Home to approximately 1,000 residents, Shellsburg was founded in 1854 and originally contained 24 lots and two streets, Main and Pearl. It was the third town site surveyed in Benton County, Iowa. The town was laid out by Jacob and Christiana Cantonwine and Emanuel S. and Mary Fluke, proprietors.
There are two theories on how Shellsburg was named, or perhaps the resulting name was a compromise. One explanation is that John Sells, a pioneer of Canton Township, wished to have the town named for himself, and so for a time it was called Sellsburg. The proprietors, or the people of the town, preferred another name, so they compromised with Sells and changed it to Shellsburg. However, there still remains a Sells street which runs by the City Park. The other theory is that Shellsburg was named for Schellsburg, Pennsylvania by Jacob Cantonwine who had come from that state.
A regular stage coach route was established between Cedar Rapids and Cedar Falls in the 1850s. In the early days, before the coming of the railroad, Shellsburg became quite well known as a thriving station on the Cedar Rapids and Vinton stage line. Vinton had daily stage communication with Cedar Rapids in the spring of 1855 and this apparently passed through Shellsburg.
A post office was opened in Shellsburg on November 24, 1856.
Plans for a railroad between Vinton and Shellsburg developed and in December 1869 the first train traveled through Shellsburg. After the advent of the railroad, Shellsburg grew rapidly in both wealth and population until it became one of the business centers of the county. As businesses prospered, community amenities such as the library, school, parks, churches and social organizations were formed.
The original log schoolhouse was replaced by a frame building in 1870 and in 1875 was replaced by the large brick building that stands today.
Of historical importance to Shellsburg is the concrete-filled spandrel arch bridge built in 1915 over Bear Creek at the south end of Pearl Street. Other than maintenance-related repairs, the Shellsburg Bridge remains essentially unaltered, as it continues to carry vehicular traffic and is of significant historical importance to our community: With its handsomely detailed 60-foot span, the bridge features molded balusters and incised spandrel panels. it is a well-preserved, relatively early example of urban bridge design by the state highway commission. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
Publications regarding the history of Shellsburg may be found at the Shellsburg Public Library and include the Sesquicentennial History published in 2004.