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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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Michael Boge wrote perhaps the finest history of Union Park.
On the way to Union Park. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Loemker, Herman J., 1868-1937, “[Automobile entrance to Eagle Point Park in Dubuque, Iowa],” Loras College Digital Collections, accessed September 14, 2016, https://digitalcollections.loras.edu/items/show/533.

UNION PARK. The DUBUQUE ELECTRIC RAILWAY, LIGHT AND POWER COMPANY, known locally as the Allen and Swiney Motor Line Company, purchased forty acres of land from the farm of William G. STEWART on March 6, 1891 with an option on two hundred more. (1) The company owners, new to the community, desired a way to popularize the use of electricity. The company had been in a heated battle with Joseph A. RHOMBERG to stay in existence since 1890. (2) The idea of a park at the end of their trolley line promised to give them needed publicity. (3)

The purchase might have come as a surprise to the local citizens. In June of 1890 it was announced that an extension of the electric streetcars to "Stewart Park" seemed unlikely due to the "lukewarmness shown by the people in that vicinity." Allen and Swiney were expected to open a summer park in the southern portion of the city with negotiations underway for a "pleasant rural setting." (4)

Union Park's pavilion. Image courtesy: Joe Jacobsmeier
Photo courtesy: Joseph Jacobsmeier

Construction of their single track trolley preceded the building of trails and pathways on the park property. Since the line was a single track, switches like those on the FOURTH STREET ELEVATOR were used. The line would bow out on both sides creating a two-track system that allowed outgoing and returning cars to pass. Reaching out Couler Valley (now Highway 52 North), the line required the construction of eleven bridges. The name Allen and Swiney chose for their completed project was "Stewart Park," in honor of William G. Stewart. Some accounts suggest the park was named in honor of MAYOR Robert W. Stewart.

Streetcar track to Union Park. Photo courtesy: Joseph Jacobsmeier
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
On April 24, 1891 the first visitors by trolley arrived at "the natural enchantments of Stewart Park snuggled in Horseshoe Hollow, a valley 75 feet deep." These guests of the line included the mayor, aldermen, county supervisors, representatives of the press, and many of the most important business leaders in the city. (5)

The park officially opened on April 26, 1891. Visitors were charged ten cents at the beginning of the trip out and then a nickel half way because the conductor could not be sure they were going all the way to the park. The return trip cost fifteen cents charged at the park. Cars had to be run every ten minutes to handle the crowds of people. The refreshment, eating booth, and amusement privileges were sold to Morgan & Shea on May 8, 1891, for $1,800. Their plans called for building a dance hall. Regular entertainment would be planned twice each week during the season. (6) On April 27 work began on a dance pavilion and refreshment booth. Other buildings initially planned for the grounds included a small pavilion for parties and living quarters for park employees. On May 21 park officials announced that concerts would be presented every Wednesday and Saturday night and Sunday afternoon during the season. (7)

Children's playground. Image courtesy: Joe Jacobsmeier

Money soon became an impossible obstacle for the park's owners. Sidewalks were rare, a theater planned for the grounds became a second-class dance hall, and the bowling alley proved less than ideal.

Rustic band stand. Image courtesy: Joe Jacobsmeier
Unable to operate a trolley line and a park, Allen and Swiney sold out to the Old Colony Trust Company on May 11, 1893. As a result of a series of legal actions ending on July 7, 1899, the ownership of the property became part of the General Electric Company. General Electric reorganized the local firm into the HOME ELECTRIC COMPANY that sold out to UNION ELECTRIC COMPANY. L. D. Mathes was chosen to become the first park manager.
Beautiful scenery made Union Park a local favorite.

In the first of many changes, the park was renamed Union Park, honoring the names of the new owners. New track was laid out to the park. The dance hall was remodeled with the addition of large porches, and a bowling alley was designed, pins and balls were purchased, and the scheduled opening was set for July 12, 1891. (8) The replacement of incandescent lamps with new lights powered through wires strung from the DUBUQUE SHOOTING PARK cost Union Electric an estimated five hundred dollars.


In 1904 dirt trails and paths were replaced with cement sidewalks that ran to all the buildings. The construction of a new dance hall, known as "The Pavilion," was a major event. Every Wednesday night and on weekends, bowery dances were held. The band for a bowery dance, played about half a song with the dance floor empty. At this point, park employees walked around and picked up nickels from anyone wishing to dance. When the money was collected, the rest of the song was played. Visitors to the park were also impressed when the loading platform, little more than a dock, was replaced by an elaborate shelter that protected visitors from bad weather.

Streetcar advertising of music concerts in the park. Image courtesy: Joe Jacobsmeier
The lodge at Union Park. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
In 1905 a unique bandstand made of gnarled tree branches was constructed across from "The Pavilion." This became the "Rustic Bandstand." A second bandstand of the same design was built in 1907 farther into the valley with hundreds of benches nearby.

Grand concerts from this bandstand were held on a regular basis each week. Newspaper accounts from the time tell of the bands and orchestras being paid from $2,500 to $5,000 weekly. The bandstand was also the setting for many high school and college graduations.

The interior of the cave at Union Park. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Union Park cave. Photo courtesy: Bob Johnsen
Children's playground at Union Park. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Children's pagoda. Photo courtesy: Bob Johnsen

By 1906 the lack of more activities at Union Park was leading to the call for another park in the city. "The two parks we do possess have nothing inviting in them after one does get there. The ride to them is quite the only enjoyable feature. It is hoped...that the tired mother may take her fretful flock for an outing in the bosom of nature." (9)

More land was purchased in 1908, and a children's playground was developed with every type of equipment including slides, swings and carousels. A roller coaster made of wood was generally thought too "rickety" by parents who kept their children away. The jerky ride often sent straw hats flying-into a fishpond. Steamy August days were momentarily defeated by a casual walk through a cave discovered in 1900 and modernized in 1908 with the addition of a walkway and electric lights.

Mammoth Theater in Union Park. Image courtesy: Joe Jaobsmeier
Theater interior. Photo courtesy: Joseph Jacobsmeier

The year 1909 witnessed the development of the Mammoth Theater, advertised as the largest in Iowa. Costing Union Electric $30,000 to construct, the theater stretched from one hillside to the other dividing the park into two parts. Planning for large crowds, 1,500 opera chairs were installed. The theater, planned carefully for excellent acoustics, was open at one end, allowing an additional 5,000 people to see and hear (at no charge) programs by such musicians as Guy Lombardo.

Depending on the program and time of day, sitting in the opera seats cost audience members ten to fifteen cents. Benches set up behind the opera seats cost five to ten cents. A children's wading pool, constructed as a miniature of the internationally known one in Chicago's Ogdon Park, was a park addition in 1910. The pool shaped in a crescent was twenty-five feet wide and sixty feet long with depths running from three inches to one foot. (10) The pool was planned to have a sandy bottom with a sandy beach lying "in the hollow between the tips of the crescent." (11) Benches were to be provided for the children's use in taking off their shoes and socks and rustic rest houses were planned for mothers watching their children. (12) Another purchase in 1910 was an abandoned mine cave. It became a financial bonanza after being named "Wonder Cave" and having its interior lighted. (13)

Construction of so many buildings might have caused a loss of beautiful plants. This concern was remedied by the work of Arthur Bryant, a renowned American horticulturist and former president of the American Horticultural Association. After visiting Dubuque, he suggested a variety of shrubbery and plants. More than one thousand rose bushes were planted with the direction of Union Park Superintendent Bonz. (14) One bed of peonies was said to have cost one thousand dollars.

News of the beauty of Union Park traveled widely. In 1911 the Dallas (Texas) Morning News contained a half-tone picture three columns wide and four inches deep of a scene in Union Park publishing it under the caption of "Examples of Civic Attractiveness." (15)

A new amusement policy for the park was announced in 1910. There would be no more evenings devoted to the presentation, by the Park Players, of one play. The Players would instead be seen in a series of one-act comedies. Guerrero and Carmen, the "Violinist and Harpist" would also entertain as would Oscar W. Schaefer's orchestra which, in addition to providing music in the theater, would give an open air concert in the Rustic Stand every evening. (16)

Dancing at Union Park was always popular. On opening night in 1911, it was limited to private dancing parties. Public dancing "under the best supervision" was available every following night. The question of music was settled by having local orchestras complete for a month or more and then award the contract for the rest of the year to the most popular. The theater which was damaged in the flood remained closed. (17)

In 1914 the opening of the park was marked by the evening performance of the Dubuque College Band of fifty-eight musicians. Other musical numbers were performed by vocalists and an octet. (18)

$ 57.JPG

In 1916 Union Electric Company assets were sold to the Dubuque Electric Company, but continued attention to beautifying the area led the park to remain one of eastern Iowa's most enchanting settings. In 1918, the DUBUQUE ELECTRIC COMPANY announced that MOTION PICTURES would be part of the entertainment at the Mammoth Theater. (19)

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
On July 9, 1919, weather predictions called for the possibility of thunderstorms in the afternoon, but usual summer activities were continued as planned. The first drops of rain in the afternoon quickly turned into a downpour. Picnickers, still feeling secure, ran for nearby shelter unaware that the cloudburst had created a wall of water that soon tore into the park. Concrete sidewalks were ripped up by the fury of the torrent that demolished the merry-go-round and backed up behind the theater to a height estimated to be twenty feet before pushing on downhill.

Five people died, and an estimated fifteen thousand dollars in damage was done. News of the destruction was so important to the citizens of Dubuque that the announcement of the presentation of the peace treaty by President Wilson was crowded into the lower left hand corner of the front page of the newspaper.

Concerts were held at the Union Park bandstand
Loemker, Herman J., 1868-1937, “[Girls' race at a Sunday School picnic at Union Park in Dubuque, Iowa],” Loras College Digital Collections, accessed September 14, 2016, https://digitalcollections.loras.edu/items/show/526.
The effort to put Union Park back together began almost immediately. Many buildings-the roller coaster, fishpond, and several fountains were rebuilt to look like they had before the flood. A new dance pavilion and theater were planned.

Of concern to the Dubuque Electric Company, the park owners, was the appearance of automobiles in Dubuque. These vehicles permitted Dubuque residents, once confined to Dubuque and its attractions, to travel out of the city. In 1922 the company accepted the situation and announced that it would construct a roadway into the park in time for the 14th annual Sunday School Picnic on June 20th. (20)

A casual day at Union Park. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
To compete with Eagle Point and attractions in other cities, a new theater was planned for the park. Aware that the old theater, stretched across the valley, had blocked the water and made the flood worse, designers planned a long rather than a very wide building. The cost of this design proved too expensive.

In place of a new theater, a dance pavilion was constructed at a cost of $30,000. (21) This ballroom, advertised as the largest in Iowa, opened on July 26, 1923. During the winter of 1923 extensive alterations were made including a large porch, check rooms, and a smoking room for men. The orchestra stand was redecorated as was the interior with Japanese rope "draped in wide arches to adorn the ceiling." (22) The large crystal ball light was removed and nine huge chandeliers were installed in its place with the largest in the center taking 84 light bulbs. Each of the others held 56. Several trees were removed for additional parking space. (23)

Union Park swimming pool. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Union Park Pagoda

The same year a swimming pool, said to be able to hold 2,000 bathers, was constructed to attract residents back to the park. The popular "Pavilion" was converted into a roller-rink.

Efforts to rekindle interest in Union Park failed as attendance remained low. In 1929 plans were made for a crowd of between five thousand to ten thousand farmers and their families to attend the Farm Picnic at Union Park. (24) In 1934 Interstate Power announced that Union Park would close.

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
One of the Union Park fountains.

In 1934 the park buildings were dismantled. One of the two statues that stood in front of the old Pavilion ended up in the yard outside the Ryan House restaurant along Locust Street. The other graced the patio of the former home of Joseph A. RHOMBERG. Union Park's dance hall was reassembled by workmen under the direction of Everett AKINS as the popular MELODY MILL on Sageville Road near the intersection of Highway 52 and John F. Kennedy Road. (25) For safety, the cave entrance was blasted shut. Wood from the roller coaster was made into a barn.

In March 1946 it was announced that the Dubuque YOUNG MEN'S CHRISTIAN ASSOCIATION (Y.M.C.A.) and the Boy Scouts were purchasing the park of sixty acres from INTERSTATE POWER COMPANY. (26) In March 1947 the "Y" announced that it would be attempting to obtain $15,000 for the camp. This was intended to be a day camp opened in the summer of 1948 with ultimate plan be the development of a complete summer camp with main lodge, cabins, handicraft shop and many other facilities. The first building to be constructed was to be a shelter from bad weather with cooking facilities. Camp Ahoma, the day camp operated by the "Y" for several years would be completely moved from the "Y's" headquarters to the new site. (27)

Union Park Camp was used as a residence camp until 1983. It was thereafter used as a day camp. (28) The Men's Club of the Y.M.C.A. has used funds from their Christmas tree sales and the annual lemonade stand at the County Fair to make improvements. Boy Scouts have also used the camp for projects.

In 2000, the YMCA and YWCA merged governing boards and staff under one corporate entity called the Dubuque Community Y. The YMCA and YWCA have retained their respective affiliations to their national organizations. Leadership at the Dubuque Community YMCA/YWCA began discussing the possibility of expanding the land use of YMCA Union Park Camp with a zipline tour in early 2010. It opened to the public in May 2011. All profits resulting from its operation are used to advance the mission of the Dubuque Community YMCA/YWCA throughout the community. (29)



Boge, Michael A. Union Park: A Place of Memories. Dubuque, Iowa, 1983

1. "Rich Rural Resort," Dubuque Daily Herald, April 26, 1891, p. 8. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18910426&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

2. "The Street Railway War," Dubuque Daily Herald, April 17, 1890, p. 4

3. Fryxell, David, "Union Park: A Place of Memories," Telegraph Herald, June 2, 1983, p. 6. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=rshFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1uwMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5651,177460&dq=union+park+dubuque&hl=en

4. "Cars to Linwood," Dubuque Daily Herald, June 15, 1890, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=_OG5zn83XeQC&dat=18900615&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. "Rich Rural Resort."

6. "Stewart Park Privileges," Dubuque Daily Herald, May 9 1891, p. 4

7. "Municipal Molecules," Dubuque Daily Herald, May 21, 1891, p 4

8. "Municipal Molecules," Dubuque Daily Herald, July 9, 1891, p. 4

9. "Will Dubuque Have a New Park?" Telegraph Herald, Mar. 31, 1906, p. 27. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=_eNBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1qkMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3572,769985&dq=union+park+dubuque&hl=en

10. "Dubuque Has Finest Car Service to be Found in the United States," Telegraph Herald, March 15, 1910, p.7

11. Ibid.

12. Ibid.

13. Heufelder, Bill. "Union Park," Telegraph Herald, January 20, 1962, p. 21

14. Ibid.

15. "'Beautiful Union Park' in Dallas," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, April 27, 1912, p. 2

16. New Amusement Policy at the Park," Telegraph Herald, July 3, 1910, p. 5. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=BW9CAAAAIBAJ&sjid=86oMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5533,8254906&dq=union+park+dubuque&hl=en

17. "Union Park to be Opened Wednesday," Telegraph Herald, May 23, 1921, p. 10. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=EYRiAAAAIBAJ&sjid=iHcNAAAAIBAJ&pg=4917,4291311&dq=union+park+dubuque&hl=en

18. "Union Park Opens With Band Concert," Telegraph Herald, May 31, 1914, p. 11. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ATliAAAAIBAJ&sjid=BXcNAAAAIBAJ&pg=2490,6535465&dq=union+park+dubuque&hl=en

19. "To Open Theater at Union Park," Telegraph Herald, May 26, 1918, p. 12. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=awteAAAAIBAJ&sjid=8V8NAAAAIBAJ&pg=1144,5138289&dq=motion+pictures+dubuque&hl=en

20. "Discuss Plans for Sunday School Parade," Telegraph Herald, June 11, 1922, p. 9. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=byBRAAAAIBAJ&sjid=W84MAAAAIBAJ&pg=2297,6631433&dq=union+park+dubuque&hl=en

21. "Open Park Dance Pavilion Tonight," Telegraph Herald, April 20, 1924, Part II, p. 1

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. "Everything Ready for Farm Picnic," Telegraph Herald, June 11, 1929, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=mXlFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=wrwMAAAAIBAJ&pg=5242,4256513&dq=union+park+dubuque&hl=en

25. "Union Park Dance Hall Dismantled; Moved to Airport," Telegraph Herald and Times Journal, Feb. 18, 1934, p. 3. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=Y75BAAAAIBAJ&sjid=xakMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3656,3198470&dq=union+park+dubuque&hl=en

26. "Dubuque's Premier Park," Telegraph Herald, July 4, 1993, p. 1

27. "Arrange Drive Next Month to Secure $15,000," Telegraph Herald, March 16, 1947, p. 1

28. "Y-Camp." (advertisement) Telegraph Herald, May 5, 2004, p. 34. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=aZldAAAAIBAJ&sjid=vVwNAAAAIBAJ&pg=3993,1012685&dq=union+park+dubuque&hl=en

29. "Dubuque Community Y," Online: http://www.dubuquey.org/about-us/

Storm ravaged sidewalk present in Union Park in 2009. Photo courtesy: Tyler Cooksley
Children's wading pool (2009).Photo courtesy: Tyler Cooksley
Swimming pool looking from the shallow toward the deep end (2009).Photo courtesy: Tyler Cooksley
Union Park Theater. Image courtesy: Joe Jacobsmeier
Children's playground
Park Scene
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Pavilion. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Ball room ticket. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Park Scene
Impossible to imagine destruction.
Destruction of gazebo. Photo courtesy: Bob Johnsen
The Playground. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding