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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.


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GOLD. Dubuque may have a fortune in gold hidden by Thomas KELLY, a secretive miner, on the bluff behind ST. RAPHAEL'S CATHEDRAL.

"Gold fever" based on the news from California struck Dubuque on October 20, 1848. Carrying the title, "Gold in California," the article in the Dubuque Tribune reprinted a letter from Thomas O. Larkin who had actually visited the gold fields. (1) The lateness in the year prevented anyone for considering leaving Dubuque and traveling overland. Those who had the financing and the urge to act immediately were given only one choice. They could travel down the MISSISSIPPI RIVER to New Orleans. It was then a choice of attempting a voyage to Panama or taking the dangerous trip around the tip of South America and then up the coast of South America to California. If the shorter trip to Panama was chosen, a dangerous trek had to be made across the isthmus to find another boat on the Pacific Coast side to travel to California. While it is difficult to know for certain who many Dubuque residents left for the gold fields or when, there is a record of four men leaving on January 1, 1849 for Panama. (2)

On December 30th a public meeting in the DUBUQUE COUNTY COURTHOUSE led to an organization of those wishing to travel to the gold fields. On March 19, 1849, fourteen wagons of gold seekers crossed the MISSISSIPPI RIVER at Dubuque. The Galena and Dubuque Mining Company organized fifty-three teams which crossed the Great Plains in 1849. (3) In 1850 the Dubuque Emigrating Association of fifty-four men and twenty wagons left for California. (4)

Whatever their reasons trying their luck in the gold fields, every person was faced with financing their trip. The average LEAD miner in Dubuque in 1850 earned one dollar per day and worked six days per week for an annual salary of $312. That amount also happened to be the estimated cost for overland travel. The miner also had to plan on an additional $300 for costs involved while mining. For those unfortunate enough not to find gold, there was, of course, the cost of the trip home. Among the methods of raising this money such as family loans, there must have been a large amount of "selling out" back home.(5)

The closing out of businesses was one impact of the gold rush on Dubuque. While the loss of population and business hit small towns devastating blows, the gold rush had very little effect on Dubuque. The number of immigrants substantially outpaced the number of those who left to participate in the gold rush. Klein mentions in his book that among the factors which were more important in Dubuque was the absence of easily mined lead. The more expensive underground mines needed equipment to remove water. The migrants moving through Dubuque brought money to the city which was used to purchase supplies. The property which had been quickly sold at a fraction of its worth, encouraged sales to people who could suddenly afford the prices being charged. (6)

Dubuque had its own gold rush in 1858. An individual, camping with friends on Ham's Island (later known as CITY ISLAND), reportedly kicked up a glistening stone from the sand. Thinking it was gold, he hurried to an assay office where the sample was found to contain gold. Wishing to know whether more gold existed in the area, the city financed ten prospectors to conduct a more exhaustive search. Over the next week more gold-bearing quartz rock was found but nothing like the hoped-for bonanza. Each prospector did, however, earn more than ten dollars per day. Gold was also found at LAKE PEOSTA, along CATFISH CREEK, and in some gullies and ravines in West Dubuque. (7)

The discovery of gold near Pike's Peak in Colorado led to wagon trains using the Dubuque ferry to cross the Mississippi. Records kept by the Express and Herald indicated the following traffic: April 24--3 wagons, April 25--22, April 26--14, April 27--19, April 28--18, April 29--10, April 30--4. There were a total of 611 for the year through May 12, 1859. (8)

In 1877 the Dubuque Herald announced that interested prospectors "out for a drive" should take the road near McKnight Springs toward Thompson's Mill. Near a section of road with high hills and deep gullies gold had been discovered. (9)

The discovery of gold in Alaska led an estimated eight to ten Dubuque men to leave for the Klondike on February 1, 1898. They left on the CHICAGO AND GREAT WESTERN RAILWAY for Seattle and then planned to proceed over the Chilkoot pass. A second party of between eight and ten members were to leave two weeks later. (10)

On Thursday, March 9,1933, Congress passed laws outlawing the private ownership of gold. This action led Dubuque residents in a single day to exchange $100,000 in gold for paper money.

The pursuit of gold was intertwined with efforts of Archbishop Francis J.L. BECKMAN to establish a world-class museum at LORAS COLLEGE.

The premier resource for the effects of the California gold rush on Dubuque was written by Robert F KLEIN.



1. Klein, Robert F. Dubuque During the California Gold Rush, Charleston, SC: The History Press, 2011, p. 31

2. Ibid., p.36

3. Oldt, Franklin T. and Patrick J Quigley. The History of Dubuque County, Iowa, Chicago: Goodspeed Historical Association, 1890, p. 84

4. Ibid., p. 89

5. Klein, p. 104

6. Ibid.

7. "Thar Was Once Gold in Them Hills-Maybe," Telegraph Herald, Mar. 7, 1960, Dubuque News, p. 1

8. "Pike's Peak Teams," Express and Herald, May 12, 1859, p. 3

9. "Is It Gold?" Dubuque Herald, May 8, 1877, p. 4

10. "Ready for Alaska," The Dubuque Herald, January 30, 1898, p. 8