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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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Photo courtesy: Tri-County Historical Society
"Plowing the Dillon Furrow," by Miss Shirley Shotwell ca 1958. Photo courtesy: Cedar Rapids Gazette
Marker placed along the Military Road south of Dubuque
Sign posted at First and Main designating the start of the Military Road in Dubuque.
Marker placed along the Military Road in Martelle
Marker placed along the Military Road in Solon

MILITARY ROAD. The idea for the road was delivered to Congress by W. W. Chapman, a delegate from Iowa Territory in 1826. Presented as a resolution, Chapman's proposal called for a road from Dubuque to Missouri by way of as many county seats as possible. (1) The path of the road was planned to pass through Dubuque, Jones, Linn, Johnson, Washington, Henry, and Van Buren counties in Iowa before reaching the Missouri border.

Congress approved the concept. President Van Buren signed the bill in March 1839, authorizing Iowa's first military road and twenty thousand dollars for surveying the location. (2) R. C. Tilghman, a Baltimore, Maryland, surveyor and engineer, was given the job of surveying the route, but a question remains how the road was completed. (3)

One account states that Tilghman employed Lyman DILLON of Cascade to plow a furrow using a breaking plow with a yoke of five oxen and under the guidance of an army engineer from Dubuque to Iowa City. (4) This has given the road the nickname "Dillon's Furrow." (5) Dillion was paid three dollars for each of the 86 miles. (6) The bronze plaque erected southwest of Key West along the Military Road states: "This Highway is The Old Military Road constructed originally in 1839 by James L. and Lucius Hart LANGWORTHY as a portion of the Government Road extending from Dubuque to the Northern Boundary of Missouri."

Controversy exists as to what extent the route was plowed. The official map on record in the National Archives in Washington, D.C. indicates the route stretched from Dubuque to Cascade, then northwest of Anamosa and Monticello, southeast of Martelle, and east of Solon. Whether Dillon followed this path may be questioned when driving through the area and viewing the rugged terrain. The suggestion that the plowing is a myth has been disproved. Edmund Booth, a pioneer from Anamosa, wrote in 1839:

                  As before said, the military road was being laid out, congress having
                  appropriated $20,000. We found a newly-broken furrow along one side
                  of the road, which, by the way, was merely a track through the grass
                  of the prairies, and a mound of turf raised three to 4 feet high at
                  intervals of a half mile, more or less. (7)

The mounds of turf mentioned in Booth letter were surveyor's mounds marking the course of the original survey.

The erection by the local chapter of the DAUGHTERS OF THE AMERICAN REVOLUTION of the monument marking the path of the Military Road near Dubuque was attended in 1926 by an estimated two hundred Dubuque residents. The tablet was a gift of James Currie COLLIER, a Langworthy relative. The committee responsible for placing the plaque and the dedication program consisted of Mrs. Mary Langworthy Bunting, Mrs. J. J. Roshek, and Mrs. G. D. Rose. Miss Susan Valeria Altman, a great-great granddaughter of the late Lucius Langworthy, and Massey Harris, another Langworthy relative unveiled the marker.

The exact path of the route is less important than what it accomplished. While seldom used by federal troops, the pathway was used by caravans of pioneers headed for California. The payment of twenty thousand dollars by Congress also marked an important first-time commitment to the Iowa Territory and encouragement for settlers to stay in this new land. The road was eventually taken over by the government and named Highway 161. (8) Today Highways 151 and 1 mark the approximate location of the road.

Report of the Secretary of War on the proposed road from Dubuque to Fort Dodge.

In 1850 the idea of a second military road was advanced.

      The undersigned citizens of Dubuque and the adjoining 
      counties most respectfully solicit and earnestly 
      request our honorable members of Congress to obtain 
      of the War Department the establishment of a military 
      road, commencing at Dubuque and terminating at Fort 
      Clark (Fort Dodge) on the Des Moines river:
      M. M. Hayden, J. H. Emerson, J. M. Marsh, George M. Henry,
      Henry S. Hetherington, William Donnellan, Peter Waples, 
      Charles Bogy, L. D. Randall, J. Sprague, Charles Corkey, 
      Timothy Fanning, E. D. Turner, S. R. West, C. H. Booth, 
      F. V. Goodrich, E. Langworthy, Owen Smith, I. E. Wootton, 
      B. J. O'Halloran, Michael Nolan, Patrick Byrne, 
      J. J. E. Norman, W. J. Sullivan, William Roche, 
      Francis Mangold, J. L. Langworthy, A. H. Miller, 
      Michael O'Brien, John Palmer, J. P. Farley, 
      Jacob Christman, A. Linn and Dennis A. Mahony. (9)

The object of this petition was, by opening such a road, to secure to Dubuque the trade at Fort Clark and other points on the upper Des Moines river ; that Fort previously had obtained all its supplies from Keokuk, which was distant 280 miles ; Dubuque was distant only 180 miles.

J. J. Abert of the topographical engineers, said:

        By the Nicollet map the distance from Dubuque to Fort Clark 
        is about 180 miles, and the distance from Fort Clark to the 
        mouth of the Des Moines about 300 miles. This last distance 
        is represented as the usual traveled distance with supplies, 
        making the difference between the routes — both are land 
        routes — of about 120 miles, the route from Dubuque being that 
        much shorter. This fact gives to the Dubuque route great 
        advantages. The only difference deserving of notice is that 
        to arrive at Dubuque, the Mississippi has to be ascended about 
        200 miles; but as this distance during the season when supplies 
        are forwarded can be passed by steamboats, it reduces a comparison 
        of the difference on this account between the routes to 200 miles 
        of steamboat navigation and 120 miles of land carriage. This fact 
        also gives to the Dubuque route great advantages. Under all 
        circumstances, therefore, the Dubuque route is much to be preferred 
        and the making of a road on this route would cost but little more 
        than half for a road on the other route. (10)

A military road was established by 1856 to Fort Dodge, but it ran from Benton County. (11)



1. "Lyman Dillon and the Military Road," Tri-County Historical Society. Online: http://www.tricountyhistoricalsociety.com/lyman-dillon-military-road.php

2. Briggs, John E. "The Old Military Road," The Palimpsest, Vol. 2 February 21 Np. 1. Online: http://iagenweb.org/history/palimpsest/1921-Feb.htm

3. Ibid.

4. Carstens, Walther,"A Furrow 86 Miles Long," Cedar Rapids Gazette, February 23, 1958, p. 3

5. "Discovering Historic Iowa Transportation Milestones," Iowa Department of Transportation, p. 7. Online: http://www.iowadot.gov/histbook.pdf

6. Tri-County Historical Society.

7. Carstens

8. McCormick, John. "Highway 151-Past and Present," Telegraph-Herald, July 9, 1970, p. 11

9. Oldt, Franklin T. and Patrickk J. Quigley, History of Dubuque County, Iowa, Chicago: Goodspeed Historical Association, 1890, p. 91

10. Ibid.

11. "The American Occupation of Iowa," Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 17 (No.1), January 1919, p. 100. Online: http://penelope.uchicago.edu/Thayer/E/Gazetteer/Places/America/United_States/Iowa/_Texts/journals/IaJHP/17/1/American_Occupation_of_Iowa*.html