In the early 1700s, Pierre-Charles Le Sueur noted the locations of lead mines in the area, but it was nearly a century later when Julien Dubuque rode into town and negotiated exclusive mining rights on Meskwaki Indian lands west of the river.
After Dubuque died in 1810, the Mesquakie, concerned about losing their lead mines to the Americans (their territory was still off-limits), continued to mine and smelt the lead themselves. At the same time, lead mining on the east side of the river was growing rapidly and thousands of white settlers were crossing the river illegally. They were forced out by federal troops, but by 1832, the Mesquakie were forced to abandon the mines because of continuing hostilities with nearby Dakota Indians. A short time later, the Mesquakie lost ownership of the mines permanently as part of the settlement of the Black Hawk War.
Within a short time, mining camps sprung up along the west side of the Mississippi River. The area that became known as Dubuque’s Mines evolved into the town of Dubuque in 1834. While lead mining was good business, it was never as prosperous as in neighboring areas. Good agricultural prospects lured many miners into farming; some miners left in the California Gold Rush; some mines were plagued by high water levels that prevented extracting the ore. Lead mining’s mercurial history was essentially finished in Dubuque by the 1850s.
Early settlers moved into a territory with no official government and settled on land for which title was uncertain. One document described Dubuque as a lawless territory of “dram shops where armed men congregated to drink and fight.”
George Harrison (of Galena, not Liverpool, UK) tried to get a head start on the town creation process by laying out a few lots in 1833, but the first official plat did not happen until 1837. By the 1840s, Dubuque was transforming from a rough-and-tumble mining camp into a civilized town, more or less. Log cabins were replaced by stone and brick buildings; streets were created; and local industry expanded beyond mining.
In the 1840s locals adopted the nickname of “Key City” because of Dubuque’s role in expanding settlement across Iowa and points west. In the 1850s Dubuque’s population, fueled by the arrival of immigrants from Ireland and Germany, grew from 3,108 to 14,319. Wealthier residents built houses on the bluff; downtown was populated with hotels that were often full of single men and a few families looking for temporary housing on their way elsewhere. Steamboats propelled further growth, and Dubuque remained Iowa’s largest city until 1875.
During the Civil War, a substantial number of Dubuquers had pro-Southern leanings, even though only a very small percentage of its population had ties to the South. Its Democratic politics were largely anti-Catholic and anti-foreigner, influenced by the Know Nothing movement. In the 1860 presidential election, Dubuque city went for Stephen A. Douglas, the Illinois senator who was certainly no abolitionist. Nevertheless, Dubuque contributed a substantial number of volunteers to the Union Army.
Although railroad construction was booming on the east side of the Mississippi River (the railroads reached Dunleith, now known as East Dubuque, in 1855), a few unsuccessful attempts were made to build railroads from Dubuque to the west. It wasn’t until after the Civil War that railroad construction took off in earnest. An important link was completed in 1869 when Dubuque’s first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River opened.
Even though railroads were replacing steamboats, river traffic did not fade away. In 1874, Diamond Jo Reynolds moved his headquarters to Dubuque and built a shipyard at Eagle Point; it operated successfully until the early 1900s. Another boatyard opened at Ice Harbor that became the Dubuque Boat and Boiler Works; they built iron-hulled boats until closing in 1972.
Dubuque’s expansion through the late nineteenth and early twentieth century—between 1870 and 1900 Dubuque’s population doubled—was due mostly to manufacturing, particularly lumber and woodworking, brewing, and meat packing. One of the best-known manufacturers was the Cooper Wagon Works, which began in the 1860s and was nationally renowned for its exceptionally solid wagons. Even as Dubuque’s population grew, the city didn’t see the waves of immigrants in the early 1900s that other American cities saw. By 1915, only one of eight Dubuquers was foreign born.
The city’s culture was heavily influenced by Germans and therefore stung deeply by the rise in anti-German sentiment with World War I. In May 1918, Iowa Governor Harding issued the infamous “Babel Proclamation” that prohibited the speaking of foreign languages in public—including on the telephone, at church, and at school. Even after World War I, anti-foreigner sentiment continued to increase in Dubuque and the Ku Klux Klan gained a foothold. Dubuquers may have been crankier than the rest of the nation in the 1920s, because the economic boom that the United States experienced largely bypassed them. They also suffered greater hardship during the Great Depression than the country as a whole. The local economy received a boost from Roosevelt’s public works projects; two in particular had a lasting impact: the building of Lock and Dam #11 and the reshaping of Eagle Point Park.
With the end of World War II, Dubuque finally got some good economic news: the Dubuque Packing Company had a new owner and began a robust expansion, and the John Deere Company built a massive factory at Peru Bottoms. The record flood of 1965 gave the impetus to build a flood wall. Completed in 1973, the new wall was built for a 30-foot crest and opened the flood plains to new development.
Dubuque fell victim to the misguided urban renewal philosophies of the 1970s and 1980s and leveled large sections of old neighborhoods as new development (and housing) pushed west; as in many other places, the anticipated new development never really materialized. Gradually, historic preservation took root in the 1980s and beyond. Like many old industrial towns, the 1980s were tough in Dubuque. The recession resulted in big-time job losses, strikes, and a steep decline in union jobs; the city never regained those manufacturing jobs.
Renovation of historic properties is in full swing today. Older parts of town like the Historic Millwork District are coming back to life as complete neighborhoods, and the city has embraced the idea of going green with new construction and renovation. It’s possible that Dubuque has never looked better. Still, the city remains something of an enigma. How do you get your head around a place that has elected as mayors an avid Harley rider known as “Poor Boy” and a nun?