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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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Grave markers from the Third Street Cemetery on Kelly's Bluff. Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

KELLY'S BLUFF. Originally Kelly's Bluff was considered to extend from behind ST. RAPHAEL'S CATHEDRAL on the east all the way to Burch Street on the west and from Dodge Street on the South to West Third on the north. (1) It was named for the mysterious miner, Thomas KELLY who may have buried a fortune in gold on the site. (2)

In the late 1800s, the area was a popular picnic site. In July, 1867 the Herald noted it was even the site of an encampment of from twenty to thirty Native Americans. The paper noted "occasional inroads were made into town for provisions, &c the "&c" stands for whiskey, mostly." (3)

Many people searched the area for Kelly's buried gold. On August 28, 1869, a nine-year-old boy named Peter Fortune discovered $1,800 in gold coins in a tin can. Most of it was American coinage, but some was Canadian. This was divided among the heirs with the boy receiving $55 in reward. (4) A second search was almost immediately made and a man by the name of George Ellis, a distant relative of the Kelly, found $1,800 in another tin can. (5) In 1900 two boys herding cattle on the bluff discovered a small iron chest. Taking the box to Elizabeth Kelly, a sister of Thomas Kelly, the three broke the lock and found $10,000 in ten and twenty dollar gold coins. A story in the late 1990s said that an employee of the JOHN DEERE DUBUQUE WORKS made a large find, but did not tell others. Over the years, according to the story, he sold off the coins he found. This story, however, was never proven. (6)

Troop 2 of the Dubuque Boy Scouts developed a summer meeting place on the Bluff in 1929.

In 1946 the ARCHDIOCESE OF DUBUQUE filed a petition with the clerk of the District Court of Iowa. It stated that Kelly's Bluff described as Out Lots 693A, 698 and 723; Lot 9 of Out Lot 598; Lot 2 and Lot 2-1 of Out Lot 694; Lot 2 of Out Lot 697; Lot 19 of Out Lot 24; Lot 2-1 of Out Lot 725; Lot 2 of Out Lot 726; and Lot designated as "R. Catholic Graveyard" (See: THIRD STREET CEMETERY) all in the City of Dubuque, Iowa was owned by the Archdiocese subject to a trust under the will of John HENNESSY stating that the property was to be used for the erection of a New Theological Seminary. The seminary was never constructed; it was impracticable to do so. The will also provided a legacy of $50,000 for the same purpose. The petition stated that the trust had been fully executed by using the property or the equivalent value for the maintenance and operation of the "philosophical department" of LORAS COLLEGE which under the Cy-pres Doctrine was a suitable substitute since it accomplished the dominant purpose and charitable intention of the donor. The Archdiocese asked the court for the authority to now sell the property and turn the proceeds of the sale over to Loras College. Having taken these action, the Archdiocese asked that the court rule that the trust was terminated. (7) At the time this petition was presented it was not mentioned that serious work had begun on the proposed seminary by 1898. Excavation had begun and foundations were erected of stone and brick at an estimated cost of $20,000. In 1898 Archbishop Hennessy even petitioned the city council to exempt the taxes on the seminary under construction. (8) With the death of Bishop Hennessy, the idea and the foundations were abandoned. (9)

The foundations did yield one positive artifact. In 1899 during the digging of the foundations, one of Kelly's molds were found. In the early-1800s, lead ore was formed into 100-lb. "pigs." To avoid any confusion between the "pigs" belonging to him or to other miners, Kelly had molds made so that when the lead was poured into them Kelly's name appeared on one one. The mold was later displayed at the COLUMBIA MUSEUM OF HISTORY, ART, AND SCIENCE. (10)

Beginning in 1914, a new water reservoir was constructed on Kelly's Bluff. The project was completed in March, 1915. (11)

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

During construction in July, 1976 of a $3.7 million condominium and apartment complex developed by Wayne Andrew NORMAN, Sr. and Wesley W. Heitzman, a skeleton, some bones from another body and rotted wood were discovered. It was believed that these remains were part of the Catholic Cemetery. The bones were interred at MOUNT OLIVET CEMETERY. (12)

In 1977 the city considered a plan to build a walkway through the bluff property at 5th and Bluff Streets. (13)



1. McDougall, Tom. "Will They Find His Treasure?" Telegraph-Herald, August 24, 1969, p. 19

2. "Here's Another Picture-query," Telegraph-Herald, August 20, 1937, p. 4

3. "Native Americans," The Herald, July 15, 1867, p. 4

4. "The Tom Kelly Treasure," The Herald, August 29, 1868, p. 7

5. McDougall

6. Dubuque Folklore. American Trust and Savings Bank. 1976

7. "Original Notice," Telegraph-Herald, January 14 1946, p. 11

8. "Berg Names Citizens to Assist Council," The Dubuque Herald, September 16, 1898, p. 15

9. "Kelly's Bluff, Its Ancient Cemetery, and Foundation of Proposed But Abandoned Seminary; History," The Telegraph-Herald, October 25, 1914, p. 25

10. "Tom Kelly's Story Told by Museum," Telegraph-Herald, February 14, 1940, p. 7

11. "Pouring Cement at Big Reservoir," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, March 9, 1915, p. 2

12. "Kelly's Bluff Stories Spoke of Gold, but Forgot to Mention the Skeleton," Telegraph Herald, July 14, 1976, p. 4

13. Good, Stephen. "The Bluffs Stand Man's Test for 150 Years," Telegraph Herald, January 14, 1977, p. 8