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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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Artifacts dealing with the lead mining industry. Photo courtesy: Swiss Valley Nature Center
Artifacts dealing with the lead mining industry. Photo courtesy: Swiss Valley Nature Center
LEAD MINING. The principal attraction of the Dubuque area to the first white settlers. LEAD mining was carried on in the area as early as 1685 when Nicholas PERROT entered the territory. He established a fort near the present site of East Dubuque and mined lead on the western bank of the Mississippi. (1)

It is believed that the small-scale mining done by Native Americans attracted Julien DUBUQUE to this land in 1788. Dubuque skillfully persuaded the natives, in an agreement signed at Prairie du Chien on September 22, 1788, to grant him mining rights along the western side of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER near CATFISH CREEK. Dubuque established one furnace to refine ore near present-day EAGLE POINT while a second furnace was constructed at the mouth of Catfish Creek. (2) Estimates of the amount of ore he annually mined range between twenty thousand and forty thousand pounds. (3) Doubtful about the legality of his agreement with the Native Americans, Dubuque petitioned the Spanish Governor-General in 1796 to obtain formal recognition of his claim to which he gave the name "Mines of Spain." (4) From 1788 to 1810 he worked these mines with hoe, shovel, crowbar and pick, but sank no shafts. He also used Native American labor:

        The ore at these mines is now exclusively dug by 
        the Indian women. Old and superannuated men also 
        partake in the mining labor, but the warriors and 
        men hold themselves above it. In this labor, the 
        persons who engage in it employ the hoe, shovel, 
        pick-axe, and crow-bar. These implements are supplied 
        by the traders at the island, who are the purchasers 
        of the crude ore. With these implements they dig trenches, 
        till they are arrested by solid rock. There are no shafts, 
        even of the simplest kind, and the windlass and bucket are 
        unknown to them, far more so the use of gunpowder in the 
        mining operations. Their mode of going down into the deepest 
        pits, and coming up from them, is by digging an inclined way, 
        which permits the women to keep an erect position in walking. (5)  
Photo courtesy: E. B. Lyons Interpretative Center
Dubuque smelted the ore in the furnaces he had constructed and then it was reduced to bars or pigs. He transported this by boat to St. Louis where the "pigs" were sold to purchase goods used for trade with Native Americans. (6) After his death, the Indians burned Dubuque's house and fences and destroyed all traces of his mining operations so far as possible in order to keep out other white men. (7) The Indians themselves continued to work the mines intermittently and sold the ore to traders who had furnaces on the islands in the river.

Some traders used whiskey to obtain lead. In his later years a trader named Thomas McNair told of loading a Mackinaw boat with stores of whiskey and coming to the natives' village in the fall about one mile south of the present city of Dubuque. According to McNair, the boats were "besieged" by natives who considered themselves fortunate if they could get a flask of whiskey for one hundred or two hundred pounds of lead. The lead formed in "round flakes" was left in control of the chief while the traders traveled north to Prairie du Chein. During the winter, the traders constructed large pine rafts. In the spring, the traders floated the rafts back to the natives' village. Collecting their lead, they floated downriver to St. Louis where both the lead and the rafts were sold. (8)

Colonel John T. Smith and a Mr. Morehead attempted to purchase part of the mining property Dubuque had deeded to Rene Auguste Chouteau in 1804. Attempts by Smith to settle on Dubuque's old claim were met with armed hostility by warriors under the leadership of SAUK AND FOX chief PIA-NO-SKY. (9) A massacre of Fox on May 5, 1830, by a band of DAKOTA, WINNEBAGO, and Menominee led the members of the Fox living west of the Mississippi River to flee to Rock Island, Illinois. White miners quickly took advantage of the situation to move across the river. In 1830 J. L. Langworthy and others crossed the river and began work in the mines. (10) The Eagle Point crevice, it is said, was located at this time. Troops under the command of Colonel Zachary TAYLOR arrived in Dubuque on July 4, 1830, and ordered the miners to leave. Three miners were arrested when the troops returned several days later.

In July 1831, a Fox war party retaliated against the earlier attack by ambushing a group of Menominee in Wisconsin. Fearing pursuit, the Fox abandoned their Catfish Creek village forever. White miners again crossed the Mississippi, only to be ordered out by troops under the command of Lieutenant Jefferson DAVIS. It is thought that valuable mining sites at EAGLE POINT were discovered at this time. This game of cat and mouse with troops chasing the miners back across the river lasted until the land west of the Mississippi was opened for white settlement with the signing of the Black Hawk Treaty on June 1, 1833. (11)

Controversy arose as early as 1833 when the government attempted to begin a LEASING SYSTEM at the Dubuque lead mines. An agent came to Dubuque in that year but was generally ignored. Another agent came in 1842 with much the same result, but the arrival of two more agents who did lease some sites to miners other than those who developed them led to trouble. In 1846 the matter was finally settled in district court with the government abandoning the practice. (12)

The "pig's tail" allowed a rope to be tied at one end and the handle of the bucket full of ore to be hung in the curl." Photo courtesy: E. B. Lyon's Interpretative Center
White miners, despite their own disregard for the natives' rights to land west of the Mississippi, recognized the need for LAWS long before the treaty signing. One of the first effort to establish some order was the DUBUQUE MINERS' ASSOCIATION. In 1830 the miners, who formed an organization to maintain law and order, agreed to follow the Code of Illinois with the addition of two items. First, each man was entitled to hold two hundred square yards of ground to be worked one day in six. Second, a person was to be chosen to arbitrate arguments with a decision considered final and binding.
Mine openings as small as this once pockmarked the area of Warren Plaza along Highway 20 south of KENNEDY MALL. Photo courtesy: Thomas Frey
Mining in the early days was for lead ores often found in pockets occasionally containing over one thousand tons of ore. (13) Most lead ore occurred in crevices and openings within what are today the city limits of Dubuque. The crevices were vertical and generally found running east and west and along the ridges running in the same direction. (14)
Smelter for processing ore. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

The process of smelting the ore improved quickly. By 1836 the Dubuque area had five operating furnaces each of which smelted seventy "pigs" of lead weekly. McKnight's furnace smelted an estimated 70,000 pounds per week as did Hulett's furnace. While Lorimier's furnace smelted 60,000 pounds, O'Ferrall's smelted 100,000 pounds. (15) The earliest furnace used in 1836 was known as the "bulls-eye" and proved notorious for the amount of lead lost in processing. This was replaced by 1837 with the "air or cupola furnace" introduced by Peter LORIMIER. He built an experimental oven near Catfish Creek. Around this same time, the father of Richard BONSON constructed the first blast furnace used in the area. This had the capacity of recovering as much as 70% of the ore. (16)

Prices for lead varied widely between $15.00 per one thousand pounds in July of 1837 to $23.00 in August of the same year. According to the federal census of 1840 the single largest industry in Iowa was the lead smelter in Dubuque that produced 500,000 pounds of lead annually on a capital investment of $38,500. This was equal to 20 percent of the total $199,000 then invested in manufacturing in the state.

According to Lucius Hart LANGWORTHY, the amount of lead exported from the Dubuque mining district from 1833 to 1856 varied from 40,000,000 to 60,000,000 pounds annually. (17) He said that this result was reached by "surface scratching" and "dry diggings" and that a greater profit would probably result from deep mining. The DUBUQUE VISITOR estimated that in 1838 alone not less than six million pounds of lead were shipped south. (18) The average price was then twenty dollars with the high price being $40.00 in 1853. During the CIVIL WAR, increased demand for lead drove the price per one thousand pounds of ore from $48.00 to $90.

The Bonson-Waller smelter located in the Rockdale area was the last furnace to remain in operation. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding.
With such huge production, the transportation of lead to market in St. Louis was very competitive. Boats made over seven thousand trips between Dubuque and St. Louis between 1823 and 1848. With over three hundred boats in the transportation business, rates were often cut by as much as eighty percent in cutthroat competition.

Miners in Dubuque lived under a cloud of questionable ownership for many years. Descendants of Auguste CHOUTEAU, believing that they held claim to the land, stated that all other claims in the area were illegal. In CHOUTEAU v. MOLONY, a decision that cheered all the miners in Dubuque, the United States Supreme Court held that Julien Dubuque had only received the right to work the land from the Indians and not title to the land itself. Chouteau's claims were invalid.

Deep shafts were often dug to reach the rich veins.
Lead miners continued to enjoy what appeared to be a limitless supply of ore. In 1841 estimates were made that four times as much lead ore was mined than had been seen in the preceding four years. Much of the mining between 1833 and 1856 was called "surface scratching" referring to the lack of tunneling. One exception was the Thomas Levins mine discovered in October 1850, in which a shaft was dug 120 feet long and small cars were operated on tracks to bring the ore to the shaft, a distance of several hundred feet. Occasionally vast caverns were discovered in which the crystallized lead sparkled like silver and assayed out at 85 percent purity. Estimates were made that five thousand miners would not exhaust the supply of ore in less than one hundred years. In 1875 eighty-five percent of the 25,000 people living in Dubuque were miners.

The growth of lead mining peaked in 1848 just as the California gold rush drew miners west in search of riches. (19) The continued development of mining caused the number of smelters to increase to seven by 1849. The total production of the seven smelters was estimated at thirty thousand pigs annually with the price ranging from $17.00 to $25.00 per thousand pounds. Production varied widely. In 1847 a total of 140,000 pigs of lead were shipped from Dubuque, while in 1848 the number had sunk to 30,000.

Four smelting furnaces were in operation in Dubuque at the beginning of the 1860s. All were located near a source of water that was necessary in the smelting process. Refining lead was simply a process of roasting the ore to burn off the estimated 16 percent sulphur content. The remaining material was then washed free of ash and dirt.

In April, 1861, miners that the land owners near Dubuque charged too high a rent for their mineral lands. The argument was proposed that:

  "the true policy of the land owner was to be liberal 
  with the miner, for the more inducements that were held 
  out for the production of any article the more of that 
  article will be produced. So with the mineral; the lower 
  the rent the more will engage in mining." The mining 
  association should have a system that would work and be 
  fair in all cases. And owners should give a bonus for big 
  finds to stimulate further discoveries. Owners should ask 
  no rent for the first 100,000 pounds of mineral ore. (20)

In late 1878 miners in Dubuque believed they were being cheated by the smelters. Smelters paid Wisconsin miners $20 per 1,000 pounds of ore plus fifty cents ferriage (sic) and the cost of a man and team to haul it. Dubuque smelters only paid $18 per 1,000 pounds of ore. (21)

Shifting priorities, rather than a lack of ore, spelled the decline of lead mining in Dubuque. Settlers, recognizing the great opportunities in farming, abandoned the mines to homestead. Recognizing the passing of the mining heritage, a miners' picnic--something which had not been held in the city for over twenty years, was planned in 1891. (22) By the start of the 1900s, Dubuque was no longer a lead-mining community.

Image courtesy: Jim Massey
Today the names of such mines as the Level Crevice, Black Crevice, Cleveland Circle, and Royce Frost remain mysteries to many Dubuque residents. The Avenue Top Mine was located on University Avenue. The Whipsey Mine, entered through a vertical shaft ninety feet deep (at the corner of Carter Road and Kaufmann) lies at the site near the present DUBUQUE COMMUNITY SCHOOL DISTRICT administration building. Old mining equipment found in the mines awaits a decision about how and where it could be displayed.

The early mining at Dubuque was for lead ores. Since 1880 zinc carbonate or "dry bone" was more extensively mined than galena or lead ore. Neither was mined except above high water of the river. (23) Over 300 years of continuous mining activity in the Upper Mississippi Valley was broken on October 1, 1979, with the closing of the district's last operating mine at Shullsburg, Wisconsin. (24)

The few existing records of mining at Dubuque indicates that approximately 500 mining operations were established after the year 1820. Because no written records were preserved for many of these operations there is a wide range of estimates concerning the actual number and extent of these mining enterprises. (25)

Since the late 1950s, members of the Iowa Grotto Chapter of the National Speleological Society have examined approximately 200 of these mines, and 90 actually have been surveyed. It is estimated that miners dug roughly ninety miles of tunnels, sunk between 700 and 2,000 shafts ranging from 20 to 250 feet in depth, and excavated numerous shallow exploration pits. There was no legislation establishing procedures for closing and abandoning mines. When a mine closed, the miners simply left the tunnels and shafts, and frequently left their tools, ore carts, ropes, and explosives. (26)

The abandonment of surface workings suggests that the miners left without any attempt to close the tunnels, cap or fill the shafts, and remove surface equipment. The abandoned shafts in the Dubuque mining area were left open until the timbering at their tops collapsed, partially filling the shaft. The depressions or "mineral holes" were later used as dumps for old fences, cars, garbage, or animal carcasses. With urban development in the area, these were later bulldozed over, and houses and streets were constructed. (27)

It is no wonder that Dubuque, with its estimated 700 to 2,000 abandoned mine shafts, occasionally experiences the loss of a front yard or collapse of a street.

Prices For Lead

Note: The following list of prices can be misleading. "Mineral" was worth much less than lead formed into bars called "pigs." My thanks to Jeff Gruber for contributing this information.

Lead ash collected from crude furnaces operated by Native Americans--$1 bushel (28)

Morrison & Prentice bought and shipped mineral in 1836, paying about $23 per 1,000 pounds. (29)

4 cents per pound ($40.00 per thousand) Iowa News, June 3, 1837 (30)

In February, 1840, lead was quoted in St. Louis at $4.37 per hundred. (31)

The price varied (1849) from $17 to $25 per thousand pounds. (32)

In July, 1852, mineral was worth $26 per thousand. In the spring of 1853 the price reached $40 per thousand. (33)

Mineral is now bringing $31 to $32 per thousand and in gold." — (Daily Ledger, September 14, 1858.) (34)

"Since last November, or at the close of navigation, the Dubuque lead region has yielded 4,500,000 pounds of mineral. The average value of this has been $30.50 per 1,000 pounds, or a total of $122,500. (Herald, June, 1860.) (35)

In May, 1862, mineral was worth $37 per thousand pounds; by December it was $44. (36)

On February 11, 1863, mineral was worth here $48 per thousand. By March 2 it had reached $53. (37)

In August, 1863, mineral had fallen to $40 per thousand. October 10, 1863, mineral was worth $52.50. (38)

In March, 1864, mineral was worth here $71 in greenbacks per thousand pounds; on July 1, 1864, it was quoted at $84 in greenbacks; on July 15 it was $90; this was about the highest point it reached. (39)

By August, 1865, little mineral was being raised ; it was worth from $53 to $55 per thousand. (40)

Map of the lead mines File:LeadMineMaps.pdf Courtesy: Robert J. FELDERMAN




1. "Geology of the Upper Mississippi Valley Base-Metal District." U.S. Geological Survey for the Annual Meeting of THE GEOLOGICAL SOCIETY OF AMERICA and ASSOCIATED SOCIETIES. Milwaukee, Wisconsin, 1970. p. 9. Online: http://wisconsingeologicalsurvey.org/pdfs/IC16.pdf

2. Oldt, Franklin T. History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Goodspeed Historical Company, 1911, p. 19

3. Ibid.

4. Ludvigson, Greg A. and Dockal, James A. "Lead and Zinc Mining in the Dubuque Area."Online: http://www.igsb.uiowa.edu/Browse/leadzinc/leadzinc.htm

5. Schoolcraft, Henry R.1855 Summer Narrative of an Exploratory Expedition to the Sources of the Mississippi River in 1820: Resumed and Completed by the Discovery of its Origin in Itasca Lake in 1832. Lippencott, Grambo, and Company, Philadelphia.

6. Anderson, Wayne I. Iowa's Geological Past: Three Billion Years of Change. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 1998, p. 92.

7. Oldt, p. 19

8. "Thomas McNair," Evansville Weekly Journal, June 29, 1848, p. 4. Online: http://chroniclingamerica.loc.gov/lccn/sn82016320/1848-06-29/ed-1/seq-4/#date1=1848&index=1&rows=20&words=Dubuque&searchType=basic&sequence=0&state=&date2=1848&proxtext=dubuque+&y=12&x=19&dateFilterType=yearRange&page=1 Research: Jeff Gruber

9. Oldt, p. 30

10. Ibid. p. 19

11. "History," Dubuque, Iowa Official Website. Online: http://www.cityofdubuque.org/index.aspx?nid=1060

12. Oldt. p. 20

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. Ibid. p. 21

16. Ibid. http://books.google.com/books?id=u9xDAAAAYAAJ&pg=PA464&lpg=PA464&dq=Burton%27s+Furnace+%28dubuque+history%29&source=bl&ots=0CkCGLFR0v&sig=a0Ou1vN3ew6nQUYoq2aOJsXF9Mg&hl=en&sa=X&ei=j3HVT5XALaP42QXVp9iFDw&ved=0CGgQ6AEwBQ#v=onepage&q=Burton%27s%20Furnace%20%28dubuque%20history%29&f=false

17. Oldt, p. 23

18. Ludvigson, Greg.

19. Oldt, p. 27

20. Oldt, p. 27

21. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, September 26, 1878, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18780926&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

22. "A Miner's Picnic," Dubuque Daily Herald, July 31, 1891, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18910731&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

23. Oldt, p. 20

24. Ludvigson, Greg A.

25. Ibid.

26. Ibid.

27. Ibid.

28. Oldt, p. 19

29. Ibid., p.21

30. Ibid. p. 22

31. Gruber, Jeffrey, e-mail

32. Oldt, p. 22

33. Ibid. p. 24

34. Ibid. p. 25

35. Ibid. p. 26

36. Ibid. p. 27

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid. p. 28

39. Ibid.

. Ibid.