Jim McKee: Ionia Volcano a hot topic in 1800s

The first recorded mention of the Ionia Volcano in Dixon County was in 1804, when Lewis and Clark noted "burning bluffs … about 190 feet high … lately on fire and is yet verry Hott Great appearance of Coal
2009-07-06T00:00:00Z Jim McKee: Ionia Volcano a hot topic in 1800s JournalStar.com
July 06, 2009 12:00 am

The first recorded mention of the Ionia Volcano in Dixon County was in 1804, when Lewis and Clark noted "burning bluffs … about 190 feet high … lately on fire and is yet verry Hott Great appearance of Coal."

In 1856-57, L.T. Hill of Davenport, Iowa, sent John and H.M. Pierce to purchase the townsite for what was to become Ionia, then in Dakota County before Dixon County was spun off as a separate division.

By 1858-59, a half dozen buildings and houses, mostly constructed by Hill, had been completed.

In 1860, a post office opened and Hill initiated a ferry on the Missouri River, giving access to Fort Randall. Two years later, a saw mill was built, and in 1865, a school opened.

The village was at its height in about 1870, when Ionia boasted the two-story Hughes Hotel, Levins & Rose's General Merchandise, a carpenter shop, blacksmith, mill, saloon, several small shops and a population estimated at 300.

This period also marked the height of interest in and reporting of the supposed volcano. About this time, the parables of Professor Perrigone and others entertained the populace with Paul Bunyan- or Antonine Barada-like antics.

In the fall of 1877, the volcano reportedly brought the academe from Sioux City, armed with scientific instruments including a compass, chain and thermometer for the study of the phenomenon. They noted spires of overpowering blue smoke and steam with brilliant flashes in six-minute intervals with accompanying earth tremors. By drilling a 60-foot hole, they unleashed a 75-foot-tall "stream of liquid fire" visible 10 miles away.

The following day, while walking the river bank, they found a 6-inch crevice bizarrely emitting faint band music. By enlarging the opening with a pick, they were able to access a narrow cave. Following the fissure over 150 feet into the bank, they were suddenly trapped by a cave-in. After finding a huge, lofty cavern and following a stream, they finally emerged back on the river bank the following morning. The party then investigated the sounds and determined the band and bell sounds had traveled through subterranean cracks from the village of Ponca a dozen miles away.

Many explanations of the smoke and steam were put forward, mostly positing that an oxidation of shale created sulfuric acid, iron sulfide or iron pyrites, which, when combined with river water, created extreme heat and steam. A few, however, clung to the theory that high water from the Missouri was forced into contact with molten lava, creating the steam.

As early as 1874, river encroachment on the village caused some structures to be moved to higher ground. A possible earthquake in 1877 convinced locals that a "calamity was impending," and indeed a 550-foot-long, 110-foot-high, 35-foot-thick bank of the river that contained the volcano fell into the water.

"Heat and combustion (were) spontaneously" created with a feeble sort of volcanic eruption, including steam and a smell of sulfur leaving a residue of red rock and "nothing else worthy of mention."

Although an 1882 article showed a post office, school and a few structures in Ionia, all had been moved well inland, with little remaining of Ionia or her volcano. A few years later, the post office closed.

Today, detailed maps show Volcano Hill three miles northeast of Newcastle, Neb., or five miles southwest of Vermillion, S.D. All that is left of the original volcano site is a 50-foot bluff, a small cemetery and the wild tales of a volcano on land the Ponca felt was sacred ground.

Sadly, there are no extant photos of the volcano.

Historian Jim McKee, who still writes with a fountain pen, invites comments or questions. Write to him in care of the Journal Star or at jim@leebooksellers.com.

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