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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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1952 floodwall plan. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald
Permanent illustration along the floodwall of the project and its champion.

FLOODWALL. Despite nearly annual floods, the concept of a floodwall was unpopular in the 1950s. The DUBUQUE CHAMBER OF COMMERCE was deeply involved in aiding flood victims in 1951 and 1952. In addition to serving as a clearinghouse for information, it directly aided those under threat with its "minutemen." As the river level rose, three staff members of the Chamber acted as minutemen for businesses. Each person had a list of places potentially affected. Cooperating with the WEATHER BUREAU, each minuteman kept their businesses informed around-the-clock until danger passed. (1)

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

When the flood of 1952 receded, the Chamber began plans for flood control. A Citizens' Flood Control committee led by Frank Wagner, past president of the Chamber, developed a public relations program. Edward A. MCDERMOTT became the public relations director. (2)

As explained by city officials, the only solution to flooding was local financing. (3) Programs to explain the project were presented to civic groups. (4) City Manager LaVerne SCHILTZ explained that a $150,000 gift from the WAHLERT FOUNDATION plus an $80,000 grant that would be repaid if the city completed the entire project made dredging LAKE PEOSTA possible with using the removed material for a levee and developing CITY ISLAND as a recreation center. (5) McDermott envisioned the city receiving nationwide praise for proceeding on its own to solve the flooding problem. The Telegraph-Herald editorial board praised the Wahlert Foundation and the city. (6)

              The unsightly trash-strewn creek will be
              transformed into a place of utility and
              beauty...The gift to the city opens the
              way for scenic and recreational develop-
              ment as one of Dubuque's assets--its

Realizing that a detailed survey would be needed, the Chamber's Flood Prevention Committee and the Citizens' Flood Control Committee raised funds to hire engineers to determine the cost of constructing a levee. The price of $30,000 would cover the entire waterfront.

The engineers estimated that the cost of protecting the entire riverfront would be $1,865,000. When the survey mentioned that the dredging of Lake Peosta would make a meaningful start on the levee, work began. Late in September, 1952 a dredge working 24 hours daily began pumping sand from the river to a location beyond the end of 12th Street. (7)

Chamber contributions to the floodwall project continued. On November 12, 1952 a $10,000 check was presented to the city manager. The funds came from the Chamber's Post War Industrial and Civic Development Fund. Chamber officials noted that a third check for the same amount would also soon be delivered. (8)

A bill signed by Iowa Governor William S. Beardsley authorized Dubuque to finance flood control with general obligation bonds. Voters had a chance to approve or reject the bond issue in a special election. (9) In 1953 a two million dollar bond issue for the construction of a floodwall was defeated by 1,000 in a referendum in April, 1953. (10) Following the defeat of the bond issue, the DUBUQUE PACKING COMPANY constructed a dike from Fengler to 12th Street at its own expense.

After three years of field work, plans for a floodwall were presented to the Dubuque City Council by engineers from the U. S. Corps of Engineers on November 22, 1960. Unanimously approved by the council, the plans called for a floodwall costing $5.5 million with the city paying only $150,000 in addition to annual maintenance work. The levee would be 2.2 miles long from the Fengler St. extension south to MOORE'S MILL. Nothing could be done before Congress approved a Rivers and Harbor Bill. (11)

In 1962 President John F. Kennedy signed the bill approving navigation, beach erosion and flood control projects expected to cost more than $2.4 billion in federal expenditures and local participation by way of land easements, rights of way and occasionally cash outlays. Among the estimated 200 water projects was a $5.5 million flood control project for Dubuque. (12) The problem was that while the bill authorized construction of the floodwall, it did not appropriate any funds. (13)

Financial slowdown began in January, 1963 when President Kennedy's budget to Congress did not include any funds for Dubuque. A six-member Dubuque delegation traveled to Congress to meet with the Committee on Rivers and Harbors in an effort to speed action on the city's flood control program. (14) The Congress responded by appropriating $35,000 for fiscal year 1964 for planning.

President Johnson's budget in January 1965 included only $100,000 for planning in fiscal year 1965. In June, 1965 Mayor Robert J. HORGAN urged citizens to write President Johnson. (15) In his next budget request, President Johnson only included $150,000 for further detailed planning. The need for concerted effort was stated by Henry Miller, district president of the Mississippi Valley Association, a lobbying organization for projects in the Mississippi River valley. Lack of coordination with other cities was a definite problem with Dubuque being a potential example for future progress. (16)

In April 1965 the Mississippi River flood devastated the city with its worst damage since 1952 with destruction estimated at $6 million. (17) Representative (later Senator) John Culver brought key congressmen to Dubuque in 1965 to survey the damage. (18) The Army Corps of Engineers revised their plans and added an addition 1.8 miles to the levee. The cost estimate rose to $10 million with the city's share set at $500,000 for acquiring right-of-way. (19)

The city council in January, 1967 approved the plans and proposed a bond issue to cover the city's share of $1.2 million. Construction was delayed until 1968 due to complications acquiring easements. Culver assured Dubuque officials that a cutback of $80,000 would not affect the project. Congress approved $105,000 for floodwall construction for 1967 and $1.2 million for 1968. This and appropriations recommended for 1969 would be sufficient. (20)

Construction was done in three stages: 1) a levee from the 7th Street Harbor to south of Moore's Mill, 2) flood gates and a pumping station at the ICE HARBOR, and 3) a levee north from 7th Street to EAGLE POINT. (21)

A souvenir of the floodwall dedication. Photo courtesy: Bob Reding
Ceremonial shovel used by the mayor during groundbreaking ceremonies. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium

During the dedication ceremonies on August 4, 1973, a telegram of congratulations was read from President Richard Nixon who reminded those in attendance that the wall had prevented an estimated $4 million in damage from flood waters in 1973. Special praise was given to City Manager Gilbert D. CHAVENELLE who directed city efforts during three floods.

One of the unexpected benefits of the floodwall was passage of a national FLOOD INSURANCE program. Dubuque was expected to be the first city in the nation to qualify for the program because of the studies done by the Army Corps of Engineers. (22)

The floodwall faced a severe test during the record flooding of 1993. If the rains had continued after July 5th, at least two of the retention basins inside the wall would have overflowed. The pumps at the ICE HARBOR and Maus Park were tested and found to be too small to keep up with the rains early in the summer. Each of the basins were re-equipped with two 4,500-gallons-per-minute (gpm) pumps. The basin at Sutton Pool had two 18,000 gallons-per-minute pumps and a basin near Kerper Blvd. had two 10,000 gallons-per-minute gpm and a 20,000 gpm pump. (23)

In 2000 American Rivers, an environmental group, stated that decades of building dams, digging navigation channels and the construction of floodwalls and levees had led to species of fish living in fresh water to disappear as quickly as those in tropical rainforests. (24).

In 2018 officials of the City of Dubuque announced a new study which coincided with a similar study carried out by the Army Corps of Engineers. The purpose of the studies was to prepare for a possible breach in the floodwall. The current wall was designed to handle flood levels up to 28.3 feet. In 2018 the record flood had reached 26.81 feet.

The $80,000 study provided modeling to show how quickly water would spread if a break in the floodwall occurred. The level of the river and the location of the levee failure together with other factors were accounted for in the result. In one scenario, a break would cause the water level at CRESCENT COMMUNITY HEALTH CENTER to reach one foot in 8.6 hours with a doubling of the level soon afterwards. Using the models allowed officials to take the most efficient ways to deploy flood control measures. Individuals constructing buildings in an area could anticipate the maximum flood level and prepare. (25)

Popular walk atop the floodwall.



1. "Chamber Pushes Flood Control," Telegraph-Herald, February 11, 1953, p. 35

2. Ibid.

3. Kincaid, Dorothy. "Council Concludes: City Must Finance Own Flood Control," The Telegraph Herald, February 22, 1953, p. 17

4. "Flood-Control Story Told," Telegraph-Herald, March 25, 1953, p. 19

5. "Where City Will Begin Its Wall to Keep Out Flood Waters, Telegraph-Herald, July 20, 1952, p. 17

6. "Chamber Pushes..."

7. Ibid.

8. Ibid.

9. "Flood Control Estimate First," The Telegraph-Herald, February 15, 1953, p.

10. Glab, Jim. "Floodwall: A Study in Bureaucracy," Telegraph Herald, June 1, 1968, p. 37

11. Ibid.

12. "Kennedy Signs Flood Project Authorization," Telegraph-Herald, October 23, 1962, p. 1

13. Glab

14. " 'Tell President Flood Needs'," Telegraph-Herald, June 20, 1965, p. 25

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Glab

18. Ibid.

19. Ibid.

20. "Culver: Cuts Won't Stop Wall," Telegraph-Herald, June 16, 1968, p. 37

21. Glab

22. Templer, John, "Flood Insurance For Homes, But Not This Spring," Telegraph Herald, February 17, 1969, p. 1

23. Webber, Steve. "Floodwall Proves Its Worth," Telegraph Herald, September 26, 1993, p. 1

24. "Rivers Group: Mississippi Endangered," Telegraph Herald, April 9, 2000, p. 1

25. Jacobson, Ben, "City Studies Possible Floodwall Breach," Telegraph Herald, August 6 2018, p. 3A