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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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Cassville-Dubuque packet. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Small ferryboat used to transport people across rivers.
FERRYBOATS. Early method of transportation across the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. A large boat was placed in service with paddle wheels on both sides. A team of horses on board the boat turned the wheels. Cargo included teams and wagons, passengers, and livestock. The life of this ferry was short. Struck by a steamer the same spring, the ferry sank. The succeeding ferryboat was powered with oars. The toll for one adult was twenty-five cents. It was estimated that the ferry right, then owned by General George Wallace JONES, was worth twenty-five thousand dollars annually.

An act of the Iowa Territorial Legislature in December 1838, authorized Timothy Fanning to operate a ferry at Dubuque for twenty-five years. As part of his authorization, Fanning had to maintain ample landing facilities and was required to land at any part of the Dubuque riverfront. Within two years, Fanning was in command of a steam ferryboat and several smaller craft. Fanning was later a party in the case of FANNING V. GREGOIRE that reached the United States Supreme Court.

General Jones was granted the right to operate a ferry from Dubuque in January 1840. His twenty-year charter did not conflict with the authorization given to Fanning as his boats could use neither steam nor horses for power.

In the spring of 1848 Dubuque demanded a free ferry across the river or a cessation of high ferry rates. As high as $1 had been charged in emergencies for ferry usage.

The steam ferry "A. F. Gregoire" began transporting morning and evening mail between Dunleith and Dubuque in 1855. By 1864, however, this situation did not please the shipping interests or the newspaper editorial writers for the Dubuque Herald. The following appeared on November 26, 1864 in the Herald:

            Shipping--We understand that the merchants and shippers in town
            intend to hold an indignation meeting before long to vindicate
            their wrongs and grievances against the present manner of
            forwarding and receiving freight. The ferry Company (sic) have
            two boats, but their having that number only exists in name,
            because one is on a stump or sand bar half of the time, and the
            other will have to be "born again" before it will be of any
            practical use to the public.  We find the complaints are loud
            and long all over town, and something must be done to relieve
            the present necessities of merchants.  Two boats could be used
            constantly, and for the benefit of the city and country west of
            us, let them to be put on.

In the same issue of the newspaper, the editorial writers published an article from the "Patriot" published in Marion, Iowa. The article pointed out that a D. F. Whipple had recently made the first shipment of a load of dressed hogs over the DUBUQUE, MARION, AND WESTERN RAILROAD COMPANY. He had shipped the first carload of flax seed two days earlier. The editorial continued...

             ...Trade would flow in this direction from that vicinity and 
             shipments from the east be made this way if there was no
             delay in receiving or forwarding goods. All we want are
             reliable and prompt shipping facilities. Two good ferryboats,
             no blockade of freight at Dunleith, an we are bound to prosper.
             The iron horse is helping us all he can westerly, and if
             eastern routes will act honorable, all will be well.

The "Dubuque Herald" noted on December 2, 1864 that the "Jo Gales" was recently repaired and would start in operation soon. (1) Winter closed in quickly that year with the "Jo Gales" ending service on December 8th after clearing out all the freight in Dunleith and taking with her all the grain barges. The "Gregoire" was not expected to go out on the 8th. (2)

Key City. Photo courtesy: Murphy Library Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
In May 1876 the ferry "Key City,"owned by Hanson & Linehan, made a trial run to ZOLLICOFFER'S LAKE. According to reports of the voyage, the boat carried 200-300 passengers on its maiden voyage. It was large enough, in normal use, to comfortably seat fifty and carry 20 teams. (3) It entered into service between Dubuque and Dunleith on May 11, 1876. (4) The Dubuque Herald reported that a trip from Dunleith to Dubuque took four minutes. (5) Reports of the new ferry continued to be glowing. It was reported that the boat burned about one ton of coal a day and was operated at ten dollars a day less than the "A. F. Gregoire." The number of teams it could hold, however, was lowered to fourteen. (6) In late May 1876 the Key City was used to tow a raft of lumber. (7) It operated until around 1886.
Eleanor, Dubuque to East Dubuque ferry
The development of RAILROADS to the eastern shore of the Mississippi River posed a new challenge to ferryboat operators by the 1850s. The Illinois Central leased a ferry out of Dubuque to transport cargo from a train in Illinois to another train waiting in Iowa. This system proved satisfactory until the volume of goods became too great. The Illinois Central then pioneered the use of larger ferryboats with tracks laid on the deck to transport entire railroad cars. Loaded cars were pushed into a floating dock or "cradle" from which they were loaded on to the ferryboat. This became standard procedure until the construction of the first railroad bridge in 1871 that ended the business of the Illinois Central Ferry Company.

Ice annually brought a complete standstill to ferryboat operation. Some boat operators, like a Captain Worden in April 1859, attempted to crush their way across the river. In such an attempt, the "Aeolian" was so badly damaged that it sank in thirty feet of water with the loss of four passengers.

Construction of the DUBUQUE HIGH BRIDGE meant an end to most freight transportation after 1877. Only small passenger ferries were operating by 1890.
Photo of the "Nina Dousman" courtesy of Bob Reding
One of the last successful ferryboat operators was John Keckevoet who began operations in 1891. His "Nina Dousman" was fifty feet long, nine feet wide, and carried fifty passengers. A round trip to Dunleith took five minutes. In his most profitable year, Keckevoet earned $90,000.

The Dubuque and East Dubuque Ferry Company launched "The Fentress" on May 24, 1903. One of the credits given the boat was that the captain could manage the power with a lever instead of giving orders to the engineer. The boat was powered by two gasoline engines each of which operated a wheel. Each side wheel was operated separately. This allowed the boat to be turned by holding one wheel motionless while the other wheel was in motion. The boat included men's and women's toilets and setting rooms partitioned from the outside by a row of windows. Stairs led to the roof which providing viewing room. (8)

Ferryboat transportation across the Mississippi ended on May 4, 1913. Keckevoet had two boats equipped with new motors. He announced that he would sell out his interests here and relocate. Captain Smith intended to place his boat, the "Clara B," in service on Frentress Lake. Business had declined with the increased use of the "autobus" which offered twenty-minute service. (9)

While ferryboat operation began to decline in the 1870s along the Mississippi River, railway transfer steamers and ferryboats continued to be used in other places. In 1895 the LINEHAN RAILWAY TRANSFER COMPANY was organized in Dubuque to construct such vessels. (10)



1. "The Jo Gales," Dubuque Herald, December 2, 1864, p. 4

2. "River News," Dubuque Herald, December 8, 1864, p. 4

3. "Aquatic," Dubuque Herald, May 11, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760511&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

4. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, May 10, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760510&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. "River News," Dubuque Herald, May 14, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760514&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

6. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, May 20, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760520&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

7. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, May 27, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760527&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

8. "Ferry Will Start," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 24, 1903, p. 2

9. "Ferry Service to be Discontinued," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, May 4, 1913, p. 11

10. "Linehan R'Y Transfer Co." The Dubuque Herald, November 30, 1895, p. 8

Oldt, Franklin T. History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Western Historical Company 1880 http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/franklin-t-oldt/history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl/page-9-history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl.shtml