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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.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


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"Cathedral of the Elms." Image courtesy: Joe Jacobsmeier
ELMS. Stately trees once graced much of the city. According to an article in the TELEGRAPH HERALD in 1961, a "stately" home in the 19th century was not considered complete until the owner had planted at least one elm tree. Elms planted and cared for by Joseph A. RHOMBERG formed the glorious but doomed "Cathedral of the Elms" along Rhomberg Avenue to the site of RHOMBERG PARK. A grove of elm trees lining the west side of West Third between Hill and Alpine was planted by Robert Hutcheson COLLIER in 1873. These trees were removed from the bottom lands along the MISSISSIPPI RIVER to shade the street according to Mrs. Jack McGuire, his granddaughter. "Elm salesmen" were a common sight in the city in the late 19th century. Carrying bundles of small 'river elms' on their backs, they went door-to-door to make sales.

In 1920 a huge elm-planting ceremony was held along Grandview Avenue when both sides of the street were planted with trees as a memorial to former President Theodore Roosevelt who died in 1919. Discussion of planting an elm tree for each Dubuque soldier who died in WORLD WAR I were never carried out. Estimates of the number of elms once growing in Dubuque ranged from as few as 10,000 to as many as 80,000. In 1960 a special census counted 4,617 growing along the city's STREETS; many were planted during the last quarter of the 19th century. (1) In 1961 the Telegraph Herald reported that about 5,000 of the 6,000 city-owned shade trees were elms and that at least as many could be found on private property. Dubuque had a number of outstanding examples of the tree. A 150-year old elm stood in the backyard of a property at 215 Fremont. The tree measured six-feet in diameter and had a branch-spread of 30-feet. A one-hundred foot high elm, once believed to be the largest in Iowa, stood at 1940 Coates.

A graceful elm in front of Christ The King Chapel at LORAS COLLEGE July 5, 1969. Photo courtesy: Bill Kelleher.
The last of three healthy elm trees on the campus of Loras College. The photo was taken on January 27, 1970. Six months later, the tree had to be removed. Photo courtesy: Bill Kelleher.

Dutch Elm Disease reached the United States in 1930 according to Dr. J. C. Carter of the Natural History Survey at the University of Illinois. (2) The European Bark Beetle which carried the disease came into the country on a shipment of elm logs from Europe. (3) The European beetle and its cousin the American Bark Beetle became the only known carriers of the disease. The initial signs of the Dutch elm disease was yellowing and curling of the leaves. The only recourse was to remove the tree and burn it. (4)

Dubuque officials began a program of prevention in the 1940s. (5) Whenever elm trees were pruned, the dead branches were burned. Dead wood was the only place the beetle laid its eggs. An estimated $10,000 was spent annually in an effort to prevent the disease from starting in the city. (5) Spraying with DDT had been started in 1958 along with trimming and burning diseased branches.(4) Although these practices were continued, the blight spread and the use of DDT ended after it was labeled a threat to the environment. In March 1960 local authorities announced that Dutch elm would strike Dubuque in June or July. The disease, however, was not found in Dubuque until August 1961, when the first evidence of the disease was discovered in a tree at 75 Hill Street.

The last healthy elm on Rhomberg Avenue just southwest of the corner of Rhomberg and Shiras Blvd. The picture was taken on September 19, 1970.Photo courtesy: Bill Kelleher.
A photo of Rhomberg Avenue looking northeast with evidence of tree removal in the foreground. Photo taken on September 19, 1970 Photo courtesy: Bill Kelleher.

In 1962 the Dubuque Park Department planned to spray selected elm trees with DDT to see if it would be effective in controlling the disease. Crews were also trimming dead branches in an estimated 5,000 elms on public property between sidewalks and city streets. (5) Diseased trees on private property had to be cut down and burned within fifteen days at the owner's expense according to a city ordinance. (6) Public protests of again using DDT included accusations that it damaged cars. The chemical was also considered harmful to birds and flowers. (7)

In 1964 the Park Department began using Bidrin, a pesticide advertised as a preventive for the disease. In use it was discovered that the chemical did no more than slow the disease. Other chemicals were also tried and discontinued. One idea never tried was the importation of French wasps that would eat the beetles causing the disease.

A large elm at the corner of Locust and Loras. This photo was taken May 12, 1971. The tree was removed in 1973. Photo courtesy: Bill Kelleher.
Dubuque's terrain proved a serious problem in containing Dutch elm disease. Trees on the hillsides and in the valleys could not be carefully monitored or removed. In 1967 a total of 843 city-owned trees were infected and had to be removed. (8) As late as 1968 it was often not clear who was responsible, according to the city ordinance, for the disposal of dead trees.

When the Dutch elm disease reached its peak in 1968, 85 percent of Dubuque's trees were elms. The vast numbers of dying trees and the speed with which the disease spread soon made it apparent that the containment effort was futile. The battle to save the elms cost the citizens of Dubuque over $750,000.

The following three pictures were taken on Clarke Drive about a mile east of the Clarke Campus and a half mile north of the Loras campus. The two trees pictured were the last parkway trees on the street as of 1970. The winter scene was taken on January 27. The spring shot was taken on May 14, showing both trees in bloom. The final shot was taken on September 3. By then they were not so healthy. The tree in the foreground was infected in June and had died. Its neighbor was well on the way. Both trees were removed on October 20.

January 27, 1970. Photo courtesy: Bill Kelleher.
May 14, 1970. Photo courtesy: Bill Kelleher.
September 3, 1970. Photo courtesy: Bill Kelleher.

Today the city, in planting trees, avoids concentrating an area with one kind of tree to avoid a repeat of similar destruction.



1. "Due Here This Summer, Plant Expert Reports," Telegraph Herald, March 27, 1960, p. 1

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. "Trees at Golf Course and 9th, Bluff Removed," Telegraph Herald, July 19, 1962, p. 1

6. Ibid.

7. "Test Spray for Elm Trees Planned," Telegraph Herald, February 15, 1962, p. 1

8. "Chronology," Telegraph Herald, December 31, 1967, p. 19