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Release: Jan. 21, 2003

UI Library aerial photo collection shows unique view of Iowa history

Click photo for enlargement.

In the 1937 photo, Kinnick Stadium sits virtually alone, out past the Field House and University Hospital, surrounded by fields, clearly on the edge of Iowa City.

But it’s not as lonely in the photo taken in the 1950s, joined by a new housing subdivision and a growing hospital. By the time the photos in the 1970s are taken, Kinnick has been completely swallowed by parking garages, a greatly expanded UIHC and still more houses.

The photos, shot from several thousand feet in the air, are graphic visual evidence of the changes in Iowa’s landscape during the past seven decades. A collection of more than 100,000 of them covering virtually the entire state is housed in the map collection the UI Library and is available for public use.

“It’s a unique resource for the state and one that many people find useful,” said Mary McInroy, who oversees the photos in the map collection. The photos are part of a program launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture in the mid-1930s to shoot aerial photos of every state and provide them to local county extension and farm service agencies for agricultural planning purposes. With the exception of the World War II years, the USDA has shot the photos every five to eight years.

When a new set of photos arrives, many of the county-level agencies give their old photos to either the UI or Iowa State University. The UI’s collection was recently bolstered by the addition of about 16,000 photos that had been given to ISU, which is no longer accepting them because of limited space. UI staff is currently inventorying the ISU photos. Although some of the ISU photos will duplicate current UI holdings, in many cases the new photos will add considerable depth to the UI’s historical county-by-county coverage.

McInroy said the photos are a fascinating record of what Iowa used to look like and a journal of how the state’s landscape has changed. Mosaics of small farm plots are turned into large fields, stands of forest disappear under urban encroachment and two-lane country roads give way to interstate freeways.

But McInroy said the photos provide more than an historical record, they’re a useful resource for a variety of different organizations that use them for their own planning purposes, agricultural and otherwise. For instance, Mark Anderson, a project director in the Office of State Archaeologist, says his office uses the photos while planning every project to see what each site looked like in the past so their digging doesn’t damage historic sites.

Thanks to the photos, Anderson has found long-gone historic farmsteads at project sites, observed the effects of stream channel modification over several decades, and found new burial mounds at the Turkey River burial mound site. None of that information could have been obtained from ground observation, he said.

“It’s a fabulous resource and easily at hand for us,” he said.

Aerial photos for Iowa and other states are all available for individual purchase from federal agencies. McInroy said. The UI’s Iowa photo collection is free to anyone who wants to see and use it. For a listing of aerial photos held at the UI, log onto the Map Collection’s web site at and click on “Aerial Photos of Iowa.” This listing does not yet include the ISU photos.

Although extensive, the UI collection is far from complete and McInroy is trying to find photos not in the collection. She’s hoping Iowans who have photos will donate them to the university, or provide a financial gift that will help the library buy the photos it needs from federal agencies to help fill the gaps. For more information on the collection, contact McInroy at (319) 335-6247 or by email at