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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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Share of stock in the Dunleith and Dubuque Bridge Company
DUNLEITH AND DUBUQUE BRIDGE. Prior to the construction of the bridge, railroad cars, wagons, and travelers of the 1860s had to be carried across the Mississippi on FERRYBOATS. (1) In the winter, brave men and women walked across the ice from Illinois to Iowa.

Hopes for a bridge across the Mississippi River began in 1857 when the Illinois legislature granted a charter to the Dunleith and Dubuque Bridge Company for the project. (2) Due to the CIVIL WAR, no action was taken on this project.

It was not until 1867 that the Dunleith and Dubuque Bridge Company was reorganized. (3) The first board of directors included William Boyd ALLISON, president; Henry L. STOUT, vice-president and treasurer; and Platt SMITH as one of the directors. All stock in the company was purchased in Dubuque, Boston, and New York.

When the company made application to the City of Dubuque to locate the western end of the bridge and gain right-of-way into the city, many citizens argued that the bridge should also offer a wagon-way or a walk-way. (4) It was even suggested that the bridge company could be given remission of taxes for taking on the additional work. (5) Company officials stated that the matter was out of their hands since their charter had stated that only a railroad bridge would be constructed. (6)

Andrew CARNEGIE of the Union Iron Mills and the Keystone Bridge Company eventually won the contract. (7) While not the lowest bidder for the work, Carnegie agreed to meet the lowest bid which had been made for the work to be done with cast iron. (8) Carnegie had argued that such a structure would be weaker than wrought iron. He was supported in his argument by Platt SMITH who reported that one of his wagon wheels had been able to break a cast iron street lamp post. (9) Years later in his autobiography Carnegie commented," If you want a contract be on the spot when it is let, a chance remark may give you the prize." (10)

Announcement of bids was met with joy in Dubuque. The Keystone Bridge Company won the contract with a bid of $275,000. Other bids had been that high and went up to $350,000. The stone work for piers and abutments was let to Reynolds, Saulpaugh & Co. for $242,000. The approach to the west end of the bridge and was let to the same companies for $52,000. (11) Work began on a bridge 1,760 feet long with seven spans and a 359-foot span, a movable portion that allowed river traffic to pass. (12)

A tunnel, blasted through the East Dubuque cliffs provided an approach to the bridge, and rock from the tunnel was used for bridge supports. Pilings for the bridge were driven through the ice and into the stream bed. The work on the bridge was completed in December, 1868 and the first train operated by the DUBUQUE AND SIOUX CITY RAILROAD passed over it.

Built for small steam engines, the bridge had to be renovated. Samuel ROOT ignored the sign to pose the two children. Photo courtesy: https://www.facebook.com/groups/45737582684/
The bridge was officially opened on New Year's Day, 1869 with the first arrival of a train from Chicago. (13) The completed bridge is about one-fourth the length of the Golden Gate Bridge near San Francisco. (14) The 146-foot span that rotates, moves on forty cast iron rollers each weighing five hundred pounds. (15) Originally it took six strong men to push a turn-buckle to rotate the 600-ton span each time a boat needed passage. The many steamboats using the river led to the bridge span being left open. Frances E. COUCH remembered the story of a freight train coming through the tunnel without stopping and running out onto the bridge before it could be closed. The locomotive and three cars plunged into the river, but the crew escaped. As trains became more common, the span was left closed and boats had to use their whistles to be allowed through. (16)

In 1888, it was announced that the Dubuque stockholders of the railroad bridge had sold their two-thirds interest to the Illinois Central that already owned one-third. (17) The dual ownership had been a source of conflict. While both the Illinois Central and the stockholders had wanted other rail lines to be able to use the bridge, satisfactory terms could not be reached and other railroads were therefore shut out of Dubuque. The Illinois Central quickly began improvements to the bridge. Designed for the use of small steam engines, the bridge was never intended for heavy trains. The marsh area on the Iowa side of the bridge was filled, and the length of the bridge was shortened by 225 feet. The cost was estimated at $200,000. (18)

The ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD held a contract that called for an annual rental of $80,000 to be paid to the stockholders in addition to a fee for each car that crossed the bridge. The railroad, in purchasing the stockholders interest, stated its desire to lower this rate for itself as well as the other railroads that used the bridge. One immediate beneficiary of the new agreement was the Burlington and Northern Railroad that had to use a transfer boat to ferry its cars across the Mississippi.

A unique incident occurred to the rotating span on July 9, 1897. On a day of intense heat, the bridge refused to open to allow river traffic. It was immediately suspected that heat had caused the span on the bridge to expand. (19) It was not until the next day that the real cause was discovered--the slipping of a nut mashing the threads so it could not be removed. The job of making a new shaft and nuts was given to the IOWA IRON WORKS. (20)

According to M. C. Morphew, engineer of the bridge in 1936 and nephew/son of Carter E. Smith and J. R. Morphew who directed the project, renovation on the bridge took place in 1900. Quoting bridge records in Chicago, the first piece of steel was placed on January 6, 1900 with the last on April 13, 1900--a record for the time. (21) The span was replaced by one that weighed 900-tons. (22) The draw bridge was converted from steam to electricity on March 8, 1930. (23) The power to rotate the span in 1987 was supplied by a 30-horse power electric engine. (24)

It has been suggested that the completion of the bridge stimulated the organization of the DUBUQUE HIGH BRIDGE COMPANY. The success of the railroad bridge indicated to them that a passenger bridge would have at least an equal success. (25)

The bridge opens to allow river traffic to pass. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding.
Postcard showing the swinging bridge.
The bridge today remains generally the same as that which resumed business by 1900.

In 1985 the bridge was purchased from the Illinois Central by the Chicago Central and Pacific Railroad which was headquartered in Waterloo, Iowa. (26) It was the only railroad to use the bridge. It is later operated by Canadian National Railway as a result of their purchase of the Illinois Central in 1999. (Photo Courtesy: http://dubuque-tour.tripod.com)

In 1995 the railroad bridge was a subject of a safety study. According to Roger Wiebusch who studies navigational safety for the U. S. Coast Guard's Second District in St. Louis, Missouri, the Dubuque bridge has the narrowest draw span and the smallest navigational opening on the Mississippi. (27)



1. Kruse, Len. My Old Dubuque, Dubuque, Iowa: Center for Dubuque History-Loras, 2000, p. 90

2. Donovan, Frank P. Iowa Railroads: The Essays of Frank P. Donovan, Jr. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2000 p. 109

3. Donovan, p. 109

4. "Bridge," Telegraph Herald, April 16, 2001, p. 11. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Y5VdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=slwNAAAAIBAJ&pg=1594,3824388&dq=dunleith+and+dubuque+railroad+bridge&hl=en

5. "The Pontoon Question," Dubuque Herald, November 2, 1878, p. 4. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ZsRCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=WKsMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1538,761477&dq=dunleith+and+dubuque+railroad+bridge&hl=en

6. "A Free Bridge," Dubuque Herald, November 16, 1883, p. 3. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=0cZCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=YasMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4155,1473875&dq=railroad+bridge+dubuque&hl=en

7. Miller, Jim. "Carnegie Talked His Way into Bridge Contract," Telegraph Herald, February 1, 1973, p. 27. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=LoVFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1LwMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5773,287047&dq=dunleith+and+dubuque+railroad+bridge&hl=en

8. Stover, John F. History of the Illinois Central. New York: Macmillan Publishing Company, Inc. 1975, p. 136

9. Donovan, p. 109

10. Miller

11. "The Bridge Contract Let," The Herald, January 14, 1868, p. 4

12. Stover, p. 136

13. Stover, p. 136

14. Riddell, Amy. "These Men Work Swing Shift Around the Clock," Telegraph Herald, Feb. 24, 1987, p. 48. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=O5tdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=xlwNAAAAIBAJ&pg=3970,4443738&dq=dubuque+wagon+bridge+opening&hl=en

15. Ibid.

16. "Dubuque Woman Much Be-Titled," Telegraph-Herald, April 12, 1936, p. 16

17. "Fifty Years Ago Ferry Carried Train Over River," Telegraph Herald, April 1, 1923, p. 15. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=NgJIAAAAIBAJ&sjid=88sMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3884,1130234&dq=railroad+bridge+dubuque&hl=en

18. "One Span is Taken Out," Dubuque Daily Herald, November 14, 1899. p. 8. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=EhhBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=cKgMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4895,2533762&dq=railroad+bridge+dubuque&hl=en

19. "Work of Old Sol," Dubuque Herald, July 10, 1897, p. 4

20. "The Stuck Draw," Dubuque Herald, July 11, 1897, p. 8

21. "Dubuque Woman Much Be-Titled,"...

22. Ibid.

23. Kruse, Len., p. 90

24. Riddell, Amy.

25. "Here is Picture That Will Awaken Old Time Memories," Telegraph Herald, April 8, 1923, p. 15. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=OwJIAAAAIBAJ&sjid=88sMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3883,2040784&dq=dunleith+and+dubuque+railroad+bridge&hl=en

26. Riddell, Amy.

27. Eller, Donnelle. "Railroad Bridge Safety Study Slated," Telegraph Herald, April 5, 1995. p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=835jAAAAIBAJ&sjid=nXkNAAAAIBAJ&pg=2434,1098423&dq=railroad+bridge+dubuque&hl=en