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SMITH, Platt

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Gravestone in Linwood Cemetery
SMITH, Platt. (Hoosick, NY, May 6, 1813--Dubuque, 12, 1882). Smith was raised and worked on his father’s farm. Until he was fourteen there was no school in the district. After one was established, he attended enough to enable him to read. On leaving school he engaged on a small scale in merchandising, in which he failed during the financial panic of 1837. He then applied himself to learning the art of a millwright, paying his expenses with whatever else he found to do. (1)

At the age of twenty-six, in 1839, he emigrated to Jackson County where he lived for some years in the family of John E. Goodenow. While living there a claim controversy arose between two settlA jury was called in the case. After the evidence was closed, Smith delivered his summation which led to a verdict in favor of the settler he represented. The skill he exhibited in both the trial and the argument gave him a sudden reputation for ability; he was persuaded to study law. (2)

The following April, Smith attended the court held at Andrew, the county seat of Jackson County. It has been claimed that his name was marked as counsel in the majority of the pending cases though he had not been admitted to the bar when they were so docketed. This was the result of the reputation he had established by his ability in the conduct of cases before Justices of the Peace throughout the County. He had become locally famous as a lawyer without actually being one. (4)

Smith began reading under Henry Hopkins, a lawyer of Bellevue, in 1842. While doing this he sawed wood for money to pay his board. In February of the following year he was denied an examination upon the ground that he had not studied long enough. He returned to his old friend, Mr. Goodenow, at Maquoketa. In a short time he engaged in rafting lumber down the Mississippi. He stopped at Muscatine, hired a horse, went to Tipton with the view of applying for admission to the bar before Judge Williams, who was then holding court there. Arriving at Tipton he found that in changing his clothes at Muscatine he had left his pocketbook behind him. He told Ralph P. Lowe, afterward Governor and Judge of the Supreme Court, of his situation. Lowe gave him ten dollars. He applied to the court for admission to the bar, a committee was appointed, the examination was satisfactory and a certificate of his admission was issued, in March, 1843. (3)

For the first five or six years Smith especially devoted himself to the criminal practice and was employed in a large number of trials for capital offenses. It is claimed that he tried seven or eight murder cases in one year. He became highly distinguished in that line, but after a while tired of it and devoted himself principally to civil cases, in which he became very successful. He was associated with J. M. McKinlay and B. W. POOR under the firm name of Smith, McKinlay & Poor. (5)

Listed as a member of the Dubuque bar in 1847, Smith entered into a partnership with Judge Thomas S. WILSON. Throughout his life, Smith maintained a pattern of working closely with other men of influence. Together Smith and Wilson financed the construction of the Globe Building in downtown Dubuque before Smith was admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1852. (6)

Almost immediately, Smith was involved in two cases that had tremendous importance for the future of Dubuque. In 1853 Smith persuaded the Supreme Court, in the case of CHOUTEAU v. MOLONY, to settle the dispute over claims to lands once controlled by Julien DUBUQUE in favor of the later settlers. (7) Smith's arguments also led to victory in the case of FANNING V. GREGOIRE, another confirmation of Iowa's legal status and the rights of its citizens against claims based on colonial or territorial law. (8)

The same year that Smith won these landmark cases he became financially involved in the future of railroads in Iowa. He spent one thousand dollars to aid the survey of the ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD route from Galena, Illinois, to Dunleith (East Dubuque). This made it certain that Dubuque would enjoy a prime location as the railroad moved farther west. As a member of the board and an attorney, Smith drew up the articles of incorporation of the DUBUQUE AND PACIFIC RAILROAD on April 28, 1853, and personally secured much of the road's right-of way leading from the Mississippi River to the west. (9) Smith also helped establish the DUBUQUE SOUTH WESTERN RAILROAD COMPANY, linking Farley and Cedar Rapids; the DUBUQUE AND MCGREGOR RAILROAD in 1868; and later the DUBUQUE, BELLEVUE, AND MISSISSIPPI RAILWAY that connected Clinton with the Twin Cities.

In 1867, convinced that the management of the DUBUQUE AND SIOUX CITY RAILROAD (renamed from the Dubuque and Pacific in 1860) did not intend to lay track beyond Iowa Falls, Smith sold his stock in the company. In a move that shocked many of his former business partners, he entered business with New Jersey railroad promoter John I. Blair and announced the formation of the Iowa Falls and Sioux City Railroad Company. (10)

Because of his railroad promotion including his winning representation in GELPCKE v. DUBUQUE, Smith was bitterly criticized in the Dubuque newspapers. Despite the personal attacks, Smith's vision and common sense were still appreciated in the community and he remained influential. He was involved in the operation of the DUBUQUE STREET RAILWAY COMPANY and served as one of the directors and helped establish the DUNLEITH AND DUBUQUE BRIDGE. (11)

After 1870 Smith maintained his interest in his Dubuque project, but did little legal work and lived on the income from his stocks. (12) He devoted himself to founding the DUBUQUE LIBRARY ASSOCIATION and was a member of the FARMERS' CLUB. (13) Frequent strokes and paralysis led to his death at his home at 961 Bluff.



1. Wright, Ken. "Platt Smith." http://iagenweb.org/boards/polk/biographies/index.cgi?read=189496

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. "Platt Smith," Linwood Legacies. Online: http://www.linwoodlegacies.org/platt-smith.html

6. Ibid.

7. "Platt Smith," Dubuque Herald, July 13, 1832, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=PaNCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=PKsMAAAAIBAJ&dq=platt&pg=4287%2C1976754

8. Ibid.

9. Hudson, David; Bergman, Marvin; Horton, Loren. The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. Iowa City: University of Iowa Press. 2008. Online: http://uipress.lib.uiowa.edu/bdi/DetailsPage.aspx?id=351

10. Ibid.

11. "Platt Smith"

12. Hudson

13. "Meeting of the Farmers' Club," Dubuque Democratic Herald, October 14, 1863, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=A36e8EsbUSoC&dat=18631014&printsec=frontpage&hl=en