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Encyclopedia Dubuque


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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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KILLEEN, John F. (County Mayo, Ireland, Nov. 27, 1844--Dubuque, IA, Oct. 13, 1938). Killeen was one of the last surviving riverboat captains from what has been described as the "golden age of river transportation." (1)

Coming north in 1861 at the start of the CIVIL WAR, Killeen and William Boland of Dubuque deserted the steamboat "Nebraska" to avoid being drafted into the Confederate army. Killeen found employment setting rigging for the steamer "Lansing," a stern-wheeler owned by Joseph "Diamond Jo" REYNOLDS. He was named the mate of the "Flora" at the age of eighteen. (2)

In 1866, after rigging a new boat called the "Diamond Jo," Killeen worked as a deckhand aboard the "Northern Light." While working in this capacity, Killeen saved a fortune from the stateroom of Reynolds after the boat on which they were traveling struck a snag and sank. By 1873 Killeen was employed as captain of Reynolds' "Imperial" and later the "Josie." (3)

Eagle Point Boat Yard. Photo courtesy: Murphy Library Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Between 1901 and 1911, Killeen served as Reynolds' general superintendent. On inspection trips, Killeen took along another man with a master's certificate to test the captain's navigational capabilities. This allowed Killeen time to visit the many company agents. Killeen was also the superintendent of the company's boatyard established at EAGLE POINT. (4)

Douglas Boardman built at the Eagle Point Boat Yard in 1881. Photo courtesy: Murphy Library Special Collections, University of Wisconsin-La Crosse.

Killeen's reputation for thoroughness was said to be extraordinary. Workers at the yard swore that he was capable of detecting a broken rivet "hidden beneath a board and a sitting worker." The quality of his supervision was witnessed by the fact that between 1870 and 1885 the company suffered no fires or boiler explosions at a time when the average life of a steamboat was five years. Killeen enjoyed a reputation as one of the river's experts on raising sunken ships. (5)

In 1891 Reynolds died and Killeen was elected the company vice-president. He became the superintendent in 1895 and served the company from 1906 until 1911 as general manager. (6)

Killeen was a principal stockholder in the DUBUQUE BOAT AND BOILER WORKS and reorganized it to become one of the most successful steel boat builders of the West. (7) He founded the DUBUQUE SAND & GRAVEL COMPANY INC. and served as its president. (8)



1. Foote, Frank. "Pioneer Rivermen Based Their Operations in Dubuque," Telegraph Herald, Sept. 11, 1964, p. 24. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=vn1FAAAAIBAJ&sjid=tLwMAAAAIBAJ&pg=4254,1479135&dq=steamboats+dubuque&hl=en

2. Ibid,

3. Ibid.

4. Ibid.

5. Ibid.

6. Ibid.

7. "Death Claims Famed River Captain Here," The Telegraph-Herald, October 14, 1938, p. 1 and Meaghan Killeen

8. Ibid.