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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.

DUBUQUE (steamboats)

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DUBUQUE (steamboats) The name Dubuque was used on four steamboats in the history of MISSISSIPPI RIVER commerce. Using the names of river cities for the names of steamboats was based on economics. Local merchants could be counted on to provide supplies in time of need. The local press was likely to furnish additional promotion to the boat by describing in great detail the efforts made by the crew to provide passenger comfort.

Lastly, river cities often provided free docking privileges to ships named in their honor. The profit to be gained from this practice depended upon the number of arrivals, the tonnage of the boat, and the docking rates in effect. One shipping company that took advantage of this naming practice was the Northern Line that named five of their boats the Davenport, Dubuque, Minneapolis, Muscatine, and the Red Wing.

The first Dubuque was constructed in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania in 1835. In choosing that name, the tiny mining town became the first community in Iowa so honored. On the afternoon of August 14, 1837, the flue on one of the boilers collapsed, hurtling scalding water and steam over dozens of passengers. Twenty-two people were killed. This was the first of many explosions on steambboats along the Mississippi.

In 1847 the second Dubuque was built at Elizabethtown, Pennsylvania. After nine years of uneventful service, the ship sank opposite Mundy's Landing, Missouri.

The third Dubuque, fully equipped and furnished at an estimated cost of $100,000, began service in 1867 as part of the Northern Line. The ship was 230 feet long and operated with four boilers and two engines. Fifty-two "palace staterooms" were capable of accommodating 102 passengers. This boat's name, unfortunately, is linked to the worst race riot on the upper Mississippi.

On July 24, 1869, the Dubuque left Davenport with over two hundred deck passengers including many raftsmen who had been drinking heavily after being paid. In an effort to prevent anyone from leaving the lower deck and not paying their fare, an African American clerk was posted on the stairs leading to the second deck. A fight broke out when one of the lumbermen attempted to leave the lower deck for more liquor. Sent back to the lower deck, the lumberman gathered his armed friends and began looking for every African American they could find.

The captain succeeded at Hampton, Illinois, in sending someone to shore for help. The ringleader of the riot, "Mike" Lynch, slipped ashore at Comanche, Iowa. The boat was stopped by soldiers of the Rock Island Arsenal and the rioters were taken into custody.

Nine men were killed during the riot on the Dubuque. The incident was the only one of its kind during seventy-five years of rafting on the upper Mississippi. Ten of the rioters were later indicted. Seven, including Lynch who was captured later, were sent to the state penitentiary at Joliet, Illinois. In 1876 the ill-fated ship burned at Alton Slough while in winter quarters.

Telegraph Herald, Apr. 28, 1897. Image courtesy: Diane Harris
The last steamboat to be named Dubuque was originally named the "Pittsburgh" when it was constructed in Cincinnati in 1879. The boat was purchased by Joseph "Diamond Jo" REYNOLDS in 1881 and operated as part of his steamship line until a storm destroyed much of her upper deck. The Pittsburgh was towed to EAGLE POINT.

At the Diamond Jo Boat Yards repairs were made under the direction of Captain John F. KILLEEN. Renamed the "Dubuque", the ship returned to operation until purchased by the Streckfus line and converted to an excursion boat named the "Capitol." In her final years of operation, the "Capitol" ran as far north as Stillwater, Minnesota, and then moved south near New Orleans during the winter.

The average life of a steamboat on western waters was five years. All the steamboats named "Dubuque", except the first, lasted longer than this time of service. The "Capitol," eventually became the steamboat with the longest record of service on the Mississippi.

Sunk at Keithsburg, Illinois in 1901, the "Dubuque" was formerly the "Capitol."
Telegraph Herald, July 5, 1907. Image courtesy: Diane Harris
Telegraph Herald, July 5, 1907. Image courtesy: Diane Harris