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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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Camp of Clam Hunters. Photo courtesy: Cathy's Treasures, 156 Main, Dubuque
CLAM HUNTING. Profitable business on the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. Clamming reached its economic peak in the late 1800s when several varieties, including the HIGGINS' EYE CLAM were used in the BUTTON INDUSTRY.
A model of a clam boat with a crowfoot dredge. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

At the beginning of the industry, many methods of catching mussels were used including using ordinary rakes. In 1897 the "crowfoot" dredge was developed. This was a six foot pole or rod with many four-pronged hooks attached to it with ropes. Mussels resting on the mud or sand of the river bottom opened their shells to catch food.

Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

When a hook was pulled over the shell, the mussel quickly snapped shut and was caught. By the start of the 19th century, the average clammer used two crowfoot dredges suspended from a boat. Drifting downstream, one dredge was being emptied of clams while the second was in the water catching more. On the best of days, this operation could result in the collection of as much as a thousand pounds of shell. In 1910 the water level fell so low that many clam hunters simply scooped them up with their hands. Low water level, however, made dredging in the channel almost impossible. (1)

The original clam fishing area existed between Muscatine, Iowa and Red Wing, Minnesota. (2) Overfishing led to the near extinction of clam beds south of McGregor. In 1901 a surprising number of fresh water pearls were discovered north of McGregor. The size ranged from pinhead to a nickel and were round, oval, flat or half-round. In two days, one buyer paid $2,500 for pearls. Prices ranged from $25.00 to several hundred dollars. (3) The fancier shells which brought the best prices were sent to Europe for manufacturing. The "river run" which did not have the irridescense were sold to American factories in 1920 for $45 a ton. (4) The rush of new fisherman to the area led to the formation of the Clammers Union of Harper's Ferry to prevent encroachment. The plan of the Union was to lease all the land along the shore and the islands in the Mississippi on which clammers would need to land to prepare their shells.

Many mussel hunters today, using an air compressor and long lengths of hose, dive into the river. With fifty-pound weight belts to hold them on the river bottom, divers collect clams in nets pulled up with motorized hoists.

Clam diggers camp.
Because freshwater clam flesh is inedible, dead clams are worth more--as much as twenty cents a pound in the late 1980s. Clams are cooked and then loaded into metal tumblers perforated with holes. The flesh, dropped out of the holes as the clams tumble in the drum, is used as animal feed or thrown away. A good catch, up to seven hundred pounds daily, has earned a hunter up to three hundred dollars.

Clamshells are shipped to Tennessee or Japan. Bits of shell, surgically implanted into oysters, are used to stimulate the formation of cultured pearls. Occasionally a lucky hunter may find a freshwater clam containing pearls-some valued at over one thousand dollars.

Heavy clam harvesting (first warned about by John BOEPPLE) led to portions of six Iowa rivers being closed to clamming from February, 1926 until 1931. (5) While clamming on the MISSISSIPPI RIVER had always been open between Iowa and Wisconsin, restrictions had been placed in 1923 on the industry between Iowa and Illinois. When some clam hunters were arrested in 1926, it was discovered that the original restrictions had never been published and were therefore not valid. A temporary rush of clam hunters into the area resulted until the problem was corrected the same year. (6) These restriction were finally lifted in September, 1930. (7) Chemical poisoning of the river and silting of the river bottom have all caused the populations of clams in the river to decline.



1. "1910 Record May Go Into Discard," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, July 12, 1911, p. 10

2. "A New Eldorado," Dubuque Daily Telegraph, August 5, 1901, p. 5

3. "Clam Diggers Don't Need Pearls to Get Rich," Telegraph-Herald, September 12, 1920, p. 1

4. "A New Eldorado"

5. "Forbid Clamming in Iowa Rivers," Telegraph-Herald, February 26, 1926, p. 9

6. "Romance and Hard Work Are Part of Clamming Trade," Telegraph-Herald, July 18, 1926, p. 12

7. "Ban on Clamming Is Lifted by Iowa," Telegraph-Herald, September 3, 1930, p. 11