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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.”
Marshall Cohen—researcher and producer, CNN

Affiliated with the Local History Network of the State Historical Society of Iowa, and the Iowa Museum Association.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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Dubuque Custom House and Post Office. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald and Center for Dubuque History

DUBUQUE CUSTOM HOUSE AND POST OFFICE. The fifth act of the First Congress of the United States established fifty-nine customs collection districts in the eleven states that had signed the Constitution. (1) The Service was to aid and protect the new nation from bankruptcy by providing the country with its first form of revenue to pay for public roads and land purchases.

The act placed a duty on goods, wares and merchandise imported into the country. Any designated harbor set aside by the federal government where vessels unloaded good was designated a "port of entry." Through the tireless efforts of Senator George Wallace JONES, an act of Congress in 1858 made Dubuque an official "port of entry." (2) E. Spottswood, the first Surveyor of Customs, initially operated an office at 110 Main Street near the river. It was his job to assess, register and license boats and vessels, detect fraud or smuggled goods and preserve copies of all documents issued. (3) Senator Jones also petitioned Congress to appropriate money for a custom house. The contract was awarded to the firm of John Bostater and Jacob Fonts which offered the low bid of $87,344.50 for the project. (4)

In late 1858 construction on the three-story limestone building was started at the corner of Ninth and Locust STREETS. (5) Designed by Ely S. Parker, a former colonel on the staff of Ulysses S. Grant, the Custom House and Post Office was completed in 1866 at a cost of $175,000 or almost double the original estimate due to interruptions caused by an economic panic and later by the CIVIL WAR. Cut limestone, supplied by Mathias HAM, was said to have come from the ruined Mormon Temple at Nauvoo, Illinois. The new building housed the Surveyor of Customs, Post Office, Internal Revenue Service and the U.S. District Court. When Customs moved into the new building, Jesse M. Harrison was the surveyor. (6)

Tea, one of the principal products imported through Dubuque, came primarily to the MCFADDEN COFFEE AND SPICE COMPANY and the firm of JOHN T. HANCOCK & SONS. (7) Customs duty at ten cents a pound resulted in a great source of income for the government. (8) Other imports included tobacco from Havana, Cuba for BRADLEY BROTHERS and glassware, lamps and china for the C.H. LITTLE, BECKER AND COMPANY and the BECKER-HAZLETON COMPANY. (9)

The Dubuque Herald reported in December 1873 that "a number of artisans" were employed at the Custom House boring holes in the stone walls for fastenings upon which storm doors would hang. These doors were to "protect the inside of the post office from the pelting snows and rains." The editorial stated it was a "good idea if not extravagant." (10)

In December, 1874 Major General A. C. Smith, a government architect, arrived from Chicago. The major's orders were to plat out the proposed government park at the rear of the custom house. The park was to be surrounded with an iron fence, similar to the fence around the Chicago custom house. A grassy area with gravel walks and settees would make up the remaining improvements. (11)

In 1897 interest was shown in enlarging the building. In supporting the need for the construction, evidence was shown of the growth in postal business over a five year period between June 30, 1889 to June 30, 1895: (12)

              Item                1889           1895
            Population          30,311          40,633
            Sale of stamps      47,939          63,271
            Letter carriers         13              17
            Street letter boxes     72             116
            Rented mail boxes      172             220
            Every day there were 419 pouches and tie sacks of mail dispatched.
            RAILWAY POST OFFICE arrivals came nine times daily.
            There were forty-six outgoing and incoming mails to Dubuque daily.          

In 1900 legislation sponsored by David B. HENDERSON led to the construction of an annex to the north side of the customs house which nearly doubled its size. (13) This new addition was used in part by railway mail clerks who were provided on the third floor with a dormitory, meeting rooms, and work rooms. (14) An elevator was installed in the main building. (15) The installation of a boiler and heating apparatus in the annex also made it possible for the federal government to heat its own building. Prior to the construction of the annex, heat was provided by the company which owned the BANK AND INSURANCE BUILDING. (16)

In 1921 city officials discussed purchasing the building as a replacement for the DUBUQUE CITY HALL. During the GREAT DEPRESSION, the federal government consolidated many customhouses to save money. (17) The Port of Dubuque was closed in 1933. The building was demolished in 1947 to allow construction of the Northwestern Bell Telephone Company offices. (18)

Other custom surveyors included:

Delos E. LYON 1875-1883

Robert Armstrong 1883-1887

Owen McLoughlin 1887-1890

George FENGLER 1890-1894

William J. Sweeney 1894-1896

John M. LENIHAN 1896-1912

Conrad B. Scherr 1912-1915

N.E. Winnie 1915-1918

J. L. Green 1918-1921

Conrad B. Scherr 1921-1933



1. "History," Customs and Border Protection website. Online: http://www.cbp.gov/xp/cgov/about/history/

2. Kruse, Len. My Old Dubuque, Dubuque, Iowa: Center for Dubuque History-Loras College, p. 24

3. Ibid.

4. "The Custom House, Post Office and Court House at Dubuque," The Keokuk Saturday Post, April 4, 1857, p. 2. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=7xJcAAAAIBAJ&sjid=9FQNAAAAIBAJ&pg=3418,2620948&dq=dubuque+custom+house&hl=en

5. Kruse, p. 24

6. Ibid., p. 25

7. Ibid.

8. Kruse, Len. "Custom House Knew Its Duty," Telegraph Herald, February 23, 1988, p. 28. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=UY5dAAAAIBAJ&sjid=j1wNAAAAIBAJ&pg=4586,4575501&dq=dubuque+custom+house&hl=en

9. Kruse, p. 25

10. "Storm Doors," Dubuque Herald, December 2, 1873, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18731202&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

11. "The Custom House Park," The Daily Herald, December 31, 1884, p. 3

12. "Dubuque Favored," Dubuque Herald, February 10, 1897, p. 5

13. "Uncle Sam's Building," Dubuque Daily Herald, January 28, 1900, p. 5. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=ThhBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=cKgMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4851,7762219&dq=dubuque+custom+house&hl=en

14. "Cosy (sic) Quarters," Dubuque Daily Telegraph, August 12, 1901, p. 2. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=3VZBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=3qgMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3744,5228278&dq=dubuque+custom+house&hl=en

15. "Custom House Elevator," Dubuque Daily Herald, January 3, 1900, p. 5. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=OhhBAAAAIBAJ&sjid=cKgMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4151,5966322&dq=dubuque+custom+house&hl=en

16. "The Contract Let," Dubuque Daily Telegraph, October 5, 1901, p. 2

17. Ibid., p. 26

18. Kruse, p. 28.