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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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Ready to make change or offer assistance, streetcar conductors like William A. Brown made the ride enjoyable. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Dubuque Electric Railway.Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
STREETCARS. On April 2, 1867, Dubuque citizens voted 2,188 to 137 to permit the use of streets for public transportation vehicles. (1) On October 1, 1867, the DUBUQUE STREET RAILWAY COMPANY was organized by Platt SMITH, Julius K. GRAVES, John THOMPSON, Henry L. STOUT, C. H. Merry, T. C. Roberts, and A. H. Gibbs. Julius K. Graves served as president with Joseph HEROD secretary and superintendent. At its October meeting, the city council adopted an ordinance establishing a right-of-way and imposed certain conditions and obligations on the company. By November 17th, a contract for constructing the first streetcar line and supplying it with equipment was signed with Charles Hathaway of Philadelphia. (2) In 1868 the only other city west of the MISSISSIPPI RIVER to permit streetcars was St. Louis, Missouri. (3)

On May 23, 1868, the horse-drawn trolley system using fifteen mules and horses and five cars each capable of carrying twenty passengers began operating. (4) The route of travel reached from the ferry landing at the foot of Jones Street, north on Main to 13th Street and on to 24th Street. One year later the line was extended to 32nd Street. In 1872 the company erected a large stable and car "house" at the northern end of Couler (Central) Avenue.

Street car stoves were first tried on November 1, 1873. A small coal-burning stove was installed on two cars with positive response from the passengers. (5)

The fare on the horse-drawn street cars was ten cents. This remained in effect until a five-cent fare was started in 1875. (6)

Within months the company was leased to Platt SMITH and James Hughes with Joseph A. RHOMBERG as president. In 1876 Rhomberg, John J. LINEHAN, and Bart E. LINEHAN purchased the company. Rhomberg remained as president. The system became known as the Rhomberg Line.

The Rhomberg Line enjoyed a fine reputation with thirteen strong and well-kept cars, each capable of carrying twenty passengers. Cars passed each other every five minutes from dawn to late at night. A round trip took one hour. (7) To avoid cleaning snow from tracks in the winter, the company purchased sleighs. (8) In an effort to speed up the line, a system of storage battery cars were added, but with little success. (9) The total investment was estimated at $65,000 with annual income of $15,000. (10)

The actual order of the Hill Street and West Dubuque Steam Engine Company to the Baldwin Company for an engine in 1877. Source: p. 105 Baldwin Locomotive Works (newspaper file) Reel 2 Volume 8 Microfilmed by Microplex Dallas, Texas. Photo courtesy: Alex Wehrspann
Beginning on July 12, 1877, a new firm, the HILL STREET AND WEST DUBUQUE STEAM RAILWAY COMPANY started by Julius K. Graves, attempted to haul passengers up the bluffs. (11) At the suggestion of the Baldwin Locomotive Company of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, miniature steam locomotives were used. Tests had previously been done using the engines in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania and Cincinnati, Ohio. (12) It was estimated that the use of the train would save three dollars daily in labor costs. (13) This was based on the following breakdown of costs for the steam engine: (14)
              Total cost of fuel per day 
              at 8 pounds per mile at $4.00 
              per 2,240 pounds of anthracite 
              coal     $1.26
              Oil, waste and tallow per day 
              estimated            .25
              Engineer, 16 hours per day at 
              .25 cents/hour      4.00

The total cost of the figures above ($5.51) was then compared to the estimated cost of running one two-horse car one day ($8.53).

The route began at 8th and Main and proceeded up Hill Street to Third, Third to Alpine, Alpine to Julien Avenue and on Julien to Board for a ten-cent fare. (15) The company initially ordered two cars. One was an excursion car, "for the use of picnics and parties who desire to while away a few hours among the romantic woodlands that skirt the western boundary of the city." (16)

(1890) Illustration of railway engine and car. Courtesy: Telegraph Herald
In the first month of operation, the railway claimed to have carried 30,000 passengers. (17) The railway was linked to increased housing construction in the hill area.

Poor service, primarily an inability to maintain a time schedule, led the City of Dubuque to threaten to revoke the company's franchise after seven years of operation. The equipment was dismantled and moved to Florida. The reputation of the company before it left led to its nickname, "Steam Dummy." (18)

Steam-powered cable cars reached the top of the bluffs at Fourth Street after 1883 and at Eleventh Street after 1887. The ELEVENTH STREET ELEVATOR operation was closed in 1927, but the FOURTH STREET ELEVATOR continued operation. Its power system after 1900 was supplied by electricity.

The ordinance of March, 1889, granted permission and authority to David H. Ogden and his successors to construct, maintain and operate a single track electric street railway with all the necessary accessories on certain designated streets, prescribed the mode of operation and fixed the term at twenty years. (19) Ogden's Key City Electric Street Railway Company made its first trip on December 25, 1889. (20)

Dubuque Light and Traction Company.Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
A third competitor, the DUBUQUE ELECTRIC RAILWAY, LIGHT AND POWER COMPANY, was started in 1889 by the Allen and Swiney Company. This company originally operated electric cars from Sixth and Iowa Streets to Jackson Street and the city limits. The Dubuque Electric Railway, Light and Power Company purchased the former KEY CITY ELECTRIC STREET RAILWAY COMPANY in 1893 and reorganized as the DUBUQUE LIGHT AND TRACTION COMPANY. (21)

In 1890 the Dubuque Street Railway, known as the Rhomberg Line, attempted to get the city council to give it more time to convert to electricity. This was not granted, but the council awarded the company the right-of-way along Rhomberg Avenue to EAGLE POINT. In describing the council's action, the Dubuque Herald referred to the company as the "broncho line" for its use of horses. (22) The company's attempt to use storage batteries proved unsuccessful. President Rhomberg returned from Chicago on February 24, 1892 where he had negotiated contracts with the Edison Company for an overhead electric system. (23)

On February 12, 1890 the Dubuque Street Railway Company was given the right-of-way from the city limits to Sageville if work could be completed in one year. In April, 1891 it lost its right-of-way when the work was not finished, but immediately refiled. The Dubuque Daily Herald commented that the two-hour service of the company to Eagle Point and no service along Couler until competition came from Allen and Swiney should cause the county supervisors to question reissuing the franchise. The paper also reminded readers of the desire of former Mayor Stewart to require more of the companies being granted franchises. (24)

In 1892 Dubuque had ten miles of overhead system and six of storage battery. (25)

Reorganization, acquisition and mergers flourished. A single trolley company, HOME ELECTRIC COMPANY, emerged in 1899. The trolley system's car barn burned in 1901, one year before ownership of the trolley system was transferred to the Union Electric Company. In 1903 the bus barn at 24th and Central was constructed to replace the facilities destroyed in 1901. (26)

No one was injured in this spectacular accident on April 23, 1905. The car crashed into the Diamond House at the present intersection of University and Hill streets. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Post card image of a street car that crashed into George Ragatz's Drug Store on Main St. Photo courtesy: Jim Kenline

Labor strife and disaster plagued the trolley system. The STREETCAR STRIKE OF 1903, Dubuque's first severe labor trouble, resulted in national notoriety for Union Electric as the Iowa State Militia was called out to restore order. (27) With the strike settled, the company remained in operation until 1916 when it was sold to the Dubuque Electric Company. Street car transportation reached its peak popularity at this time.

Brake failure on Easter, Sunday, April 23, 1905, caused a spectacular accident as a car belonging to the UNION ELECTRIC COMPANY hurtled off its tracks and struck the unoccupied first floor of the DIAMOND HOUSE at Eighth Street and Julien (University) Avenue.

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

In the early 1900s, service became more elaborate and popular. Eighty-five cars were placed into service with specialized summer cars that allowed breezes to cool the riders. The ride became so popular that people were often only able to find seating at the end of the line. Some people walked in the opposite direction from which they wanted to go just to get a seat, while other riders jammed the aisles or hung on the roof. A popular trip of thirty-three minutes led to UNION PARK.

The "Admiral" Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
One of the best known streetcars was named the "Admiral." The car was the first eight-wheeled street car in the city and was constructed from two smaller cars at the car barns located on Central Avenue. It was said that patrons went far out of their way and waited in long lines to ride on this unique vehicle.

Beginning in March, street car service stopped as the city and company officials argued over drivers and fares. The city would not repeal the ordinance prohibiting operation of one-man street cars nor would it permit the Dubuque Electric Company to raise fares. C. C. Mead, president of the union, did not blame the city council for the stalemate. (28) By April 1920 street car service had been halted for eight weeks. (29)

With the reality of higher prices in the immediate future, pressure was brought on the company to limit a price hike. At issue was whether a hike in fares would result in enough income that a universal fare of five cents would be possible. (30) The answer was quick in coming. Fares were raised to twenty-five cents for four rides or seven cents for one ride. Those who had purchased the old 2.5 cent tickets could redeem them at the company offices. (31)

Following a year of study, one-man streetcar operation was officially approved by the Dubuque City Council in 1920. This ruling, which eliminated the need for both a motorman and conductor, applied to all streetcars except the one on the West Eighth line or Main Street during rush hours. (32)

Transportation into East Dubuque. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Buses replaced trolleys. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
By 1924 Dubuque's electric system became the property of INTERSTATE POWER COMPANY. The increasing popularity of automobiles led Interstate to doubt the value of trolleys, and its fleet of streetcars was reduced from eighty-five to sixty.

In 1925 bus lines were started on an experimental basis. The idea was borrowed from the East Dubuque Electric Company that used eight buses to carry thirsty Dubuquers into Illinois when Iowa passed a PROHIBITION law. In 1929 the first street car line, Linwood, was replaced by buses.

On May 11, 1931 the Dubuque City Council began the formal process of ending streetcar service in the city. A resolution was adopted authorizing INTERSTATE POWER COMPANY to abandon its single car track from 22nd Street north to 32nd Street on Central Avenue and to remove one of its double tracks on Central from 24th Street to 20th Street. (33) Interstate Power petitioned to be given permission to abandon the entire Main Street car line, from Jones to 32nd Street and substitute buses for streetcars. This meant that the only remaining lines were West Locust, West Dubuque and Eagle Point which were expected to be closed in that order. (34) A. H. Smith, transportation superintendent for Interstate, stated that the company would substitute four buses for four street cars presently operated on Main Street with the same schedules being maintained. (35) The last streetcars ran on July 24, 1932. Bus service began the next day. In the years of their operation, streetcars were owned by fourteen different utilities.

When Dubuque ended streetcar operation it became the only city in Iowa with a population over 40,000 to discard streetcars and depend entirely on buses. (36) By May 1934 the only streetcar tracks remaining in Dubuque were on Rhomberg Avenue from Central Avenue to EAGLE POINT on the old Eagle Point line, from Alpine Street to DUBUQUE SENIOR HIGH SCHOOL on the West Dubuque line, on 13th and 15th streets from Main to Central, on Second from Main to Locust, and on Central from 13th north to 22nd street. Twelve of the double-track cars had been shipped to Waterloo with all other cars sent to Sabula, Iowa. Wheels were removed there and the cars converted to cabins in a tourist camp. (37)

When the use of streetcars was ended, operators with twenty or more years of experience were pensioned by Interstate Power Company. In 1934 this amounted to twenty-nine people. Fifty men were employed operate the buses which replaced the cars. (38)

NOTE: For a video about the trolleys of Dubuque, see: http://cityofdubuque.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=3&clip_id=2823 produced by the City of Dubuque.



1. Duddleson, Irvin F. "From Horse Cars to Buses," Telegraph-Herald, October 3, 1943

2. "Dubuque County Before 1880," Telegraph Herald, October 16, 1933, p. 9

3. Duddleson, Irvin F.

4. "Dubuque County..."

5. "Street Car Stoves," Dubuque Herald, November 2, 1873, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18731102&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

6. Duddleson, Irvin F.

7. "Dubuque County..."

8. McCormick, John. "Transit Transition," Telegraph Herald, August 28, 1973, p. 13

9. Duddleson, Irvin F.

10. "Dubuque County..."

11. Bissell, Tom. "City's Streetcars--An Uphill Fight," Telegraph Herald, August 28, 1960, p. 11

12. "All Aboard for the Bluffs," Dubuque Herald, May 27, 1877 (no pages given)

13. Ibid.

14. Ibid.

15. "All Aboard for the Bluffs,"

16. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, September 1, 1877 (no pages given)

17. McCormick, John.

18. Ibid.

19. Dubuque Folklore. American Trust and Savings Bank. 1976

20. Bissell, Tom

21. McCormick, John.

22. "To Eagle Point," Dubuque Daily Herald, April 26, 1890, p. 4

23. "Travel by Trolley Car," Dubuque Herald, March 4, 1892

24. "Rhomberg's New Railroad," Dubuque Daily Herald, April 19, 1891, p. 8. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18910419&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

25. "Mayor Saunder's Reply," Dubuque Daily Herald, February 3, 1892, p. 4

26. "Travel by Trolley Car..."

27. "Street Cars Pass From Public Mind," Telegraph Herald, April 18, 1920, p. 15

28. "Two and a Half Cent Car Fare in Dubuque Ended by U. S Court Decision," Telegraph Herald, August 21, 1919, p. 1

29. "Council Refuses Merchants' Plea for One Man Car," Telegraph Herald, April 1, 1920, p. 1

30. "25 Cent Rate to Be Exacted From Working People," Telegraph Herald, August 23, 1919,

31. Ibid.

32. "One-Man Street Cars Approved," Telegraph Herald, May 6, 1924, p. 8

33. "Start Move to End Streetcar Service Here," Telegraph Herald, May 12, 1931, p. 1

34. Ibid.

35. Ibid.

36. "Streetcar Rails in Dubuque Fast Disappearing; Trolley Cars Vanished 2 Years Ago," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, May 2, 1934, p. 13

37. Ibid.

38. Ibid.