of European ancestry born in Clinton County. In 1839, as in most early river towns, the town consisted of a sprinkling of cabins, two stores and a tavern. In 1855, the Chicago, Iowa, Nebraska Railroad announced it would cross the river at Little Rock Island adjacent to Bartlett’s settlement. The Iowa Land Company was organized on May 26, 1855, and on July 4, bought Bartlett’s tract and renamed it Clinton, in honor of DeWitt Clinton, two-time governor of New York and one of the driving forces behind the construction of the Erie Canal.
In 1840, the County of Clinton was officially organized; the village of Camanche, just downstream from Bartlett’s “New York,” became the first county seat. The settlement that would become Clinton did not change much in the 1840s, but Lyons continued to grow and prosper. By 1852, stagecoach lines ran from Lyons to Davenport, 30 mi (48 km) to the Southwest; to Iowa City, 71 mi (114 km) to the West; and to Dubuque, 51 mi (82 km) to the Northwest. That same year, the Lyons and Iowa Central Railroad Company was formed, led by an H.P. Adams. Work began on the railroad almost immediately, and progressed rapidly. However, the funds raised to construct the line were insufficient; some were misused. The venture eventually failed. The railroad was disparagingly known as “the Calico Line,” after the large amount of calico fabric sold at the company store in Lyons. But the prospect of a railroad to Lyons, and a likely crossing of the Mississippi at the Narrows that would follow, sparked rapid growth in the community. Lyons’ population grew from a mere 200 in 1852, to over 5,000 by 1858.
On November 10, 1855, the first plat of the city of Clinton was signed; the plat was surveyed under the direction of Charles B. Stuart, a civil engineer from New York, with the assistance of William Rumble, engineer, and C.I. Loring, draftsman. On January 26, 1857 the city was granted a charter and on March 7, the charter was adopted. On April 5, 1859, the amended charter of the city was adopted, which lasted until a general charter was adopted in 1867.
An announcement came in 1855 that a railroad was to cross the Mississippi, South of Lyons, at Little Rock Island. At the same time, the Iowa Land Company (ILC) was formed. The ILC purchased Bartlett’s tract on the Iowa shore opposite Little Rock Island. Concurrently, the Chicago, Iowa, & Nebraska (C&IN) Railroad was formed, with the express intent of crossing the Mississippi River at Clinton. Construction on the railroad bridge began in 1856, and Clinton’s population grew to over 1,000 as construction continued. In June 1859, the railroad line was completed to Cedar Rapids. The first train crossed from the Illinois shore to Little Rock Island at noon, January 9, 1860, and was ferried from there to the Iowa shore. In January 1864, construction was started on the span from Little Rock Island to the Iowa shore and was completed on January 6, 1865. The original single track railroad bridge was replaced by a double track bridge that was completed in 1909.
Also in 1864, the C&IN Railroad merged with the Galena & Chicago Union Railroad to form the Chicago & North Western Railroad (C&NW). In the North-South direction, railroad development continued as well. In 1868, the C&NW built a branch line connecting Lyons with the East-West railroad at Clinton. In 1870, the Iowa Midland Company built a railroad from Lyons to Anamosa, Iowa, 59 mi (95 km) to the Northwest. This railroad was later absorbed by the C&NW. In 1872, the Chicago, Clinton, & Dubuque Railroad (CC&D) was built North from Lyons. It became part of the Milwaukee Road; it extended another line South to Clinton. The last of the railroads in Clinton, the Davenport, Rock Island, and Northwestern, was completed from the Southwest along the Mississippi River to Clinton in 1901. An interurban passenger railroad (the Clinton, Davenport, and Muscatine Railway) operated along this trackage as late as 1940. This right-of-way, along with that of the former CC&D, is currently operated by Canadian National.
In 1869, due to its importance as a major transportation hub, the county seat was moved to Clinton; it has resided there ever since. The Clinton County Court House, located at 612 North 2nd Street, was designed by G. Stanley Mansfield, Architect, of Freeport, Illinois, and Josiah L. Rice, Supervising Architect, of Clinton. It was constructed between 1892 and 1897.
The first public school in Clinton was conducted in a log house near the W.J. Young upper mill. It was erected in the winter of 1855-56 and Isaac Baldwin was its first teacher. St. Irenaeus School was opened in 1852.
The original Lyons-Fulton Bridge was constructed in 1891 (replaced by the Mark N. Morris Memorial Bridge in 1975), followed by the Clinton High Bridge in 1892 (replaced by the Gateway Bridge in 1956).
Between the 1850s and 1900, the cities of Lyons and Clinton quickly became centers of the lumber industry and were regarded as the “Lumber Capital of the World.” Huge log rafts were floated down the river from Wisconsin and Minnesota, cut into lumber at Clinton, then shipped to the growing communities via the river and the railroads. Companies owned by the W.J. Young, Chancy Lamb, George M. and Charles F. Curtis (Curtis Bros. & Co), David Joyce, Silas W. Gardiner Lyons, and Friedrich Weyerhäuser families soon became among the largest in the nation. In the 1880s and 1890s Clinton boasted 13 resident millionaires, more millionaires per capita than any other town or city in the nation.
In 1877 the noted pianist Carl Lachmund founded the German Conservatorium of Music in Clinton.
The largest, most elaborate party ever held in Clinton celebrated the debut of Emma Lamb and the twentieth wedding anniversary of her parents, Artemus and Henrietta Sabrina Smith Lamb on October 13, 1885. Fellow lumber baron F.C. Weyerhauser, his wife and daughter attended together with several hundred guests all attired in formal wear.
In 1895, Lyons officially merged with the City of Clinton.
The era of opulence came to an end by 1900, as the northern forests were depleted. The sawmills closed, but the railroad and river, providing economical transportation in all directions, attracted manufacturing and heavy industry. The city still boasts a number of magnificent Victorian mansions, including the Curtis Mansion, now the home of the Clinton Women’s Club.
The American Protective Association (APA) was founded in Clinton on March 13, 1887 by Attorney Henry Francis Bowers.
In 1941, with Howard Judd as coach, Clinton High School won the first of its 11 state championships in swimming. This string included five straight championships between 1954 and 1958 and produced 39 individual All Americans and 14 Individual All American Relay Teams (The Howard Judd Story Reception Program June 5, 1966). Clinton’s athletic successes were added to in 1953 when St. Mary’s won the state basketball championship.
Other great athletic triumphs were achieved by the 1964 Clinton High School boys’ baseball team winning the State Championship, the 1991 Clinton Giants winning the Midwest League baseball championship and by the 1992 Clinton High School boys’ basketball team (referred to as the ’92 Crew) winning the State Championship.
On April 27, 1951, the Mississippi crested at 20.7 feet (6.3 m); then on April 26, 1952, it crested again at 20.9 feet (6.4 m). All of that was an exercise compared with the crest on April 28, 1965, which at 24.85 feet (7.57 m) was the highest ever recorded.
Construction of the Gateway Bridge (Illinois-Iowa) was started in August 1954, was finished in May 1956. It opened on July 1, 1956.
In 2005, Clinton, along with Coon Rapids, Iowa and Sioux City, was awarded one of the inaugural Iowa Great Places designations. This award brought to Clinton a $1 million state budget allocation for cultural and landscape improvements along the city’s riverfront.
In 2009, the Archer Daniels Midland began construction of a new cogeneration plant to provide for its electrical needs, which burns coal and leftover corn for the energy. The new cogeneration plant went online in 2010.