"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.
CITY ISLAND. The island that has played such an important role in the history of Dubuque was originally named for Mathias HAM who once owned the land. (1) Once large enough to provide a seasonal airport for Dubuque, Ham's Island in the 1930s was considered an industrial location. According to the comprehensive city plan (1929-1936), "the development of Ham's Island primarily for industrial purposes is linked up with the idea of bringing river transportation service further into the present industrial section of the city by the relocation, widening and deepening of the Lake Peosta channel."
In 1933 the Dubuque City Council purchased 162 wild and woody acres of the island for $10,000. Unemployed men, recruited by the Civil Works Administration during the GREAT DEPRESSION, leveled trees, ripped out stumps and slashed away underbrush. After extensive grading, two runways, each 2,600 feet long and 100 feet wide, were constructed of MACADAM and cinder surface. The new airport was reached by a road linking the site to the foot of East 16th Street.
Operations at the City Island airport began in June 1934, when two DUBUQUE AIRWAYS INC. planes were flown to the site from NUTWOOD PARK. With no hangars or gas tanks, planes had to be tied down at night. Nutwood Park's metal hangar was later dismantled and rebuilt at the new site; a new hangar with an office was constructed within one year. Electricity was supplied by a portable gas-powered generator. There were "His" and "Her" outhouses.
Business at the City Island airport was not brisk. Lewis Boxleiter, Collins' successor as airport manager, applied for a low-flying permit and inspected high transmission lines when foul weather prevented linemen from driving over snow-drifted roads. Each spring because of floods the planes had to be flown to high ground in Waterloo, Iowa, or Galena, Illinois. In 1938 sixty-four days of business at the City Island airport were lost due to flooding. The airport flooded from March 31 until April 17 in 1939. It was submerged again on April 28.
Flying instruction began in earnest in January 1940, with the start of the Civilian Pilots Training Program. After the start of WORLD WAR II, a new hangar was constructed. During the war, a Liberator bomber had problems and landed on the island. The plane, unable to take off, was dismantled and transported out of town on the Milwaukee Railroad. (2) The navy's objection to the city's inadequate airport led the Chamber of Commerce to conduct a survey as a first step in establishing a first-class airport for the city. The City Island airport was closed in September 1948. The Dubuque (Regional) Municipal Airport was dedicated October 24, 1948.
The island was also used as the city's landfill. In January 1950, the city began the "land fill" method of rubbish disposal. This was described at the time by Dr. Albert J. Entringer, city health director, as "the major city part of a recently started rodent control program." (3) Under the system, there was only one legal dump in the city--near the east end of 16th Street. Instead of simply dropping rubbish at a site and then burning the paper, a trench 7'-8' deep and 12'-15' wide was dug. When the trench was filled, a grader flatten the material and then covered it with two feet of dirt to prevent rats from reaching the rubbish. (4) The old dump, west of the island, was leveled and covered. In the 1950s and 1960s wetlands were commonly used for dumps. Filling in marshes was seen as a means of providing a place for garbage and land reclamation. Sand dredged from the channel was used to cover the refuse. By the early 1970s, the federal government's support of such practices was beginning to change. The use of City Island as a landfill ended in August, 1976 when the dump on the island was closed and the DUBUQUE METROPOLITAN LANDFILL west of the city along Highway 20 was opened.
Use of the island for recreation occurred at the same time. Racing through mud may have been fun for many teenagers, but others used the relative flat area for more profitable pursuits. The POWERS AND RILEY RACING TEAM was so successful that the local police blocked off traffic on the island so that the racers could test their latest innovations.
On March 24, 1980, the Dubuque City Council renamed City Island in memory of Chaplain Aloysius SCHMITT. The name, Schmitt Island, had been lobbied for by fifty-four civic leaders. Lobbying by the Chaplain Schmitt Park Committee began soon after the announcement that the city planned a softball-baseball complex on the island where a memorial to Schmitt stood.
In 2010 the land was the site of the MILLER RIVERVIEW PARK, DUBUQUE GREYHOUND PARK AND CASINO,MCALEECE SPORTS COMPLEX, VETERANS MEMORIAL PLAZA, and the MYSTIQUE COMMUNITY ICE CENTER. (5) The same year Dubuque City Manager Michael VAN MILLIGEN estimated that businesses on the island generated an estimated $7 million to $8 million in revenue for the city.
On July 21, 2014 the city council approved a 54-page document for future developments of the island. The planning process had begun earlier in the year when the Cunningham Group was chosen to identify opportunities on the city-owned property. The Group announced that the city objectives were best realized by dividing the area into three sections--Island Resort, Lake Peosta Recreational Channel and the Marina Village. The Group did not recommend any flood protection upgrades citing flood walls and levees would cause access problems. (6)
In December 2015 a nine-person committee of DUBUQUE RACING ASSOCIATION board members, local governmental officials, and representatives from MYSTIQUE CASINO was announced to consider options to improve the island. (7)
The Dubuque City Council approved a planned unit development rezoning on the Chaplain Schmitt Island leading to changes approved in a 2014 master plan. The master plan shows the island split up into three sections that would boast more walking trails, more recreational opportunities, and more retail. (8)
1. "Mathias Ham," Linwood Legacies. Online: http://www.linwoodlegacies.org/mathias-ham.html
2. Shaffer, James L. and Tigges, John. Dubuque: The 20th Century, Charleston, SC: Arcadia Publishing Company, 2000, p. 98. Online: http://books.google.com/books?id=ZvllAMUoTP8C&pg=PA98&lpg=PA98&dq=City+Island+%28dubuque%29&source=bl&ots=SqBaJTVCts&sig=t27nbSWFHMGP82__wrYctQmojcY&hl=en&sa=X&ei=77H2U6u5MoKnyAT_2IG4Aw&ved=0CGcQ6AEwCDgK#v=onepage&q=City%20Island%20%28dubuque%29&f=false
3. "City Buries Garbage in Rat War," Telegraph Herald, January 22, 1950, p. 17. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=aEyKTaVlRPYC&dat=19500122&printsec=frontpage&hl=en
5. "Dubuque Honors Chaplain Killed on December 7, 1941." KCRG.com. Online: http://www.kwwl.com/story/16214103/first-catholic-chaplain-to-die-in-wwii-from-dubuque
6. Jacobson, Ben. "Council OKs Plan for Island." Telegraph Herald, July 22, 2014, p. 1
7. Montgomery, Jeff, "Lynch to Lead Schmitt Island Makeover," Telegraph Herald, December 16, 2015, p. 3A
8. Hanson, Brad. "Changes in the Works for Dubuque's Chaplain Schmitt Island," KWWL.com. April 7, 2017, Online: http://www.kwwl.com/story/35094101/2017/4/7/changes-in-the-works-for-dubuques-chaplain-schmitt-island