Steps since statehood: Charting Dubuque’s progress during Iowa’s first 175 years | Tri-state News

Dubuquers celebrated Iowa’s statehood with a public event on Dec. 28, 1846, then quickly returned to their busy lives.

Their community was growing, flush with mining proceeds, and newcomers were flocking to Iowa’s oldest — and at the time, second-largest — city.

During the first year of statehood, Dubuquers divided the expanding city into separate political wards, held public dinners to raise money for fire equipment and navigated around the towering piles of sawdust from the mills processing lumber that floated down the Mississippi River in rafts of bound logs.

Dubuque was already a big deal when statehood arrived.

“One thing that certainly gave Dubuque a head start was the Mississippi River,” said Mike Gibson, semi-retired archivist at Center for Dubuque History at Loras College. “The Mississippi River was like an interstate highway.”

The river linked the South and its established ports with the growing Upper Midwest, providing a steady transfer of goods and people.

“The river was the lifeblood of Dubuque,” Gibson said.

The river, railroads and rich local farmland all would contribute to Dubuque’s development during Iowa’s first 175 years of statehood.

Here is a look at Dubuque’s development by quarter-century, culled from the accounts of local historians such as Chandler Childs (1824-1900), Franklin T. Oldt (1853-1927) and Peter B. Hoffmann (1855-1944), as well as Telegraph Herald archives dating to 1903.


Dubuque had a head start on other cities within the Iowa Territory, having been chartered in 1833 as “DuBuque.”

The original city limits included only the land between what is now First and Seventh streets, Bluff Street and the river.

Population growth in the city’s earliest days was limited by occasional cholera and smallpox outbreaks, and residents often scattered powder lime on the ground to ward off the diseases.

By 1846 and Iowa statehood, Dubuque had grown sufficiently to be divided into three political wards.

Two years later, the city’s liquor-license proceeds supported the purchase of islands dotting the Mississippi River, further expanding the city.

By 1854, Dubuque’s city limits had been extended to encompass seven square miles. There were no more than a half-dozen houses in the Eagle Point area by 1860. Residents could hunt for rabbits and quail in areas between what is now Central Avenue and North Main Street.


Already a lucrative business in Dubuque’s earliest days, lead mining became even more prosperous with the launch of the Civil War in 1865 and the need for lead shot as ammunition. One local mining company uncovered more than 200,000 pounds of ore in three months during the war.

Dubuque’s 120½-foot landmark shot tower dates back to 1856 and was used extensively during the war.


Dubuque’s first fairgrounds was located in the approximate vicinity of today’s Sacred Heart Church. The grounds extended from what is now 22nd Street north to 24th Street and from Windsor Avenue west about three blocks.

The city’s first fairgrounds had its highlight in 1862, when the city hosted the Iowa State Fair from Sept. 30 to Oct. 3.


Ferries had allowed for trans-river travel between Dubuque and Illinois since 1828. Eventually, steamboats equipped with tracks on their decks allowed train cars to cross the river. The Dunleith and Dubuque Bridge for rail traffic opened on New Year’s Day in 1869.


During Dubuque’s early years, the city’s police officers did not receive regular paychecks — the City Council considered paying law enforcement wages optional — and it was not until 1865 that the city had its first regularly paid police force.


Frank Keenan was born on April 8, 1858, in Dubuque. A celebrated Shakespearean actor in New York, Keenan was among the first stage actors to become a Hollywood star in silent movies.


Dubuque’s population rocketed from 3,108 in 1846 to 13,000 in 1860. The city’s population rose to 18,434 by 1870.


Residents of Irish ancestry and those with German roots formed one of Dubuque’s principal rivalries in the 19th century.

The Irish were primarily concentrated in an area of town south of First Street called “Little Dublin,” with Germans mostly living in the city’s north.

“When any of the Irish came up town or any of the Germans ventured down to (Little) Dublin, there generally was a fight, and many a fray took place between them in the old beer gardens on Sunday afternoons,” the historian Hoffmann wrote.

Many Irish joined the fraternal organization Ancient Order of Hibernians, formed in 1891 in Dubuque.

A pair of German singing societies formed in 1868 and 1870, respectively, and merged to become the Dubuque Saengerbund in 1883. The group practiced weekly at City Hall.

This era also saw an increase in Dubuque’s number of Catholic women religious orders.

After the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary paved the way in Dubuque in 1843, the Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary followed in 1874 and the Sisters of St. Francis in 1878.


By 1875, Dubuque’s A.A. Cooper Wagon and Buggy Co. was one of the two largest wagon factories in the United States, producing nearly 3,000 wagons annually. Located on Locust Street between Second and Third streets, the company employed 300 men by the end of the 1890s. Employees worked 13 to 15 hours per day to meet demand.

Two pillars of Dubuque’s health-care community were established during this era, with the Sisters of Mercy establishing a hospital in 1879 and Dr. John W. Finley transforming his residence into a hospital in February 1890.


Tivoli Gardens served as one of Dubuque’s most-popular beer gardens during the 19th century. Its popularity peaked with American centennial celebrations on July 4, 1876, when a lengthy parade completed its route at the nine-acre forested gardens, located along what is now Central Avenue from Kaufmann Avenue to West 23rd Street and west to Francis Street.


Streetcars were operating in Dubuque beginning in 1868. By 1877, the Hill Street and West Dubuque Steam Railway began operating train services up some of the city’s steep hillsides.

Tracks led from the depot at Eighth and Main streets, up Eighth Street to Hill and West Third streets, over to Alpine Street, then north on Alpine to Julien Avenue and west to Broad Street, now known as Booth Street. The fare was 10 cents.

The steam locomotive wasn’t always reliable, and the service was abandoned in 1884.


It was not unusual for cows to roam Dubuque’s streets during the city’s early days.

Many Dubuquers had a cow or two to provide daily milk, with the highest concentration of urban cows located east of White Street and north of 11th Street.

It wasn’t until the 1870s that the City Council adopted an ordinance requiring that stock “be restrained from running at large.”


Anna B. Lawther was born on Sept. 8, 1872, in Dubuque. Lawther was a notable Iowa leader in the movement to give women the right to vote. She served as the first female delegate from Iowa to the Democratic National Convention, attending in 1920, and was the first woman to deliver a convocation address at University of Iowa in 1940.


Dubuque’s population grew by nearly 12,000 in the 20 years ending in 1890, when the city had 30,311 residents.


Lead mining in Dubuque wasn’t what it used to be by the dawn of the 20th century. Sources of easily mined lead had been exhausted, and other parts of the country could extract ore more profitably.

Dubuquers increasingly turned to the river as a source of economic prosperity. Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works was launched in 1904 in the Port of Dubuque. The firm eventually would grow to become the largest boat builder along the Mississippi River north of St. Louis.

At the same time, advances in agricultural technology meant that local farmland grew in value and potential. The Dubuque County Farm Bureau was organized in 1918 to meet the needs of the area’s agricultural community.


The Milwaukee shops were established in the 1870s in Dubuque’s North End to serve as a center for maintenance for the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway’s 2,500 miles of track and 287 locomotives.

The shops employed 2,000 people by 1918. They closed in 1954.


Dubuque’s Grand Opera House was completed in 1890. From its opening to 1920, the venue played host to more than 2,600 different live performances, including those featuring stage stars such as Sarah Bernhardt, George M. Cohan, Lillian Russell, Ethel Barrymore and Henry Fonda.

Meanwhile, Dubuquers celebrated an outdoor recreation milestone on June 17, 1910, with the dedication of Eagle Point Park. Two years earlier, 100 acres that would become the park were deeded to the city. The park’s Riverfront Pavilion was built in 1910, and streetcars started to travel to the park in 1912.


The Dubuque-based Adams Co. made its first sedan in 1905, but many contemporary Dubuquers considered automobiles impractical because of the steep hills.

However, local auto traffic grew enough within the next several years to prompt the City Council to pass its first ordinance regulating speed in 1909. The ordinance set the speed limit at 10 mph in the “closely built-up” areas of the city and 15 mph elsewhere in Dubuque.

WAIT … WHAT?The Dubuque Electric Railway, Light and Power Co. was contracted in 1890 to replace gas lamps with electric street lights at 50 Dubuque intersections, beginning with the intersection of Sixth and White streets. By November of that year, electric lights were in place in the area within Washington, Jones, Bluff and 18th streets.

The streets weren’t always lit. Street lighting in the early days was conducted by what was called the Philadelphia Moonlight Schedule, which meant that lights only were operated in the absence of a bright, shining moon.


Jay Berwanger was born on March 19, 1914, in Dubuque. A star halfback for University of Chicago, Berwanger was the first winner, in 1935, of the award that would be renamed the Heisman Trophy.

Robert Martin was born on Feb. 9, 1919, in Dubuque. Martin was a military pilot who served in World War II and was part of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African-Americans to fly for the U.S. Armed Forces. His service during World War II earned him numerous medals, including the Distinguished Flying Cross.


Dubuque’s population grew from 36,297 in 1910 to 39,141 by 1920. By comparison, the population of Cedar Rapids, Iowa, shot up during that time from 32,811 to 45,566.


A prosperous Dubuque was booming in the 1920s, and signs of progress were everywhere — from the opening of the educational facility now known as Dubuque Senior High School in February 1923 to the first passenger plane taking off from a local airfield in 1928.

The Great Depression halted almost all progress, causing widespread unemployment and leading to the formation of social service agencies to help less fortunate residents. Catholic Charities of the Archdiocese of Dubuque was organized on June 5, 1931, and Dubuque Rescue Mission opened its doors on Feb. 14, 1932, at 551 Iowa St.

Clothing collected throughout Dubuque was distributed to the needy every afternoon in 1932 at Spahn and Rose Lumber Co. at Eighth and Washington streets.

“Subsistence gardens,” where Dubuque’s unemployed families could grow produce for their personal nutrition needs, were created in July 1932 on Dubuque’s City Island — now Chaplain Schmitt Island — and Kelly’s Bluff above downtown. More than 2,000 such gardens were operational by July 1934.

In the 1940s, Dubuquers devoted themselves to the war effort, with local soldiers, sailors, Marines and airmen serving overseas and local firms switching to manufacturing items needed for the military in World War II. Those businesses included Farley and Loetscher Manufacturing Co., a producer of sashes, doors, windows and kitchen cabinets before the war that produced soldiers’ wooden footlockers and munitions boxes during the conflict.


Dubuquers had been brewing beer since the city’s earliest days, but local brewers had never ramped up production quite like the fall of 1933.

Iowa voters repealed the 18th Amendment in July, ending Prohibition, and locals were thirsty.

Dubuque Star Brewery was the only Iowa brewer operational in September 1933, and its workers threw themselves into beer production to satisfy pent-up demand. Star had produced beer in kegs by Oct. 25, 1933, a time when many other regional breweries still were preparing for their return to brewing.

Also, H.T. Bertsch moved his family’s Northome Furniture business from Minnesota to Dubuque in 1936, settling into a manufacturing facility near 32nd and Jackson streets. By 1958, the company had changed its name to Flexsteel Industries. The company would continue to manufacture furniture in Dubuque until 2020.


A Dubuque music venue that boasted of having Iowa’s largest contemporary dance floor opened in 1934.

Melody Mill was located a mile north of Dubuque on Iowa Highway 55 (now Iowa 3/U.S. 52). The 100-foot-by-162-foot hall stood in the middle of rehabilitated swampland that had been the previous site of Dubuque’s first airport.

Performers ranging from Count Basie to Johnny Cash and from Patsy Cline to Jerry Lee Lewis graced its stage for 30 years, drawing large crowds.


When it opened on Aug. 30, 1943, the Julien Dubuque Bridge’s 845-foot main span was the second-longest over the Mississippi River, fourth-longest in the U.S. and eighth-longest in the world. The bridge linking Dubuque and East Dubuque, Ill., replaced the High Bridge, which crossed the river just south of the railroad bridge, with an approach at the foot of Fourth Street.


A yearslong naming dispute meant that two local institutions of higher learning laid claim to the title of “Dubuque College.”

An institution of higher learning on Delhi Street school was known as Dubuque German College and Seminary until 1916, when it dropped the word “German” from its name and went by Dubuque College.

Meanwhile, Iowa’s oldest college was located just a few blocks away on 14th Street. Founded by Bishop Mathias Loras in 1839, that school also was known as Dubuque College.

A settlement reached in 1920 stipulated that both schools had to choose new names. The schools were allowed to use the words “of Dubuque” in their new names but not “Dubuque” by itself.

The Delhi Street school took the name University of Dubuque. The 14th Street school changed its name to Columbia College before adopting its current name, Loras College, in 1939.


Joe Hoerner was born on Nov. 12, 1936, in Dubuque. Hoerner pitched in relief for seven Major League Baseball teams during a 14-year career.

David Rabe was born on March 10, 1940, in Dubuque. Rabe won the Tony Award for best play in 1972 for “Sticks and Bones” and wrote the screenplay for the 1989 film “Casualties of War.”


Dubuque’s population grew by 6.5% from 1920, when it stood at 39,141, to 1930, when the count was 41,679, but that growth slowed to 5.3% during the decade of the Great Depression, reaching 43,892 by 1940.


Dubuquers had faced Mississippi River flooding before, but the rising floodwaters of April 1965 produced such an unprecedented disaster that civic leaders were prompted to transform the city’s landscape.

The river crested at a record 26.81 feet on April 26, 1965. More than 9 feet above its flood stage, the river sent 3 million gallons of water per second into Dubuque, destroying homes and businesses. Floodwaters stood 7 feet deep on some streets.

In response, local, state and federal officials broke ground on a flood-control system, including a floodwall, in June 1968. The construction marked the largest federal infrastructure project in the city since the construction of Lock and Dam No. 11 in the 1930s.


Dubuque strengthened its place as a major manufacturing center in the years following World War II.

Deere & Co. announced in February 1945 that it planned to construct a factory north of Dubuque. The Moline, Ill.-based farm implement manufacturer purchased a 328-acre tract known as the Peru Townsite about 2½ miles north of the Dubuque city limits. The first tractor rolled off the plant’s assembly line in March 1947.

By the 1950s, the family-owned Dubuque Packing Co. was the city’s second-largest employer, and the plant’s workforce swelled to 3,500 by the 1960s. It was one of the largest private companies in America by the 1970s, with multiple facilities, but the Dubuque plant closed at the dawn of the 2000s.


Dubuque’s American Legion Post 6 decided to launch a junior drum and bugle corps in 1963. Originally known as the The Junior Dukes, the name was changed to Colt .45 in 1969 and eventually shortened to the Colts.

Currently, more than 600 young people, ages 8 to 21, participate in Colts-related programs annually. The corps travels the country for performances and parades.


Already served by road, rail and river travel links, Dubuque welcomed commercial air service in 1955.

Dubuque Municipal Airport had relocated to its present site south of Dubuque by the dawn of the 1950s, and a Civil Aeronautics Board decision on June 10, 1955, granted Ozark Air Lines the authority to route flights between Chicago and Sioux City, Iowa, with Dubuque among several stops in between.


Dubuque teenagers flocked to unusual venues for popular dances in the 1960s — the city’s parking ramps.

In the summer of 1966, a committee of teenagers and civic leaders sought to address the lack of recreational activities by letting kids dance on top of downtown parking ramps. More than 1,100 kids attended the first ramp dance.


Kate Mulgrew was born on April 29, 1955, in Dubuque. Mulgrew starred as Capt. Kathryn Janeway on television’s “Star Trek: Voyager” and as Galina “Red” Reznikov on the popular series “Orange is the New Black.”

Louie Psihoyos was born on April 15, 1957, in Dubuque. A photographer and filmmaker, Psihoyos directed the Oscar-winning documentary “The Cove” in 2009.


Dubuque grew in population and area after the war. The city added a 1,200-acre tract of land in 1952 that boosted its population by 2,200 people. Dubuque experienced a 25% increase in population from 1950 to 1970, as the number of residents grew from 49,671 to 62,309


Dubuque and the surrounding area stepped into the Hollywood spotlight thanks to a trio of films shot in the late 1970s and 1980s.

Director Norman Jewison’s “F.I.S.T.” starred Sylvester Stallone as a Cleveland warehouse worker who becomes involved in labor union leadership. The movie was filmed in Dubuque during 1977 and was released in 1978.

Gus Trikonis’ “Take This Job and Shove It,” released in 1981, starred Robert Hays and helped introduce monster trucks to American mainstream culture. The moviemakers filmed extensively at the Star Brewery in the Port of Dubuque, as well as a few other locations around town.

A third locally filmed movie left a lasting legacy.

The movie originally titled “Shoeless Joe” was filmed in 1988 at a baseball field carved out of a cornfield outside Dyersville, Iowa, as well as at locations in Dubuque; Farley, Iowa; and Galena, Ill.

Eventually retitled “Field of Dreams,” the Oscar-nominated movie starred Kevin Costner and was released in 1989.

The baseball field created for the film endured and became a tourist attraction drawing fans from around the world. A Major League Baseball field constructed adjacent to the movie site hosted a game between the Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees this past August.


A new industry emerged in Dubuque in April 1991, with the arrival of the Casino Belle, a floating casino that ushered in the era of legal gambling in Iowa.

Operated by Bob and Ruth Kehl, the boat featured slot machines, roulette wheels and table games.

Gaming expanded its local scope in subsequent years. Riverboat patrons welcomed the first Diamond Jo Casino in 1994, and one year later, Dubuque Greyhound Park expanded its operations by adding slot machines. That facility is now known as Q Casino and Hotel.


Not for the first time, the Mississippi River provided Dubuque with the setting for recreation — and an economic revival.

By the early 1980s, manufacturing job losses had produced a prolonged period in the economic doldrums in Dubuque. A renewed interest in river leisure helped correct Dubuque’s economic and recreational course.

Before they pioneered local riverboat gambling during the next decade, the Kehls’ Robert’s River Rides launched an 800-passenger vessel, the Mississippi Belle, in 1984. The success of river cruising was such that the Iowa Development Commission named the couple’s multimillion-dollar excursion boat business the state’s No. 1 tourist attraction later that year.


A bridge that spanned the Mississippi River between Iowa and Wisconsin was replaced in 1982 after 80 years of service.

The Eagle Point Bridge gave way to a new, four-lane span. The new Dubuque-Wisconsin bridge originally connected 16th Street and Kerper Boulevard with Grant County.


Dubuquers could finally legally indulge in a popular recreational pursuit in 1972. That’s the year Iowa lawmakers legalized bingo.

The game had been banned for years — like other forms of what state officials considered gambling — until the fallout from an unpopular law enforcement raid in the tri-state area. State agents raided a fundraising picnic that featured games of chance held by Immaculate Conception Church on Sept. 5, 1971, in the Clayton County community of North Buena Vista, Iowa.

Political pressure in the wake of the raid cleared the way for small-scale legalized games of chance such as bingo.


Michael Gilbertson was born on May 31, 1987, in Dubuque. Gilbertson is a composer and professor at San Francisco Conservatory of Music. He was a finalist for the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in music.

Kayla Banwarth was born on Jan. 21, 1989, in Dubuque. A winner of gold and bronze medals as a member of the U.S. women’s national volleyball team, Banwarth is now the head coach of the University of Mississippi women’s volleyball team.


Economic pressures early during the quarter-century helped contribute to a decline of Dubuque’s population. The number of residents fell by more than 7% between 1980, when there were 62,374 residents, and 1990, when there were 57,538.


A publicly and privately funded redevelopment project transformed the city’s image while improving the Port of Dubuque during this quarter-century.

The $188 million America’s River project consisted of the National Mississippi River Museum & Aquarium, the Mississippi Riverwalk and a convention venue, Grand River Center. An adjacent private hotel, Grand Harbor Resort and Waterpark, added to the riverfront amenities.

State awards contributed more than $52 million toward the project. The remainder of the $188 million came from the city, federal sources, Dubuque County and private donations and investments.

A $40 million, 50,000-square-foot expansion of the museum’s campus, the Diamond Jo National River Center, opened in June 2010.


Modern Dubuque industries have included publishing and technology.

William C. Brown founded a publishing company bearing his name in 1944. All but three of the entities of the company were sold in the 1980s, and an educational publishing firm was purchased by McGraw-Hill in 1996. McGraw-Hill opened a $32 million, four-story office complex in 2007, in the Port of Dubuque.

Global technology giant IBM occupied the renovated Roshek Building in downtown Dubuque from 2009 until 2020, peaking at 1,300 employees in 2011.


An infrastructure project designed to ease the threat of flooding in Dubuque’s North End, the Lower and Upper Bee Branch Creek Restoration projects of the 2010s, also added to the city’s growing system of hiking and biking trails.

By 2021, the City of Dubuque maintains a 53-mile trail system, including an off-road network with trails at the John G. Bergfeld Recreation Area, Eagle Point Park, Port of Dubuque, Chaplain Schmitt Memorial Island and Peosta Channel.


A pair of major transportation projects eased travel between Dubuque and the rest of the nation.

The opening of the U.S. 61/Iowa 64 interchange at Maquoketa, Iowa, in October 1999 provided the final link in a 70-mile project that made U.S. 61 a four-lane highway from Dubuque to Davenport, Iowa. Planning for the project began in the 1960s.

The conversion of U.S. 151 to a four-lane highway between Dickeyville and Dodgeville, Wis., was completed in November 2005. The final leg of the project was the 2.7-mile Dickeyville bypass.

Additionally, Dubuque air travel entered a new era in May 2016, with the opening of a 35,615-square-foot, $37 million terminal at Dubuque Regional Airport. The facility replaced the original terminal, built in 1948 and most recently remodeled in 1988.


Technology departments feared a catastrophe when the clock struck midnight — and spent months preparing for a digital disaster that failed to materialize.

As Jan. 1, 2000, approached, national and local fears rose on the potential threat that software would be unable to contend with the calendar switching from “1999” to “2000,” a threat known by the shorthand “Y2K.”

Local agencies and companies watched with anxious eyes, but the new year arrived as usual, with clocks and phones still working.


Ian Moller was born on Oct. 26, 2002, in Dubuque. Moller is a baseball catcher who was drafted by the Texas Rangers in the fourth round of Major League Baseball’s 2021 amateur draft.


Dubuque’s population stood at 59,667 in 2020, making the city the 11th-largest in Iowa.