"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN
Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.
CITY ISLAND. The island that has played such an important role in the history of Dubuque was originally named for Mathias HAM who once owned the land. (1)
The western portion of the island was purchased by Henry L. STOUT who hoped to use it for farming. Attempts to make the area productive, however, repeatedly failed and he gradually sold his interest. (2) City governments purchased more and more of the island. (3) The dense brush, however, encouraged criminals to use it for their escapes; during PROHIBITION illegal whiskey was produced there. (4)
The possibility of creating a city park from the region was explored in 1900. A special committee was organized around 1900 to explore the property rights of the city to the old bed of Lake Peosta and to the MISSISSIPPI RIVER. This committee found two separate acts of the Iowa General Assembly. The first approved on March 3, 1860 and the other on April 4, 1896 granted to the City of Dubuque all the beds of lakes, sloughs and ponds of water in Sections 17, 18 and 19 of Township 89 North which are east of the west meandered line of the west shore of Lake Peosta. The area of the bed of the lake with that of the ponds and sloughs contained in the grant by the state was more than 250 acres. The proposed park's western boundary was to begin on the south side of the foot of 12th Street and run 300 feet forth of the foot of 7th Avenue in Hams's Addition. Every cross street from 12th to 7th Avenue would intersect with the proposed park which would be just over 1.5 miles long. It was proposed that a deep channel between 50-100 feet wide would be maintained fro Eagle Point to an outlet on the main river above 8th Street. Material dredged from the river would be used to fill sloughs on the island. (5)
Once large enough to provide a seasonal airport for Dubuque, Ham's Island in the 1930s was considered an industrial location. According to the comprehensive city plan (1929-1936), "the development of Ham's Island primarily for industrial purposes is linked up with the idea of bringing river transportation service further into the present industrial section of the city by the relocation, widening and deepening of the Lake Peosta channel."
In 1930 part of the island was turned over to the poor. They planted gardens. Other poor constructed shacks on the southern end of the island created HOOVERVILLE. (6)
In 1933 the Dubuque City Council purchased 162 wild and woody acres of the island for $10,000. Unemployed men, recruited by the Civil Works Administration during the GREAT DEPRESSION, leveled trees, ripped out stumps and slashed away underbrush. After extensive grading, two runways, each 2,600 feet long and 100 feet wide, were constructed of MACADAM and cinder surface. The new airport was reached by a road linking the site to the foot of East 16th Street.
Operations at the City Island airport began in June 1934, when two DUBUQUE AIRWAYS INC. planes were flown to the site from NUTWOOD PARK. With no hangars or gas tanks, planes had to be tied down at night. Nutwood Park's metal hangar was later dismantled and rebuilt at the new site; a new hangar with an office was constructed within one year. Electricity was supplied by a portable gas-powered generator. There were "His" and "Her" outhouses.
The announcement was made in February, 1936 that the Works Progress Administration had approved $78,000 toward the construction of a "river front drive" on the island. Further payments would be received toward the estimated cost to be in excess of $800,000. East 16th Street would be extended directly east to the river. A highway would be constructed along the shore of the island north to Hawthorne Street with a bridge connecting that street and the island. An estimated four hundred men would be hired to begin work with eventually six hundred on the payroll. The river drive would be constructed south on the island as far as East 7th where a turn-around would be built. At the north end of the island at the Hawthorne Street approach and above the bridge a boat harbor would be created. (7)
Business at the City Island airport was not brisk. Lewis Boxleiter, Collins' successor as airport manager, applied for a low-flying permit and inspected high transmission lines when foul weather prevented linemen from driving over snow-drifted roads. Each spring because of floods the planes had to be flown to high ground in Waterloo, Iowa, or Galena, Illinois. In 1938 sixty-four days of business at the City Island airport were lost due to flooding. The airport flooded from March 31 until April 17 in 1939. It was submerged again on April 28.
Flying instruction began in earnest in January 1940, with the start of the Civilian Pilots Training Program. After the start of WORLD WAR II, a new hangar was constructed. During the war, a Liberator bomber had problems and landed on the island. The plane, unable to take off, was dismantled and transported out of town on the Milwaukee Railroad. (8) The navy's objection to the city's inadequate airport led the Chamber of Commerce to conduct a survey as a first step in establishing a first-class airport for the city. The City Island airport was closed in September 1948. The Dubuque (Regional) Municipal Airport was dedicated October 24, 1948.
The Dubuque Sports Bowl replaced the airport on the north side of the island. Although the track was little more than a "little round circle," races were held every Saturday night until the track closed in the 1960s. (9) John William RILEY remembered local police blocking off a road on the island so that the POWERS AND RILEY RACING TEAM could test their race car. (10)
The island was also used as the city's GARBAGE COLLECTION landfill. In January 1950, the city began the "land fill" method of rubbish disposal. This was described at the time by Dr. Albert J. Entringer, city health director, as "the major city part of a recently started rodent control program." (11) Under the system, there was only one legal dump in the city--near the east end of 16th Street. Instead of simply dropping rubbish at a site and then burning the paper, a trench 7'-8' deep and 12'-15' wide was dug. When the trench was filled, a grader flatten the material and then covered it with two feet of dirt to prevent RATS from reaching the rubbish. (12) The old dump, west of the island, was leveled and covered. In the 1950s and 1960s wetlands were commonly used for dumps. Filling in marshes was seen as a means of providing a place for garbage and land reclamation. Sand dredged from the channel was used to cover the refuse.
In April, 1950 the Dock Board announced that it had agreed to buy four lots on "Ham's Island" for $30,000. This would make the island entirely city owned. The city had wanted the land for several years. Around 1948, the council had ordered condemnation proceedings to gain it. This had been held up over legal difficulties over which city agency would buy them and where the money could be obtained. (13)
Following WORLD WAR II, many of the nation's industries began constructing branches across the United States. Dubuque officials wanted a chance to attract this business. With the approval of a $2 million referendum in 1955, dredging began to fill in sloughs and raise the land level of the island above flood stage. The work resulted in a 215-acre industrial site of which 135 acres could be used for new plants. (14)
In 1956 the DUBUQUE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE also began a special assessment to increase its business recruitment fund. (15) Recruitment was hampered because city leaders at first required a business to have the funds to buy the property. In addition, new businesses had to agree to hire a specifies number of workers for each acre purchased. Officials were also not eager to sell land to firms already established in Dubuque. (16)
The first success story came in August 1956 with Harnischfeger Corporation announcing it had purchased 74-acres with the intention of building a $10 million plant employing 800 workers. By 1969 more than 27 plants were located in the first of the INDUSTRIAL PARKS. (17)
By the early 1970s, the federal government's support of old practices of waste disposal was beginning to change. The use of City Island as a landfill ended in August, 1976 when the dump on the island was closed and the DUBUQUE METROPOLITAN LANDFILL west of the city along Highway 20 was opened.
On March 24, 1980, the Dubuque City Council renamed City Island in memory of Chaplain Aloysius SCHMITT. The name, Schmitt Island, had been lobbied for by fifty-four civic leaders. Lobbying by the Chaplain Schmitt Park Committee for the change in name began soon after the announcement that the city planned a softball-baseball complex on the island where a memorial to Schmitt already stood. The same committee promoted the adoption of naming a road to honor Maurice S. SHEEHY.
In 1983 questions of whether the ground used as a landfill was contaminated were raised in the city council. No records had been kept as to what materials had been buried. Samples of soil were studied at Iowa State University and LEAD levels were not found to be of concern. (18)
In 1983 the 217-acres provided 1,308 jobs and $563,000 in local property taxes. The land was assessed at more than $15 million. (19)
By 2010 the land was the site of the MILLER RIVERVIEW PARK, DUBUQUE GREYHOUND PARK AND CASINO,MCALEECE SPORTS COMPLEX, VETERANS MEMORIAL PLAZA, and the MYSTIQUE COMMUNITY ICE CENTER. (20) The same year Dubuque City Manager Michael VAN MILLIGEN estimated that businesses on the island generated an estimated $7 million to $8 million in revenue for the city.
On July 21, 2014 the city council approved a 54-page document for future developments of the island. The planning process had begun earlier in the year when the Cunningham Group was chosen to identify opportunities on the city-owned property. The Group announced that the city objectives were best realized by dividing the area into three sections--Island Resort, Lake Peosta Recreational Channel and the Marina Village. The Group did not recommend any flood protection upgrades citing flood walls and levees would cause access problems. (21)
In December 2015 a nine-person committee of DUBUQUE RACING ASSOCIATION board members, local governmental officials, and representatives from MYSTIQUE CASINO was announced to consider options to improve the island. (22)
The Dubuque City Council approved a planned unit development rezoning on the Chaplain Schmitt Island leading to changes approved in a 2014 master plan. The master plan shows the island split up into three sections that would boast more walking trails, more recreational opportunities, and more retail. (23)
Some people in Dubuque were upset to hear the city's latest plans. They included possibly getting rid of Miller Riverview Campground and converting it into an elevated boardwalk. The park is located along the Mississippi River, which often flooded the area when the river level rose too much. John Miller was emotional at the thought of the place he grew to love, and continued to maintain everyday, may not exist in the future. His parents, John Miller Sr. and Mary Miller, were co-founders of the campground. (24)
City leaders have said the island is not being used to its full potential. Remarks were made that the council wanted to "dress up that area to attract more people to the island, to see the memorials, to visit the casino, visit the restaurants, visit the ice arena, and really make it a destination and attraction for everybody." Kevin Lynch, chairperson of the Chaplain Schmitt Island Task Force, claimed the campground is lacking in amenities. There are private ones in the area that can serve the same purpose. (25)
In general, the plans called for making the island more noticeable. According to the presentation by consultants, some people did not realize it was an actual island. To help attract people year-round, the plan included adding an amphitheater for up to 15,000 people, a recreation tower with zip-lining or events like weddings, and lighting the Wisconsin Bridge with bright colors. (26)
In October, 2017 Dubuque city leaders had changed their minds about possibly getting rid of Miller Riverview Park & Campground. The concern was that one part of the plan called for building over the campground. Despite the campground often flooding, people found enjoyment there which was the goal of the Task Force. According to city officials, the plan is still being worked on. The first phase of the project is estimated to cost $3.1 million.
The Chaplain Schmitt Island Plan became a top priority for the city staff in 2021. The island that was home to the Q CASINO and the MYSTIQUE COMMUNITY ICE CENTER was in line for improvements to infrastructure including improvements to roadways leading to and on the island, new trails and the potential of a boardwalk around the island's perimeter. A project had already been designed to make improvements to 16th Street including three ROUNDABOUTS along the road, significant improvemets to Elm Street and a pedestrian and vehicle overpass on 14th Street. The city had already applied for a $3 million grant from the U. S. Department of Transportation's RAISE to fund the design of the project. After the design was funded, city officials looked to using funds from the $1.2 trillion federal infrastructure bill. (27)
1. "Lake Peosta Dredging Due to Start Next July," Telegraph Herald, May 8, 1955, p. 21
2. Kraske, Steve. "Dubuque Industrial Park Rose From Notorious Swamp," Telegraph Herald, June 26, 1983, p. 33
3. "Lake Peosta Dredging..."
5. "City Council," The Dubuque Herald, February 24, 1900, p. 7
6. "Turning Points," Telegraph Herald, September 25, 1983, p. 12
7. "Project Will Mean Jobs for Over 400 Men," Telegraph-Herald, February 2, 1936 p. 1
8. Shaffer, James L. and Tigges, John. Dubuque: The 20th Century, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing Company, 2000, p. 98. Online: http://books.google.com/books?id=ZvllAMUoTP8C&pg=PA98&lpg=PA98&dq=City+Island+%28dubuque%29&source=bl&ots=SqBaJTVCts&sig=t27nbSWFHMGP82__wrYctQmojcY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=77H2U6u5MoKnyAT_2IG4Aw&ved=0CGcQ6AEwCDgK#v=onepage&q=City%20Island%20%28dubuque%29&f=false
9. Reber, Craig D. "A Jewel in the River," Telegraph Herald, February 14, 2010, p. 1A
10. Interview with John Riley
11. "City Buries Garbage in Rat War," Telegraph Herald, January 22, 1950, p. 17. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19500122&printsec=frontpage&hl=en
13. "Delay Purchase of Island Lots," Telegraph-Herald, April 3, 1951, p. 6
14. "Turning Points," p. 12
15. Kraske, "Dubuque Industrial Park Rose From Notorious Swamp"
16. "Turning Points, p. 12
18. Krase, Steve. "Second Test Clears Schmitt Island Soil," Telegraph Herald, September 13, 1983, p. 2
19. Kraske, "Dubuque Industrial Park Rose From Notorious Swamp"
20. "Dubuque Honors Chaplain Killed on December 7, 1941." KCRG.com. Online: http://www.kwwl.com/story/16214103/first-catholic-chaplain-to-die-in-wwii-from-dubuque
21. Jacobson, Ben. "Council OKs Plan for Island." Telegraph Herald, July 22, 2014, p. 1
22. Montgomery, Jeff, "Lynch to Lead Schmitt Island Makeover," Telegraph Herald, December 16, 2015, p. 3A
23. Hanson, Brad. "Changes in the Works for Dubuque's Chaplain Schmitt Island," KWWL.com. April 7, 2017, Online: http://www.kwwl.com/story/35094101/2017/4/7/changes-in-the-works-for-dubuques-chaplain-schmitt-island
24. Descorbeth, Shirley. "Some Don't Agree with Chaplain Schmitt Island Upgrades, Possible Plans to Remove Campground," KWWL.com Online: http://www.kwwl.com/story/35969589/2017/7/28/some-dont-agree-with-chaplain-schmitt-island-upgrades-possible-plans-to-remove-campground
26. Descorbeth, Shirley. "Miller Riverview Campground To Stay, Ppgrades for Chaplain Schmitt Island Moving Forward," KWWL.com October, 12, 2017, Online: http://www.kwwl.com/story/36585753/2017/10/12/miller-riverview-campground-to-stay-upgrades-for-chaplain-schmitt-island-moving-forward
27. Kruse, John, "City OKs Schmitt Island Improvement Plan," Telegraph Herald, September 14, 2021, p. 1A