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Encyclopedia Dubuque

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Difference between revisions of "PLUMBE, John Jr."

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             embellish the walls [of John Plumbe's gallery]..." (12)
 
             embellish the walls [of John Plumbe's gallery]..." (12)
  
Plumbe made the earliest surviving photograph of the U. S. Capitol and the earliest picture of a president in office (James K. Polk). (13) He pioneered brand name recognition by publishing a magazine, the Plumbeian," filled with illustrations based on his photographs. (14) Plumbe has been credited with being the first photographer to attempt a "famous portraits collection" and for franchising photo galleries.
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Plumbe made the earliest surviving photograph of the U. S. Capitol and the earliest picture of a president in office (James K. Polk). (13) He pioneered brand name recognition by publishing a magazine, the ''Plumbeian'', filled with illustrations based on his photographs. (14) Plumbe has been credited with being the first photographer to attempt a "famous portraits collection" and for franchising photo galleries. Advertisements for sets of architectural photographs reproduced through a lithographic process show his desire for a way to make multiples of one-of-a-kind daguerreotypes. The relative rarity of the prints, and the fact that Plumbe sold most of his galleries in 1847 to pay creditors, suggest that the process itself was not lucrative. (15)
  
Advertisements for sets of these architectural photographs reproduced through a lithographic process show his desire for a way to make multiples of one-of-a-kind daguerreotypes. The relative rarity of the prints, and the fact that Plumbe sold most of his galleries in 1847 to pay creditors, suggest that the process itself was not lucrative. (15)
+
To aid in financing transcontinental railroad project, Plumbe not only projected the line, prepared the petition and secured the Congressional appropriation, but in person and at his own cost began the inspection, if not the survey, of the line from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. In 1847 he proposed a grant of land from the government to aid the project; the proposal contained the following points: 1) The grant was to consist of alternate sections of land; (2) the stock to be sold at $10 a share; (3) at the time of subscription 50 cents was to be paid on each share; (4) the railroad was to be managed by a board of directors; (5) the government would enjoy forever the free use of the road; and (6) editors, ministers, and missionaries would ride free.  
 
+
To aid in financing the project, Plumbe not only projected the line, prepared the petition and secured the Congressional appropriation, but in person and at his own cost began the inspection, if not the survey, of the line from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. In 1847 he proposed a grant of land from the government to aid the project; the proposal contained the following points: 1) The grant was to consist of alternate sections of land; (2) the stock to be $10 a share; (3) at the time of subscription 50 cents was to be paid on each share; (4) the railroad was to be managed by a board of directors; (5) the government would enjoy forever the free use of the road; and (6) editors, ministers, and missionaries would ride free.  
+
  
 
By 1848 Plumbe had suffered financial losses due to competition and mismanagement of his studios. (16) He sold his business and equipment to his employees and returned to Dubuque.  
 
By 1848 Plumbe had suffered financial losses due to competition and mismanagement of his studios. (16) He sold his business and equipment to his employees and returned to Dubuque.  

Latest revision as of 11:54, 27 November 2020

John Plumbe championed the idea of a transcontinental railroad.
Iowa News May 5, 1838-An advertisement placed by Plumbe for the sale of property. Photo courtesy: Diane Harris
PLUMBE, John, Jr. (Wales, 1809--Dubuque, IA, May 29, 1857). Plumbe emigrated to the United States in 1821 and settled in Dubuque in 1836 as a land speculator. (1) He purchased and sold several downtown lots by November of that year and the following year advertised property along the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. He later established the Wisconsin General Land Office in Dubuque. (2)

Using his pen name "Iowaian," Plumbe soon began promoting a railroad link to the Pacific coast. (3) It was in 1836 that the territorial legislature of Wisconsin incorporated the BELMONT AND DUBUQUE RAILROAD COMPANY. In 1837, with their attention drawn by the proposed railroad, a group of investors including Plumbe formed the "Louisiana Company" and for $15,000 purchased eighty acres of land along the Mississippi in Wisconsin from Payton Vaughn. Town lots were surveyed. They named their "paper town" Sinipee, the name of the hollow in which it was located. The investors expected that Sinipee would be chosen as the point at which the railroad would eventually cross the river. (4) It was Plumbe's plan to connect a rail line from Milwaukee to Sinipee, cross the river to Dubuque, and continue westward to the Oregon Territory. In February, 1837, books for subscriptions to the stock of this road were opened in Dubuque.

In 1838, $2,000 was appropriated by Congress for the survey of the route to Sinipee. (5) In August 1838 the IOWA NEWS carried the following advertisement:

          The Sinipee Company is now prepared to furnish town
          lots to purchasers on the most liberal terms. The very
          favorable conditions upon which the company has resolved
          to dispose of a limited portion of the lots, render it
          important that early application be made by those wishing
          to avail themselves thereof.

The November 10, 1838 Iowa News announced that a post office in Sinipee had been established with Plumbe as the postmaster. In rapid order a brick yard, tin smith, shoe and cabinet shop, blacksmith, and dozens of houses were constructed. In the first year, Plumbe and several others sold $30,000 in supplies. Lots remote from the river were priced between $500 and $1,000. As many as five steamers docked at one time. (6)

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
In Dubuque on March 26, 1838, a committee of five, including Plumbe, wrote a petition to Congress describing their plan for a transcontinental railroad and giving reasons for its construction. Plumbe's booklet entitled Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin described the potential of western lands. Today only twenty-one copies of this one hundred-three book exist. It began as follows:
      "The connection of Lake Michigan with the Mississippi River,
       at or near the Borough of Dubuque, by means of a railroad 
       to be located upon the most eligible ground within the 
       territory is a subject of such importance, etc. The entire 
       length of the Lake Michigan and Dubuque railroad would be 
       only about one hundred and fifty miles * * * Within little 
       more than eight months of last year (1837) the total number 
       of steamboat arrivals and departures at the port of Dubuque 
       amounted to no less than 717." 

Using his skills as a surveyor, cartographer, writer and speaker, Plumbe convinced audiences throughout the Midwest of the potential of RAILROADS in the West, while his brother ran their photography business. Plumbe also served as president of the Board of Trustees for the Village of Dubuque in 1837 and secretary of the Dubuque Literacy Association and the Temperance Society. In 1838 he drafted a resolution to Congress for improved postal routes.

Located northeast of Dubuque, Sinipee was a failure,
George Wallace JONES, the delegate from Wisconsin Territory, presented Plumbe's idea for a transcontinental railroad to Congress where it was considered a joke. It is said that another lawmaker suggested to Jones that one of Jones' constituents would suggest the construction of a railroad to the moon.

The financial boom that occurred in Sinipee ended in disaster. An epidemic of "fever" struck the community. Many of the houses were transported across the ice to Dubuque. By 1840 the city that had once been destined as a railroad and shipping center was a ghost town. (7)

Short on funds and waiting to receive a commission from the United States Congress to survey the route for a transcontinental railroad, civil engineer John Plumbe, Jr., took up photography in 1840 after seeing the work of an itinerant daguerreotypist in Washington, D.C. One of the first practitioners of daguerreotype photography, he established a national reputation by entering photographic competitions. By the time he established the Plumbe National Gallery of engraved and lithographic reproductions of his own images in 1846, he had been dubbed "the American Daguerre" by the press. (8)

Advertisement for Plumbe's National Plumbeotype Gallery. Library of Congress

His chain of over twenty-five galleries reached to such cities as Boston, Sarasota Springs, Philadelphia, Cincinnati, Louisville, and Dubuque. (9) His Dubuque gallery, operated by his brother Richard, was the first photographic establishment west of the Mississippi. Plumbe manufactured and imported photographic materials, lectured to groups of new photographers at his United States Photographic Institute, and published dozens of lithographic prints of well-known Americans based on his daguerreotypes. (10) These prints were developed by a mechanical hand-engraving process Plumbe invented but unfortunately never patented. He called these PLUMBEOTYPE pictures.

Plumbe briefly lived in Washington, D.C., and became the capital's first professional photographer. Contemporary newspaper accounts reported on Plumbe's work. The United States Journal, on January 29, 1846, mentioned:

            "Mr. Plumbe's National Daguerrian Gallery 
             at Concert Hall, is an establishment whose 
             superior merits are well deserving the notice 
             of all who feel an interest in the beautiful 
             art of Photography... We are glad to learn that 
             this artist is now engaged in taking views of 
             all the public buildings which are executed in 
             a style of elegance, that far surpasses any we 
             have ever seen.....It is his intention to dispose 
             of copies of these beautiful pictures, either in 
             sets or singly, thus affording to all, an 
             opportunity of securing perfect representation 
             of the government buildings..." (11)

A month later, on February 20th, Washington's Daily Times reported:

          "Views of the Capitol, Patent Office and other public buildings 
           embellish the walls [of John Plumbe's gallery]..." (12)

Plumbe made the earliest surviving photograph of the U. S. Capitol and the earliest picture of a president in office (James K. Polk). (13) He pioneered brand name recognition by publishing a magazine, the Plumbeian, filled with illustrations based on his photographs. (14) Plumbe has been credited with being the first photographer to attempt a "famous portraits collection" and for franchising photo galleries. Advertisements for sets of architectural photographs reproduced through a lithographic process show his desire for a way to make multiples of one-of-a-kind daguerreotypes. The relative rarity of the prints, and the fact that Plumbe sold most of his galleries in 1847 to pay creditors, suggest that the process itself was not lucrative. (15)

To aid in financing transcontinental railroad project, Plumbe not only projected the line, prepared the petition and secured the Congressional appropriation, but in person and at his own cost began the inspection, if not the survey, of the line from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi. In 1847 he proposed a grant of land from the government to aid the project; the proposal contained the following points: 1) The grant was to consist of alternate sections of land; (2) the stock to be sold at $10 a share; (3) at the time of subscription 50 cents was to be paid on each share; (4) the railroad was to be managed by a board of directors; (5) the government would enjoy forever the free use of the road; and (6) editors, ministers, and missionaries would ride free.

By 1848 Plumbe had suffered financial losses due to competition and mismanagement of his studios. (16) He sold his business and equipment to his employees and returned to Dubuque.

It was reported in 1849 that Plumbe, at his own expense, inspected a practical route for the railroad through South Pass. While in California, he served as a surveyor and register of the Settlers Association in Sacramento. He worked as a customs inspector for the port of San Francisco in 1852, entered California state politics, and continued to lobby Congress for a Pacific railroad. Plumbe was angered by Asa Whitney's suggestion that the government should allow him to build the transcontinental railroad in return for large grants of land along the tracks. in 1851 from Sacramento, Plumbe wrote to Congress a "Memorial Against Asa Whitney's Railroad Scheme" and again proposed his idea of 1847. (17)

Plumbe returned to Dubuque in 1856 and with his brother Richard, who operated the WASHINGTON HOUSE established a steam-powered mill near Cottage Hill, Iowa. They also opened a patent agency in Dubuque. Besides writing five articles for the San Francisco Placer Times about transcontinental railroads, Plumbe lived quietly with his brother on the corner of Iowa and 14th STREETS.

The 1855 publication of the Pacific Railroad Surveys by the Secretary of War, reporting the same route Plumbe had originally described may have led him into depression and later suicide.

The May 30, 1857 edition of the Dubuque Daily Express and Herald contained a story entitled, "Melancholy Suicide." The story told of how Plumbe had slashed his throat from ear to ear at the home of his younger brother, Richard, at 14th and Iowa. The story related that Richard felt his brother had been "despondent" but did not suggest a cause. While it is true that Plumbe had lost money in the PANIC OF 1857 and when competitor photographers drove the price of pictures down, the lost dream of being recognized "the" proponent of a transcontinental railroad may have been the final blow. Railroads had been the center of his life. He even referred to his once far-flung string of photographic studios as "photographic depots."

In 1972 when interest in collecting photographs was just becoming popular, collector Michael Kessler found seven daguerreotypes of architectural subjects at the Alameda flea market in San Francisco. After the tarnished plates were cleaned, Kessler sent copy photographs of six of the images to the Library of Congress for assistance in identifying the buildings. (18)

The newly discovered daguerreotypes were identified as government buildings located in Washington, D.C., and a monument in Baltimore. Library staff were excited to discover that these images were the earliest photographic views of buildings in the nation's capital. Among the images were daguerreotypes of the United States Capitol, the White House, two views of the General Post Office, the Patent Office, and a monument commemorating the Battle of North Point, located in Baltimore. (19)

The Library of Congress purchased six of the daguerreotypes in 1972. An additional view of the U.S. Capitol was sold to a private collector. In 1995, a third daguerreotype of the U.S. Capitol attributed to John Plumbe, was sold at Sotheby's auction house. (20)

Plumbe2.jpg
The location of Plumbe's grave was not known until 1975 because of the loss of burial records from 1857, the year of Plumbe's death. A distant relative produced documents showing that he had been buried in an unmarked grave in the Plumbe family plot at LINWOOD CEMETERY. Through efforts of Cliff Krainik of Arlington Heights, Illinois, the founder of the John Plumbe, Jr. Memorial Association and the DUBUQUE COUNTY HISTORICAL SOCIETY a five hundred dollar gravestone was dedicated at Plumbe's grave on Memorial Day in 1977. (21)

---

Source:

1. Palmquist, Peter E. and Kailbourn, Thomas R. Pioneer Photographers of the Far West: A Biographical Dictionary, 1840-1865, p. 444

2. Hudson, David; Bergman, Marvin; Horton, Loren. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press, 2008, p. 411

3. Miller, Jim. "Dubuque Settler Plumbe 'Screams to be Recognized,' " Telegraph Herald, September 29, 1974, p. 48

4. "Two Old Rivals of City of Dubuque," Telegraph Herald, August 8, 1915, p. 18

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. Ibid.

8. "John Plumb, Jr." The J. Paul Getty Museum, Online: http://www.getty.edu/art/collection/artists/1943/john-plumbe-jr-american-born-united-kingdom-1809-1857/

9. Miller

10. Alphonse Gallery, http://alphonsegallery.zenfolio.com/plumbe

11. "Daguerreotypes," Library of Congress, Online: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/collection/dag/plumbe.html

12. Longden, Tom, "John Plumbe, Jr.," Des Moines Register, http://data.desmoinesregister.com/dmr/famous-iowans/john-plumbe-jr

13. Alphonse Gallery

14. Miller

15. Natanson, Barbara Orbach, "Camera and Locomotive: Two Tracks Across the Continent--John Plumbe's Dream," Library of Congress, Online: https://blogs.loc.gov/picturethis/2017/09/camera-and-locomotive-two-tracks-across-the-continent-john-plumbes-dream/

16. Miller

17. Ibid

18. "Daguerreotypes,"

19. Ibid.

20. Ibid.

21. Hudson, p. 41