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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.


From Encyclopedia Dubuque
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Photo courtesy: Larry Friedman
Alpine Zinc Mining Company

MINING. Dubuque is situated in what was called the Northwestern district including land in Iowa and Illinois. Much of the richest LEAD-bearing ore was found within a few miles of Dubuque. The bluffs were found to contain four layers. Beginning at the river's edge, these were clay soil, shale, galena limestone containing lead, and blue limestone.

Lead-bearing ore. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

Mining first successfully carried out by Native Americans brought many of the first white miners to this region of the country. Lead-bearing ore existed in such quantity that early mining techniques, while crude, proved successful.

Lead was used by Native Americans around Dubuque for decorating their clothing and pendants to wear. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

Native Americans used exposed deposits called "float" to lead them to vast underground quantities of lead. The natives worked with a variety of tools, including sharpened sticks and antlers, long before white traders supplied them with shovels and picks.

After exposing the ore-bearing rock, the natives set large fires on the area to heat the stone. Cold water thrown on the heated rock caused it to break and therefore expose more lead. Mining was primarily considered women's work although they received some help from the old men who no longer hunted.

Lead was melted and poured into molds like this to create "pigs" for shipment. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

Native Americans dug into the ground at such an angle that they were able to walk in and out of the mining area. Vertical shafts were never dug. Native Americans were equally crude in their smelting techniques. When enough ore was obtained, layers of ore were sandwiched between layers of wood and dry brush. When a large pile was finally created, a fire was set. After the blaze burned down, the lead was uncovered in sheets mixed with pieces of charcoal, wood, and ash. Occasionally these sheets were remelted and poured into molds. These "pigs" were stacked along the riverbank for shipment.

The first records of activity by white miners in the Dubuque area began soon after 1690 when Nicholas PERROT established a fort and trading post across the MISSISSIPPI RIVER from present-day Dubuque. Given the primitive conditions of the wilderness, the river immediately became the principal means of transporting the ore. The growth of St. Louis can be traced to the rapid development of the lead mining industry in the Midwest.

Initially white miners used the Native American techniques but soon attempted to improve both the method of mining and smelting. While both white and Native American miners looked for surface deposits and clues to large underground deposits, white miners ignored these surface amounts and quickly started digging. Square shafts, often timbered to keep them from collapsing, were sunk into the ground. When the layer of shale was discovered, lateral tunnels called “drifts" were started. Thin sheets of lead indicated that larger deposits were below in the limestone.

"Pig tails" like this tied to the end of long ropes allowed miners to send ore to the surface. Photo courtesy: National Mississippi River Museum and Aquarium.

Digging through the shale often required hard work and occasional blasting. When the top of the limestone layer was discovered, the miner looked for a seam of lead, an indicator used to find the larger deposit below. Once through this seam, the deposit might prove to be very thin. The miner then had to decide whether to give up or continue digging farther. Occasionally miners found where a north-south fissure crossed an east-west fissure. This spot, called a "chimney," was a place where the miner could easily dig into deeper sections of the limestone.

With skill and luck, miners broke through to a large lead deposit. Lead in these cases could entirely fill a space as large as a room or might simply coat the walls.

Watching Native Americans smelting ore encouraged white miners to explore methods that would result in less loss of mineral. The miners soon encouraged the natives to bring the ore to them for smelting by paying two dollars in trade goods per 120 pounds. Natives were even encouraged to sift through the ash of old smelters for lead remains for which the white miners paid one dollar in merchandise per bushel.

One of the first improvements was the cupola furnace introduced by Peter LORIMIER in 1834. Native Americans were estimated to recover 50 percent of the mineral using their method of smelting. The cupola furnace recovered up to 70 percent. An improvement in smelting was made when Richard WALLER introduced the blast furnace to Iowa lead mining. Smelters using blast furnaces recovered an estimated 85 percent of the mineral. Five blast furnaces eventually were used at the mines in Dubuque. Each furnace working at peak performance produced an average of seventy-five thousand pounds of ore per week.

The hardships of mining proved not to be as annoying as the meddling of the federal government. Beginning in 1833 a LEASING SYSTEM met with such resistance that it was abandoned.

Miners in Dubuque soon found subterranean water to be a major problem. By 1857 Cornish pumps powered by steam engines were able to remove a great deal of water, but tunneling was found to drain water at least fifty feet below where the miners worked. Financing the tunneling and purchasing necessary machinery led to the formation of corporations. LANGWORTHY HOLLOW saw the completion of 1,200 feet of tunneling in one year. In 1864 Senator Knoll of Dubuque County introduced a bill stating that a miner who sank a shaft and installed machinery to drain water and subsequently drained water from neighboring mines was owed one-tenth of their production. (1) The possibility that a miner, faced with flooding of his mine, might lose his rights to the mineral was finally settled in 1876 in the case of CHAMBERLAIN V. COLLINSON. Coping with water in mines led by 1878 to the establishment of the well-named DUBUQUE DRAINAGE COMPANY. (2)

The start of the CIVIL WAR and the need for SHOT made the discovery of new sites and the redigging of old claims financially profitable. One company uncovered more than 200,000 pounds of ore in three months. One site was reported to have yielded 8,000 pounds of ore in one week.

The greatest bonanza in 1860 belonged to John Owen and Company who found between 10,000 and 20,000 pounds daily from a single site. In a seven-month period in 1860, the Dubuque lead mines yielded four million pounds of ore with an estimated value of over $122,000. By 1864 the increased demand for lead by the military caused the three million pounds of ore produced in Dubuque to sell for $350,000.

Nitroglycerin was first used in this area in 1873. The explosive had not previously been used because of the danger in handling it. (3)

Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

The number of mineshafts dug in the Dubuque area has long been a subject of speculation. In 1875 a valuable horse belonging to Dennis MAHONY was killed by a fall into one of the uncovered holes that "honey-combed" the bluff." (4) The area south of Dodge from Cedar Cross Road going west was dotted with shafts and piles of dirt from their excavation well into the 1920s leading to warning of children not to run through the property. (5)

Photo courtesy: Telegraph Herald

Estimates have been made of as many as two thousand mine shafts around Dubuque with most in the city. The surrounding countryside is believed to have thousands of miles of twisting tunnels. The January 1910 issue of Mining Review published in Dubuque found that sixty-nine of 120 operating mines in the tri-state area paid dividends of between five to 10% of their capitalization. (6) Those paying dividends were usually developed in the last three years and mined ore found at "shallow depths" of 80 to 150 feet. None were located in Dubuque. (7) Until 1970 only three of the nine shafts in the city were known to be capped. Most of the others were found within one hundred fifty feet of marks made on old maps of the area.

On November 12, 1983, this road collapsed along Hill Street in Dubuque. It was probably caused by sinking of surface materials into the abandoned workings of the Avenue Top Mine. Photo by Steve Gustafson, Telegraph Herald.

Among the mines and mining companies once known in Dubuque are the following:

Avenue Top. The oldest and best producing lead and ZINC mine in Dubuque. The mine was located at the Peak of University Avenue near the site in 1990 of Steve's Plumbing and Heating. Officers in the company included Frank Coates, president; David Metcalf, vice-president; and directors R. Bonson, John Spensley, and C. E. Wales.

Alpine. A private mine and one of the deepest, at 210 feet, in Dubuque. Originally the Brunskill, Southwell and Trueb, the Alpine, located on Alpine Street, was operated for twenty-four years. (Photo Courtesy: The University of Iowa Calvin Collection and the Iowa Department of Natural Resources)

Beadle. One of the mines found in the PIKE'S PEAK MINING RANGE. Designated one of the ninety-nine most productive mines in the Upper Mississippi mining area, the Beadle was reopened in 1908 as a zinc mine by the Dubuque and Lake Superior Mining Company.

Booth and Carter. See: Caleb H. BOOTH

Brugh-Amsden. Among the many mines found in the Pike's Peak Range. One of the ninety-nine most productive mines in the Upper Mississippi mining region, the Brugh-Amsden was made productive again in 1899. The Pike's Peak Mining Company installed a pump that lowered the water level sixty feet thus exposing additional ore.

Brugh-Knapp Company. Mining company operating near Center Grove. Rich deposits were found at a depth of 100 feet. Directors in the company were J. Schwind, William Brugh, P. Boyle, Josh Hird, and Dr. H. G. Knapp.

Columbia Zinc and Lead Company. With leases in Wisconsin and Dubuque County, the company was led by Joseph J. NAGLE, president; M. J. McCullough, vice-president; and F. J. Cornelisen, secretary- treasurer.

Dubuque Drilling Company. Organized to develop mining property. The company officers included John A. Anderson, president; E. T. Liddell, vice-president; and W. W. Bonson, treasurer.

Dubuque Lead Mining Company. Described as being "one mile west of Dubuque" in 1895, the mine had opened in 1894. The mine had seventy-five men working three shafts at a depth of 210 feet. In one year, 700,000 pounds of lead had been obtained.

Four Nations. Located one mile southeast of Center Grove. Operating at a depth of eighty feet, the lead mining company had as its officers Fred Kretschmer, treasurer; H. H. Melhap, secretary; and J. Lackey, superintendent.

Herbst-Graham Company. Lead mine operating at a depth of 150 feet. Located within the Dubuque city limits at West 14th Street, the mine was also to become a source of zinc.

Howe, Alexander & Seller's Company. Located at the corner of 11th and Spruce, the mine was opened in 1892 and yielded 1,000 tons of zinc ore by 1895.

Key City Mining Company. Mining company set on Kelly's Bluff. The company officers were listed as J. McFadden, president; J. J. Rowan, vice-president; and Leo Jaeger, secretary/treasurer.

McGowen Crevice. Located west of Dubuque, the mine was originally worked for lead but from about 1888 it produced zinc. The shaft was 112 feet deep.

Murphy Mining Company. Located two miles northwest of Dubuque. The mine, owned by John Murphy, produced lead and zinc out of the old Sloan Range at a depth of eighty feet.

Rooney Mine. Lead producing mine on Delhi Street. The company was owned and operated by C. H. Meyer.

Royce-Frost Company. Mine rich in lead and zinc in the form of ROCK BONE on Hill Street. The company officers included P. Royce, president, and G. Frost, secretary-treasurer.

Street Mining Company. Producer of lead and zinc carbonates. Located along Kaufmann Avenue, the mine was operated by James Street.

Sullivan Mine. Noted as being 150 feet lower than any other mine in the district.

Trueb, Southwell & Company. Located within the city, this mine mine had been in operation since around 1886. Four or five shafts were used--one reaching a depth of 210 feet. By 1895 the mine had been closed.

Watters-Dennis Company. Lead and zinc producer located near Center Grove.

In 1906 mine operators were finding a shortage of labor in the city, although AVENUE TOP MINE was the only one in operation. Not only were experienced miners in short demand, it was hard to find apprentice miners. Sources of ZINC were expected to grow with at least twenty-five new mining companies being expected to begin operations. (8)

Rapidly rising costs of mining and decreasing reserves were principal reasons for the end of the mining boom in Dubuque about 1920. By 1917 Dubuque mining operations from such sites as the Pike's Peak Range for lead and zinc produced a total value of only $9,000.

Two small mines were still in operation west of the city in 1953, but only four tons of lead were mined.




1. "Important to Miners." Dubuque Democratic Herald, March 3, 1864, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=A36e8EsbUSoC&dat=18640303&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

2. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, November 17, 1878, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18781117&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

3. "Nitroglycerin," Dubuque Herald, March 3, 1873, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18730304&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

4. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, July 14, 1875, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18750714&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

5. Charlotte Ragatz KELLY Interview. January 1975

6. "Showing of Paying Mines in District," Telegraph-Herald, January 3, 1910, p. 3

7. Ibid.

8. "Mining Help is Short in City," Dubuque Telegraph-Herald, September 17, 1906, p. 2

Ludvigson, Greg A. and Dockal, James A. "Lead and Zinc Mining in the Dubuque Area." Online. http://www.iowadnr.gov/portals/idnr/uploads/geology/LeadZincMiningDubuqueArea.pdf