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MASON, Roswell B.

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MASON, Roswell B. (Sept. 19, 1805 – Chicago, IL, Jan. 1, 1892) Roswell B. Mason was the engineer-in-chief of several important early American railroad enterprises in the 1840s, 1850s and 1860s in the United States, including the New York & New Haven Railroad, ILLINOIS CENTRAL RAILROAD, DUBUQUE AND PACIFIC RAILROAD and the DUNLEITH & DUBUQUE BRIDGE CO. In the same year that Mason, along with U.S. Congressman William Boyd ALLISON and Andrew CARNEGIE, finished the Dunleith & Dubuque Bridge, Mason ran for and was elected the mayor of Chicago, Illinois and served from 1869-1871. Mason was at the end of his term as mayor when the tale tells of Mrs. O’Leary’s cow kicking over a lantern and starting the Great Chicago Fire on October 8, 1871.

Mason first moved to the upper Midwest and Chicago when he was hired by the Illinois Central in 1851 as engineer-in-chief, overseeing all aspects of construction of the Illinois Central Railroad; some 705 miles of railroad track, bridges and depot buildings. Roswell B., or Col. Mason, as he was commonly called, had started his engineering career working in the engineering department constructing the Erie Canal. In 1837, Mason shifted his focus from canals to railroads when he took the position of chief engineer for the Housatonic Railroad. He became chief engineer and superintendent for the New York & New Haven Railroad in 1848. (1)

Mason and Benjamin B. PROVOOST, one of his eight associates who made up Mason's original corps of engineers used to build the Illinois Central Railroad, played key roles in early Dubuque railroad history. Provoost was given responsibility by Mason for building the portion of the Illinois Central Railroad that ran from Eldena, Illinois, near La Salle, to Dubuque, Iowa with the terminus in Dunleith (present-day East Dubuque), Illinois. (2)

In 1853, just two years after starting the construction of the Illinois Central, R. B. Mason and Robert Schuyler, president of the Illinois Central Railroad Company, along with Lucius Hart LANGWORTHY, Jesse P. FARLEY, Platt SMITH, U.S. Senator George Wallace JONES and other early Dubuque pioneers incorporated the Dubuque & Pacific Railroad. Col. Roswell B. Mason was elected engineer-in-chief of the Dubuque & Pacific Railroad, while serving the same role for the Illinois Central. (34)

In 1855 the Illinois Central was nearing completion so Mason, preparing for the next stage of his career, resigned as engineer-in-chief of the Dubuque & Pacific Railroads. B.B. Provoost was promoted to engineer-in-chief of the Dubuque & Pacific. Mason started to plan his move to Dubuque from Chicago and started a railroad construction company in Dubuque called ‘Mason, Bishop and Company’ with partner Ferris BISHOP. The company was hired by the Dubuque & Pacific to start construction on the railroad line from Dubuque to Dyersville, Iowa. (4)

In 1856, Mason resigned from the Illinois Central when the line was completed and moved to Dubuque, living on Locust Street between 13th and 14th Streets. Mason, Bishop and Company, along with the offices of the Dubuque & Pacific Railroad, and their lawyer Platt Smith, where located in the Julien Theater Building on the northwest corner of 5th and Locust Streets. (5)

In 1857, while Mason continued work on constructing the Dubuque & Pacific Railroad line, he took a break in September to travel to Chicago and testify in an Illinois Supreme Court case, Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Company, being defended by a prairie lawyer and corporate counsel for the Illinois Central by the name of Abraham Lincoln. Mason's testimony turned out to be key in Lincoln presentation before the High Court. Mason and Lincoln were already familiar with each other, both having spent the better part of the 1850s working for the board of directors of the Illinois Central. Lincoln as one of their corporate lawyers and Mason as their chief engineer. Lincoln won his precedent setting case on behalf of the Rock Island Bridge Company, bring him into the national spotlight as an able railroad attorney. (6)

In 1858, Mason was made president of the newly created Cedar Falls & Minnesota Railroad, a spur line to be built off of the Dubuque & Pacific Railroad, running from Cedar Falls, Iowa to Minneapolis, Minnesota. (7)

In 1859, Mason was made a director and president of the Northern Iowa Land Company. The Northern Iowa Land Company was established to sell land along the planned route line of the Cedar Falls & Minnesota Railroad to fund its construction and develop towns, businesses and opportunities throughout Iowa and Minnesota. (8)

In 1859, the gaunt prairie lawyer from Springfield, Illinois once again called upon his friend R.B. Mason to be a key witness in his last Illinois Supreme Court case, as well as the last suit on behalf of the Illinois Central that Abraham Lincoln would litigate; People v. Illinois Central Railroad Company. (9) It is probable that Lincoln met with Mason when he visited Dunleith and Dubuque July 16-18, in 1859, to discuss the case and answer questions state officials traveling with Lincoln might have regarding the construction, condition or current value of the Illinois Central Railroad. Lincoln was hosting a visual inspection of all 705 miles of the Illinois Central Railroad lines related to a state tax assessment dispute, trying to help the two parties come to an agreed on an assessment value for the properties of the Illinois Central. (10)

Mason made his way from Dubuque to Mount Vernon, Illinois to testify in the Illinois Supreme Court case the People v. Illinois Central Railroad, on November 11-12. Mason, along with Illinois Central Vice President George B. McClellan, served as Lincoln’s key witnesses in his presentation before the High Court. The Court would rule in favor of Lincoln and the railroad when they handed down their opinion in 1860, just one short year before Lincoln and McClellan were leading the defense of the Union in the CIVIL WAR. (11)

In August of 1859 Mason was elected to the board of directors of the Dubuque & Pacific Railroad and made a vice president. (12)

In 1860, Mason was elected president of the Dubuque & Pacific Railroad by the board of directors. In August of 1860, the Dubuque & Pacific Railroad was reorganized as the Dubuque & Sioux City Railroad with a new management structure. Mason remained on the board of directors of the Dubuque & Sioux City Railroad, but removed himself from any management positions. (13)

In 1861, Mason moved back to Chicago to take a job in the Illinois Central Land Department, and would later become corporate Comptroller, until his departure in 1867. (14)

In 1867, R. B. Mason was made chief engineer of the Dunleith & Dubuque Bridge Company and moved back to Dubuque, Iowa. Working with company president and U.S. Representative William Boyd ALLISON and legal counsel Platt SMITH, the men select the Key City Bridge Company and Andrew CARNEGIE to construct the bridge. The bridge was constructed in 1868 and on January 2, 1869, the last major construction project of Col. Roswell B. Mason's engineering career is opened for business. Eventually the Illinois Central would obtain rights to the Dunleith & Dubuque Bridge and the Dubuque & Sioux City Railroad (formerly the Dubuque & Pacific) and would stretch from New Orleans, Louisiana to Sioux City, Iowa. (15)

In 1869, Mason moved back to Chicago and was elected mayor. Towards the end of his term as mayor, the Great Chicago Fire broke out. Mason immediate called upon surrounding communities like Milwaukee, Detroit, St. Louis, and Dubuque for help. Personal telegram requests to friends in Dubuque did not fall on deaf ears. Dubuque would begin sending money and supplies to Chicago over the railroad bridge and tracks MASON had been responsible for constructing. (16)

Roswell B. Mason, American railroad pioneer, passed away in Chicago on January 1, 1892 and is buried in Rosehill Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois. Although he is primarily known for being mayor during the Great Chicago Fire, his greatest accomplishment is his construction of the first land-grant railroad in the United States, and the largest railroad every constructed up that point in time at 705 miles, the Illinois Central - running from Cairo, Illinois to Chicago and to Dunleith, Illinois, crossing over the mighty Mississippi River by way of the Dunleith & Dubuque Railroad Bridge and on to Dyersville, Iowa. (17)

Contributed by John T. Pregler. Read more about him and his website on the opening page of this encyclopedia.



1. History of the Illinois Central Railroad Company and Representative Employees . Chicago: Railroad Historical Company, 1900. 2. Ibid. 3. "Interesting Story on Early History of Iowa In Magazine." The Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal 20 November 1927: 1. 4. Ibid. 5. Adams, W.A. Directory of the City of Dubuque. Dubuque: Unknown, 1857. 6. "Law Intelligence." Chicago Tribune 21 September 1857: 1. 7. "Cedar Falls and Minneapolis R.R." Dubuque Daily Times 21 July 1859: 2. 8. Dubuque City Directory. Dubuque: Times Book and Job Rooms, 1859. 9. Brown, Charles L. "Abraham Lincoln and the Illinois Central Railroad, 1857-1860." Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society June 1943: 121-163. 10. Pregler, John T. "Mr. Lincoln for the Defense - Riding the Illinois Central - Dunleith and Dubuque Bound." July 2018. The Lens of History. Internet. July 2018. <https://thelensofhistory.com/2018/07/mr-lincoln-for-the-defense/>. 11. Corliss, Carlton J. Abraham Lincoln and the Illinois Central Railroad - Main Line of Mid-America. Illinois Central, 1888 12. "Dubuque and Pacific Railroad." The Daily Times 1 September 1859: 2 13. "Interesting Story on Early History of Iowa In Magazine." The Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal 20 November 1927: 1. 14. Mottier, C.H. Biography of Roswell B. Mason. Chicago: Western Society of Engineers, 1938. 15. Ibid. 16. The History of Dubuque County, Iowa, Chicago: Western Historical Conpany, 1880 17. Mottier