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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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Steamboat Racing
STEAMBOATING. Steamboating on the Western rivers preceded the arrival of permanent settlers especially in the case at Dubuque. In 1811 the first steamboat was built for the Ohio and Mississippi rivers; by 1838 these two rivers carried 638 steamers, besides an estimated 6,000 flatboats and keelboats. Before 1832 many steamers came up to Galena and Prairie du Chien. Since there was no settlement of Dubuque, only an Indian encampment, most of the boats did not stop here. (1)

In 1832 Capt. N. F. Webb commanded the Tippecanoe and visited all up-river ports, including what is now Dubuque. (2) In 1834 Capt. Harris, with the steamer Jo Daviess, brought a large crowd from Galena to witness the execution of Patrick O'CONNOR. (3) Many steamers sailed the Upper Mississippi by 1836, and among those that stopped at Dubuque were the Dubuque, Captain Atchison; Missouri Fulton, Captain Smith; Heroine, Captain Tomlin; and Olive Branch, Captain Strother. (4)

            The new and splendid steamboat Missouri Fulton 
            arrived at this port on Friday last with 225 
            passengers on board and 250 tons of freight. 
            The Missouri Fulton made her last trip from Galena 
            to St. Louis in thirty-five hours, being the quickest 
            trip ever made between those ports.
                        DUBUQUE VISITOR, May 11, 1836.  (5)

In August, 1836, the Missouri Fulton set the quickest trip on record to that date. She arrived from St. Louis to Dubuque in 78 hours, with 30 hours spent making stops on the way, thus with an actual running time upstream of 48 hours. The boat carried 325 cabin and 100 deck passengers and 250 tons of freight. (6) By 1838, twenty-two steamboats were involved in the Dubuque to St. Louis trade. (7)

By ordinance, in 1837, there was a port physician. This person's duty was to board every steamboat or vessel from any port known to be infected with any disease and examine the passengers and crew previous to their landing. All such persons were to be prevented from landing. (8) In April, 1849, the steamer Josiah Lawrence reached Galena with 450 passengers and thirty cases of cholera on board; eleven passengers died. (9) When the disease broke out at Galena, Dubuque residents became alarmed. Lime was scattered over streets and alleys; everybody was ordered to "clean up." (10) Cures for the disease included a little nutmeg or essence of peppermint and water added to some burnt cork in a teaspoonful of brandy mashed with loaf sugar. (11)

The steamer "Ravenna" capsized and sank during a tornado on the Mississippi near Dubuque on June 12, 1902. Photo courtesy: Murphy Library Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.
Throughout its history, steamboating was dangerous and difficult. On August 15, 1837, a few miles below Bloomington, on the upper Mississippi river, the steamer Dubuque burst one of its flues and scalded sixteen persons to death and dangerously scalded many others, several of whom later died.(12) About September 19, 1837 the steamer Dubuque hit a snag just above Hannibal, Missouri, tore a large hole in her hull, and sank quickly in twelve feet of water. The principal cargo was groceries and flour. The boat was a total loss. (13) During 1838 on the upper Mississippi the following accidents to boats occurred: Ariel, struck a rock, sank, raised; Des Moines, snagged, raised; Irene, snagged, lost; Indian, snagged, raised; Quincy, damaged, repaired; Science, snagged, lost. (14)

Climate always played an important role in river commerce. Water level determined the schedule of charges applied to cargo. The lower the level of the water, the higher the rate. The river on August 5, 1864, was at its lowest point on record.(15) Large quantities of freight were heaped on the levee. Water in the river was so scarce that it was humorously said that its use even to soften whiskey was forbidden. (16)

The threat of ice limited navigation. St. Paul, Minnesota was iced-in approximately five months annually. The area between Keokuk and Dubuque was blocked by ice an average of seventy-five to one hundred five days each year. In Dubuque, the need of safe storage for steamers led to the development of the ICE HARBOR. Ice even led to such bizarre inventions as STEAM SLEIGHS.

The movement of boats was very uncertain and irregular.

             The Galena Packet Line, Dubuque Packet Line and a 
             large number of independent boats have all been 
             overtaxed and compelled to refuse a large amount 
             of freight. The season is now so far advanced that 
             packet boats do not consider it safe to sign bills 
             of lading only to a short distance up, and the 
             independent boats, as fast as they come down, are 
             drawing off and going to more sunny climes.
                   EXPRESS AND HERALD, November 19, 1856 (17)
Bill of lading.
Bill of lading. Photo courtesy: Arkansas Post National Historic Site
Steamboats carried a wide range of cargoes. On one trip in 1857 the Cremona deposited on the levee of Dubuque a total of 1924 packages weighing over 111 tons.(18) Usually just before navigation closed, store supplies for the winter were brought up in astonishing quantities; the same rush occurred each spring to sell at St. Louis and other points down the river the products of the upper country. (19)

In 1838 steamboats for the first time began to carry the mail regularly to all up-river ports as far as Prairie du Chien. This was an important development because previously all mail came to up-river points by stage and horseback across Illinois and Wisconsin. (20) Ironically the fastest time ever made by a steamboat from St. Paul to Dubuque was established by the Key City. The distance of about 325 miles was made while the boat was delivering mail at every landing on both sides of the river. The time--19 hours. Usually the round trip took five days. (21)

Steamboats carried huge amounts of cargo on America's rivers. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
The river traffic was very brisk in 1838 and 1839. (22) Large numbers of settlers and livestock and quantities of household goods arrived by every steamer and passed into the interior. Steamboats carried freight, machinery, and fuel. Because engines primarily burned wood, frequent re-fuelings were needed and woodcutters' homes sprang up along the banks of the river and became welcome landmarks.(23) Deck passengers paid the lowest fares and carried some of the wood aboard as part of their cost-of-passage. They also carried their own food and slept on the deck at the rear of the boat. The second deck was inhabited by the cabin passengers who had their own sleeping quarters, dining room, men's room, and ladies' parlor. The parlor was located at the rear of boat. This was considered the safest part of a steamboat due to the frequent explosions of the boilers that were located in the front of the boat. The hurricane or top deck belonged to the pilot and ship's officers. (24)

In 1841-43, the following boats, among others, were engaged in trade on the upper Mississippi; their tonnage follows : Agnes, 92 ; Amaranth, 200; Chippewa, 102; Galena, 115; General Brooke, 120; Illinois, 120; Indian Queen, 115; Ione, 140; Iowa, 112; Jasper, 98; Malta, 130; Mermaid, 160; Nauvoo, 125; New Brazil, 200; Ohio, 130; Osage, 140; Osprey, 105; Otter, 95; Potosi, 115; Rapids, 115; Sarah Ann, 135; St. Louis Oak, 115; and eleven transient boats with an aggregate tonnage of 1,300. In 1841 these boats made 143 trips, carried freight worth $124,000, and passengers to the amount of $73,400 in fares. (25)

Steamboats operating at night illuminated the shores by suspending iron baskets filled with oil-soaked scraps over their sides. Torch baskets helped pilots navigate. They also created a risk of fire if sparks landed on flammable cargo. Photo courtesy: http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/4_5.html
During their heyday, festive boats with bright paint and gingerbread scroll work carried passengers who dined on sumptuous food, including occasionally a choice of thirteen desserts, prepared by many of the best chefs in America. Dining rooms had thick carpets, well-stocked bars, and wine lists that rivaled those of the finest Eastern restaurants. Brass bands and orchestras provided music. (26)
     Pleasure excursions to the Falls 
     of St. Anthony — the Ha-ha-wat-e-pa 
     (laughing waters) of the Sioux — are 
     becoming quite fashionable this season. 
     The fast, beautiful and popular steamboat 
     Brazil touched at Dubuque on her way up, 
     with a large company of ladies and gentlemen 
     in high spirits on Monday evening. 
           IOWA NEWS, July 23, 1840 (27)

The price of steamboat travel varied with the amount of competition but tended to decrease over the years. A trip from St. Louis to New Orleans in 1832 cost five dollars. A cabin passenger paid twenty-five dollars for the upstream portion of the trip and twenty dollars to return. By 1859 the trip from Dubuque to St. Paul cost two dollars. (28)

Silver-plated tableware. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.
Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.
Travel on the Mississippi was encouraged by glowing accounts of the area including the route outlined in 1835 as the "Fashionable Tour" by George CATLIN. (29)
Poster. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium
Model of a steamboat transporting a circus. Courtesy: House on the Rock
Circus boats were anticipated visitors to river towns. Courtesy: House on the Rock
Photo courtesy: Mike Larkin
Specialty steamboats dropped anchor at Dubuque and other river towns. Photographers and patent medicine vendors visited Dubuque on their own boats that often came with vaudeville acts to attract larger crowds. (30) Showboats brought theater to communities starved for culture. Others docked, plied their trade including gamblers, prostitutes, and saloon-keepers and then left. (31) In 1861 a rhinoceros was found attempting to escape a buoy chain at the wharf in Dubuque. The animal escaped when the Key City collided with a circus steamboat. (32) In 1862 one of the local newspapers encouraged people to visit the wharf to see a gorilla that was being shipped to St. Louis. (33)

The steamboat Tigress brought a shipment of stone of the quality used in the Mormon Temple at Nauvoo, Illinois to Dubuque in July 1838. (34) These stones were later used in the construction of the DUBUQUE CUSTOM HOUSE AND POST OFFICE and HAM HOUSE. Agricultural implements for farmers in the north passed Dubuque regularly. In May 1867, two hundred sixty-four reapers were carried north past Dubuque on the steamer Canada. Four threshers were left at Dubuque by the Bannock City. (35) One of the most seasonally valuable trades with river cities was in fruit. Dubuque residents displayed an enormous appetite for apples. The Tom Jasper left over one thousand barrels in 1869. (36)

"Life boards" were maintained on river boats. If a collision or fire took place, passengers could cling to these in the water. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

During the 1840s and 1850s it was customary for the steamers of different lines or independents to race each other. (37) These contests were always exciting and often dangerous. Bets were freely made and gambling was open and for high stakes on the boats. Early in June, 1850, the Nominee and Dr. Franklin had an exciting and hotly contested race of several days' duration along the upper Mississippi.(38)

Boat whistles were used for signaling. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

Another race occurred between the West Newton captained by Daniel Smith Harris of the Minnesota Packet Company and the Die Vernon under Captain Rufus Ford of the Keokuk Packet Line. (39) The race began on June 15, 1853. The Die Vernon stopped in Dubuque, but the West Newton steamed past. The Die Vernon did not catch up with the West Newton until the next morning when a fierce race began. The Die Vernon eventually won the race to St. Paul and set a record of eighty-four hours from St. Louis and twenty-eight hours over the 265 miles from Dubuque. (40)

Snag boats operated by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers were sometimes called “Uncle Sam’s Tooth Pullers,” referring to how the vessels extracted whole trees and logs that hindered navigation. U.S. Snag Boat No. 2 is shown pulling stumps from the river bottom. Photo courtesy: http://americanhistory.si.edu/onthewater/exhibition/4_6.html

Efforts to increase speed often led to hazardous conditions. Snags, a constant problem, were able to rip the hull of a boat so that the stricken vessel would sink in minutes. Somewhat related to snags were 'dead head logs.' These were normally water-soaked Norway pine logs---one end on the river bottom and the other end floating just at the surface making them difficult to see and avoid. (41) Low water led to the danger of sandbars that often shifted position. Hazards also came from the equipment on the boats. High-pressure boilers capable of getting more power with less weight were commonly used on western steamboats. Metal used in the construction of the boilers was occasionally poor and burst from the high pressure or lack of water. Steamboat captains, interested in winning races, occasionally ordered AFRICAN AMERICANS to sit on the safety valve. (42) This created an abnormal amount of pressure that led to increased speed but also the chance of explosion. Wooden boats were highly susceptible to fire. Sparks that led to fires increased when substances such as oil, pitch, or lard were added to the boilers for more steam. (43) The use of additives to the fires was most obvious at night when showers of sparks could be seen against the dark sky. Europeans were often enthralled by races. In 1903 Sir Thomas Lipton offered a prize of $20,000 for an old-fashioned steamboat race on the Mississippi River. (44)

Steamboat owners and packet companies generally agreed that insurance was a waste of money. The loss of one steamer a year to a packet company was less than the cost of insurance on the entire fleet. (45)

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Floating bouys attached to weights like this to keep this in place helped boats stay in the channel. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

Until 1852 steamers used on the upper Mississippi were usually small although spoken of as "elegant." In March, 1852, Dubuque businessmen sent an agent to St. Louis to purchase one or more steamers of a higher, heavier and more refined grade. (46) The St. Paul, a new and very fast steamer, was saluted by artillery upon its arrival here early in 1852; she made the round trip from Galena to St. Paul in two days and sixteen hours, landing en route twenty-one times. (47)

Steamboats were owned by “lines” or individual businesses along the river. In 1848 the steamer St. Peters was owned here by P. and R. C. Waples; the boat ran regularly to St. Louis and was one of the Dubuque and Potosi Packet Line. Another regular packet boat was the Dubuque.(48)

A line of boats connecting Dubuque and St. Paul had been desired for several years.(49) Late in 1854, Messrs. Mobley, Barney, Benton, O'Halloran and Hall were appointed a citizens' committee to solicit stock subscriptions for a St. Paul steamboat line. In April, 1855, Galena owned eight or ten fine steamers; Dubuque owned two or three. There was plenty of talk about such a line, but Dubuque businessmen would not invest. (50)

In April, 1855, Dubuque had almost doubled in population in two years. Galena was so envious that it did all it could to prevent Dubuque's further growth. (51) The Galena Packet Company refused to allow its boats to stop at Dubuque. This step at last roused Dubuque businessmen to action. (52)

In 1856 the Dubuque, Minnesota & Wisconsin Packet Company, with Mr. Farley as president, began operations. (53) In retaliation to the hostility of Galena and the Galena Packet Company, this company bought the steamer Golden State, a side-wheeler of 277 tons, for $14,000. (54) The Dubuque Packet Company also bought several new boats — Excelsior, Captain Kingman; Fanny Harris, Captain Worden; Kate Cassel, Captain Harlow; and Golden State.

The officers responsible for management of the boat included the captain, clerk and mate. Officers represented the interests of the owners and were often owners or part-owners of the boat they commanded. Their word carried weight. In 1875 a John Duffy sued the Keokuk Northern Line Packet Company for $10,000 for putting him off the boat on an island near LaCrosse. At trial, Duffy received nothing. (55) Managing officers unlike the engineers and pilots did not need professional qualifications. In actual practice, many captains "reached the roof" after serving in the pilot house and even clerks were known to work themselves up to their own boat. On smaller steamboats, the captain did double duty as the pilot, mate, and even the clerk. Ironically, a pilot who moved up to captain might suffer a loss of pay (not including his percentage of the fares if he were an owner or part-owner of the boat). The following chart indicates monthly pay in the 1850s: (56)

                      Captain,         $300
                      Pilot,           $500
                      Chief clerk,     $200
                      Chief engineer,  $200
                      Steward,         $200

Captains left the running of the boat to his mate and the pilots and was concerned with the attention paid to the passengers. Early steamboats might have captains whose only experience was on KEELBOATS or FLATBOATS. By the 1840s, however, captains were generally skilled in the boat's machinery. Captains were closely associated with their boats and therefore had to be able to impress passengers. The captain was responsible for the boat, cargo, hiring and firing of staff, and decisions including whether to proceed or turn back. (57)

The mate was directly under the captain in overall responsibility for the boat. The mate supervised the deckhands and the distribution of cargo. Steamboats were loaded with most of the cargo at the stern. If a boat ran aground, it could then be backed off. Each time new cargo was loaded, the mate's responsibility was to see that the entire load be re-balanced. (58)

Respect for a boat along a river was often a reflection of the clerk. In charge of the business office, the clerk collected fares, assigned staterooms, answered questions, and issued tickets and freight bills. The clerk kept the freight books and supervised unloading so that goods were left in the correct community. (59)

Sidewheeler. Photo courtesy: Arkansas Post National Historical Site.
Steamboats, especially sidewheelers which had independent engines for each paddlewheel, generally carried two engineers. Despite their responsibilities, engineers were often poorly trained. "Hot engineers" who pushed the equipment to its limits were often favored by owners or pilots under deadlines. (60)

Because steamboats operated around-the-clock, there was a need for two pilots. Their knowledge of snags, sandbars, and sunken wrecks was often legendary. Located at the highest point on the boat, the pilot corresponded with the engine room through a series of bells or a speaking tube. Special pilots were used when boats had to navigate rapids. (61)


The CIVIL WAR effected steam boating as ships were seized for military service. Captain Spencer J. Ball, an old river captain, was employed by the federal government to pick out vessels for the expedition against Vicksburg and was further authorized to draft into service all boats of two hundred feet and under. (62) He selected the Ocean Wave in March, 1863. The Bill Henderson had been in the government service, but was released at this time. It was later again seized and carried one hundred and fifty packages of sanitary stores for different Iowa regiments on April 9, 1863. By 1863 the government had taken so many boats that almost anything that would float was put under military control. (63)

William E. WELLINGTON of Dubuque bought a small steamer and began business between Dubuque and Winona, Minnesota. Soon joined by Mr. George Blanchard, they secured more boats and organized the company on November 19, 1863, under the name NORTHWESTERN PACKET COMPANY. John Lawler, of Prairie du Chien, became president; W. E. Wellington, of Dubuque, superintendent, and George Blanchard, of Dubuque, secretary and treasurer. This company, with headquarters in Dubuque, added to its craft until by March, 1866, it had ten first-class steamers and thirty-six barges varying in capacity from five thousand to twenty thousand bushels of grain. During the winter of 1865-66 the company spent one hundred thousand dollars in constructing barges. The capital of this company in boats was about five hundred thousand dollars. (64) The economic impact of steamboats on river communities was enormous. The NorthWestern Packet Company annually spent in Dubuque about two hundred thousand dollars; its taxes here in 1865 amounted to $6,981.40. (65)

In 1863 the Minnesota Packet Company was sold to individuals closely associated with the ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD. The property including fifteen steamboats and twenty-seven barges with all the equipment and some warehouse property sold for $150.000. After being overhauled during the winter, the intent was to put the entire operation back in business. (66)

In May, 1866, a new company — the NORTH WESTERN UNION PACKET COMPANY —bought all the property of the Minnesota Packet Company, La Crosse & Minnesota Steam Packet Company and the Northwestern Packet Company. Its officers were William F. Davidson, St. Paul, president; John Lawler, Prairie du Chien, manager; George A. Blanchard, Dubuque, secretary; William Rhodes, St. Paul, treasurer; W. E. Wellington, Dubuque, and P. S. Davidson, La Crosse, superintendents. The new company started with thirty steamboats and seventy-three barges. The invested capital of the company was announced as one million five hundred thousand dollars. The company offered to establish its headquarters in Dubuque if the city granted free wharfage for their boats. (67) The establishment of a packet company in Dubuque was considered a surprise by writers of the Dubuque Herald.

            We are not aware that this city has ever made any special
            efforts to secure these river enterprises. The inducements
            held out by the city have not been great or numerous. In
            fact we have known instances in which complaints have justly
            been made by packet companies at the treatment which they
            have received here. (68)

The shipping capacity of the company was one million bushels of grain every five days. The barges alone had a capacity of three hundred and twenty-five thousand bushels. The company's side-wheel boats were Phil. Sheridan; Milwaukee, City of St. Paul; Itasca; Ocean Wave; Northern Belle; Key City; Keokuk; War Eagle and Favorite. In July, 1867, the Phil. Sheridan raced from St. Louis to Dubuque in forty hours and fifty-five minutes— the quickest trip on record. (69) The company's stern-wheel steamers were Addie Johnston, Damsel, Annie Johnston, Diamond Jo, Jennie Baldwin, Julia, G. H. Wilson, Flora, Clara Hine, Hudson, Mankato, Chippewa Falls, Mollie Mohler, Stella Whipple, Ariel, G. H. Gray, Albany, Cutter, H. S. Allen and St. Cloud. The headquarters of the company were established in Dubuque. (70)

The Union company became known as the "White Collar Line." There was a strong rivalry between it and the Northern Line. The latter had the following boats and masters in 1869: Minneapolis, F. B. Rhodes; Dubuque, J. B. Rhodes; Minnesota, T. B. Hill; Davenport, B. A. Cooper; Muscatine, G. W. Jenks, Sucker State, William P. Hight; Hawkeye State, J. Worden; Canada, M. Green; Savannah, R. F. Isherwood; City of Keithsburg, J. W. Campbell; and New Boston, Robert Melville. (71)

This giant wooden eagle, now displayed in the Putnam Museum, once "flew" up and down the Mississippi River on the steamer, War Eagle." Photo courtesy: Putnam Museum
In 1869 the Northwestern Packet Line, the former Minnesota Packet Company, had the following boats and masters : Tom Jasper, Frank Burnett; Phil Sheridan, A. M. Hutchinson; Milwaukee, E. V. Holcombe; City of St. Paul, Thos. Davidson; Mattie McPike, Moses Hall; Key City, Judd West; War Eagle, Thos. Gushing; Addie Johnson, Sam Painter; Jennie Baldwin, Charles Leuserbox; Keokuk, Isaac H. Moulton. (72)

Cutthroat competition occurred between the White Collar Line and the Northern Line. In 1868 rates for the trip between St. Louis and St. Paul ranged from five to eighteen dollars. (73) A truce was reached in mid-June, but this agreement did not last. In 1871 the White Collar Line and the Northern Line agreed on a schedule of prices for the up-river trade; cut rates and economic war was averted. In 1872 the White Collar and Northern lines dissolved their rate agreement and prepared to cut prices to secure the trade. (74) In 1871 the route between Dubuque and Clinton could be covered in one day. (75)

Joseph "Diamond Jo” REYNOLDS entered the grain business in Prairie du Chien only to find that rivals controlled the railroads and shipping lines. He chose to build his own fleet of and by 1873 had five steamboats each of which could push eight barges of grain or about 100,000 bushels. His boats also towed log rafts. (76) Gradually the grain business was replaced with carrying passengers. The Diamond Jo Line, established by Reynolds, moved its corporate offices to Dubuque from Fulton, Illinois, in 1874. Their first boats and masters were Tidal Wave, Mitchell; Arkansas, Wilcox; Diamond Jo, Isherwood; Ida Fulton, Killeen, and Imperial. (77) Crooked cedar trees in Dubuque brought good prices. The trucks were adzed out and quarter sawed for ribs in hull construction. (78) By 1884 advertisements indicated that Diamond Jo packets operated between St. Louis and St. Paul with local packets running three times each week between Dubuque and Davenport. (79)

The DIAMOND JO LINE was given concessions of land when the company agreed to establish its headquarters in Dubuque. In 1878 the firm originally located at EAGLE POINT but later moved to First and Levee where it remained until the line was sold in 1911. (80) In 1880 the Diamond Jo Company built a large steamer — the Mary Morton at a cost of nearly forty thousand dollars. Joseph Reynolds directed the construction. He had previously built in Dubuque the Libbie Conger and the Josephine and by June, 1880, the Diamond Jo Company had six steamers in service. By January 1890 the company employing seventy-eight men had constructed the Stillwater, Mark Bradley and J. W. Mills, several large coal barges, and was at work on two new steamboats for Clinton and Rock Island owners. (81)

Early in 1873 the White Collar and the Northern lines were merged into the Keokuk Northern Line, a company with a capital of seven hundred thousand dollars and John A. McCune president and W. F. Davidson superintendent. The Keokuk Northern Line waged war on all cities that charged wharfage; the courts had recently decided against the right of cities to make such charges. The company within a few years had weathered bad economic times. Under the reorganization of the Keokuk Northern Line early in 1881, Henry Lourey became its president. (82)

In 1878 there passed through the drawbridge at Dubuque 3,139 steamboats, 884 barges, and 176 wood flats. The 498 log rafts, 159 lumber rafts, and 37 tie rafts accounted for an estimated 459,000,000 feet of lumber. (83)

Steamboat owners and captains formed the Steamboat Owners' Association around 1880. Although the organization had more members on the Lower Mississippi River, it dealt with such issues as being forced to pay fees to use hoists to lift cargoes. (84)

"Diamond Jo" Reynolds was quick to respond to changes in business conditions. When railroads began affecting his business, he switched from carrying freight to passengers. In 1880 the stern-wheel packet, Mary Morton, was launched as the first of the elaborately furnished passenger boats which gave the Diamond Jo Line a reputation for elegance. Although river conditions did not allow precise schedules for arriving at destinations, passengers at a time when rush was not that important were provided fine accommodations. Between the two rows of cabins was the dining room. A steamboat pilot once commented:

                 In old flush times in the steamboat business, pastry cooks generally
                 planned to five a surprise to the passengers on each up-trip of the
                 steamer. I remember one such, when no less than thirteen different
                 desserts were placed in front of each passenger as he finished the
                 hearty preliminary meal. Six of these were served in tall and
                 slender glass goblets--vases would more nearly describe them--and
                 consisted of custards, jellies, and creams of various shades and
                 flavors; while the other seven were pies, puddings, and ice creams.
                 Passengers were asked to pick out those that he thought he would
                 like but the whole were brought on and arranged in a circle about
                 his plate, leaving him to dip into each as he fancied and leave
                 such as did not meet his approval. (85)

Following the evening meal, the dining hall was cleared of tables and chairs and the evening was filled with dancing, singing, music and cards. Many steamer companies employed bands of between six or eight African Americans who played musical instruments and sang. They passed a hat for contributions when finished. The same people served as barbers, waiters and baggage men.

In the spring of 1881 the Dubuque & St. Louis Packet Company was organized in connection with the Chicago Milwaukee, and St. Paul Railroad. The company was headquartered in Dubuque, and B. E. Linehan was one of its principal members. (86)

By 1885 so great was the demand for quick river transit that the Diamond Jo Company prepared to construct fast passenger boats to travel from St. Louis to St. Paul — all of steel and to be built in Dubuque. (87)

About March 18, 1886 the following boats were owned at Dubuque: Helen Mar, Louisville, Menominee and B. E. Linehan, by Knapp. Stout & Co.; A. Railing, by the Standard Lumber Company ; Nellie, by Specht Bros.; Jim Watson, by Hamsen & Linehan. Forty-eight business firms along the river owned eighty boats. (88) In 1916, continuing the practice, MOLO SAND AND GRAVEL COMPANY purchased the steamer Iris to tow their sand barges. (89)

In January, 1889, the St. Louis, St. Paul & Minneapolis Packet Company was organized. In July, 1890, the office of the United States steamboat inspector was moved to Dubuque. (90)

In spite of continued business, the era of steamboats was coming to an end. By the 1870s, passenger traffic had declined as railroads offered a quicker and more dependable means of year-round transportation. (91)

The office of steamboat inspector was moved from Galena to Dubuque with the signing of the law by President Harrison on July 28, 1890. This was considered an important event since it meant more steamboats would need to dock here and trade would increase. Credited with seeing the legislation passed were Senator William Boyd ALLISON and Representative David B. HENDERSON. Shipping interests had supported the legislation for years. (92)

Short-run packets were used in 1893-94 to meet new conditions. The run of each seldom exceeded one hundred miles usually from one large town to the next. (93) The cut of 30 per cent in railroad freight rates was an especially severe blow to river traffic. (94) In 1911 the last steamboat operating out of Dubuque was sold.

In 1911 the Northern Steamboat Company announced a regular weekly service between Davenport and St. Paul. (95) The Streckfus Steamboat Company that purchased the fleet of the Diamond Jo Line operated a line of steamboats between St. Louis and St. Paul after 1911. (96) To encourage business, the company published Along the Mississippi, a magazine illustrated with scenes along the Mississippi. (97)

In 1916 it was announced that the Streckfus and Wisherd steamer lines would not be offering any steamboat races on summer vacation trips. It was felt that the spirited rivalry on the part of ticket salesmen and the crews had carried over to the passengers creating too much danger to continue the annual events. (98)

In August 1979 United States President Jimmy Carter took a week-long cruise aboard the historic Delta Queen. Stopping in Dubuque, he was welcomed by an estimated 4,000 people. (99)

In the decades since steamboating became a leisurely form of tourist travel, some hard truths have been recalled. In addition to the danger of the old vessels, their practical value has been challenged. The "Grand Republic," the largest Mississippi River steamboat ever built could carry 4,000 tons of cargo. A standard barge in 1943 moved three times that much. In the 1860s, there was an average of 12 departures daily from St. Louis with the packets averaging 300 tons each. A single barge in 1943 carried 1,000 tons with 8-10 barges in a single tow. (100)

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding



1. Oldt, Franklin T., History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Chicago: Goodspeed Historical Association, 1880, Online: http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/franklin-t-oldt/history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl/page-23-history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl.shtml

2. Ibid.

3. Petersen, William J. Steamboating on the Upper Mississippi, State Historical Society of Iowa, Iowa City, 1968, p. 292

4. “Old River Days in Dubuque Recalled,” Telegraph Herald, Aug. 12, 1928, p. 38. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=AzFkAAAAIBAJ&sjid=N70MAAAAIBAJ&pg=1649,2305990&dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

5. Oldt, p. 23

6. Ibid.

7. Petersen, William J. “Then and Now,” Telegraph Herald, Dec. 8. 1940, p. 7. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=IJJSAAAAIBAJ&sjid=IMsMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3197,6039231&dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

8. Oldt, p. 23

9. Ibid.

10. Ibid.

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Petersen, p. 354

14. Oldt. 23

15. Ibid.

16. Oldt, p. 25

17. Oldt, p. 24

18. Petersen, p. 386

19. Oldt, p. 23

20. Ibid.

21. "Pioneer Citizen Recalls Many Steamers That Plied the Mississippi," Telegraph Herald, March 15, 1919

22. Oldt, p. 23

23. Ibid.

24. Ibid.

25. Ibid.

26. Petersen, p. 261

27. Oldt, p. 23

28. Ibid.

29. Petersen, p. 261

30. Oldt, p. 23

31. Petersen, p. 390

32. Oldt, p. 23

33. Petersen, p. 383

34. Oldt, p. 23

35. Petersen, p. 385

36. Oldt, p. 23

37. Ibid.

38. Petersen, p. 266

39. Petersen, p. 267

40. Petersen, p. 268

41. "Dead-Head Logs," Dubuque Herald, April 19, 1895, p. 8

42. Petersen, p. 434

43. Oldt, p. 23

44. “Steamboat Race,” Thames Star, Vol. XXXXI, Aug. 22, 1903, p. 4. Online:http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=jBleAAAAIBAJsjid=5l8NAAAAIBAJ&pg=4768,7323950dq=steamboat+companies+dubuque&hl=en

45. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, April 20, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760420&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

46. Oldt. 23

47. Ibid.

48. Ibid.

49. Ibid.

50. Ibid.

51. Ibid.

52. Ibid.

53. Ibid.

54. Ibid.

55. "Caught on the Fly," The Daily Herald, May 8, 1875, p. 4

56. Goodman, Robert and Nancy. Paddlewheels on the Upper Mississippi, Stillwater: University of Minnesota Press, October 2003, p. 82

57. Ibid. p. 83

58. Ibid. p. 85

59. Ibid.

60. Ibid., p. 86

61. Ibid., p. 87

62. Oldt, p. 25

63. Ibid.

64. Ibid.

65. Oldt, Franklin T. History of Dubuque County, Iowa. Online: http://www.ebooksread.com/authors-eng/franklin-t-oldt/history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl/page-26-history-of-dubuque-county-iowa-being-a-general-survey-of-dubuque-county-histor-tdl.shtml

66. "The Great Sale of the Minnesota Packet Company," Dubuque Democratic Herald, November 8, 1863, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=A36e8EsbUSoC&dat=18631108&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

67. "New Packet Company," Dubuque Democratic Herald, November 20, 1863, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=A36e8EsbUSoC&dat=18631120&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

68. "The Upper Mississippi Navigation," Dubuque Herald, May 3, 1866, p. 1

69. "New Packet Company..."

70. Ibid.

71. Ibid.

72. Petersen, p. 379

73. Ibid., p. 26

74. Ibid.

75. “Dubuque to Clinton,” Dubuque Daily Herald, Oct. 4, 1871, p. 1. Online:http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=mB9eAAAAIBAJ&sjid=_l8NAAAAIBAJ&pg=2167,183807&dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

76. Roseliep, Tom, “Steamboating and the Diamond Jo Line,” Telegraph Herald, June 30, 1994, p. 21. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=A11FAAAAIBAJsjid=GLwMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4264,6881217&dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

77. “Waterfront Notes,” Telegraph Herald, Aug. 24, 1938, p. 7. Online:http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=v9tBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=3akMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3277,6683476&dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

78. Oldt, p. 26

79. Roseliep.

80. Foote, Frank, “Pioneer Rivermen Based Their Operations in Dubuque,” Telegraph Herald, Sept. 11, 1964, p. 21. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=vn1FAAAAIBAJ&sjid=tLwMAAAAIBAJpg=4254,1479135dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

81. Oldt, p. 26

82. Ibid.

83. Ibid.

84. "River News," Dubuque Herald, February 7, 1880, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18800207&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

85. "The Story of the Diamond Jo Line Steamers," Telegraph-Herald, June 12, 1938, p. 5

86. “New Packet Company,” Dubuque Herald, Mar. 25, 1881, p. 4. Online:http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=h4RCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=H6sMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3137,2466610&dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

87. Oldt. p. 26

88. Ibid.

89. Petersen, p. 351

90. “Dubuque Firm Buys Steamboat,” Telegraph Herald, Oct. 27, 1916. p. 3. Online:http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=jBleAAAAIBAJ&sjid=5l8NAAAAIBAJ&pg=4768,7323950&dq=steamboat+companies+dubuque&hl=en

91. “Dubuque and the River,” Dubuque Daily Herald, Jan. 1, 1895, p. 2. Online:http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=6I5FAAAAIBAJ&sjid=9rwMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1420,1761257&dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

92. Ibid.

93. Ibid.

94. “River Scenes are Shown Nicely,” Telegraph Herald, July 13, 1913. p. 3. Online:http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=9p9dAAAAIBAJ&sjid=71wNAAAAIBAJ&pg=6667,6137996&dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

95. “Dubuque in New Steamboat Line,” Telegraph Herald, June 20, 1911, p. 12. Online:http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=LfZCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=8qsMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1345,1004496&dq=steamboat+companies+dubuque&hl=en

96. “Capt. Streckfus Affirms Report,” Telegraph Herald, Feb. 9, 1911, p. 12. Online:http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=nvBCAAAAIBAJ&sjid=4asMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1206,853601&dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

97. Ibid.

98. "Ban on Steamboat Races," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, March 23, 1916, p. 14

99. Ullrich, Kurt,"Presidential Port of Call," 175 Telegraph Herald Commemorative Edition Mar. 26, 2012, p. 6B

100. 'Good Ole River Days' Debunked by Experts," Telegraph Herald, November 7, 1943, p. 7