"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.
ROCKDALE FLOOD. One of the most disastrous floods in Dubuque history. ROCKDALE, a village two miles south of Dubuque, was the home of the ROCKDALE MILL, one of the area's first flour mills. A trading center for area farmers, Rockdale was divided by a ravine through which the normally peaceful CATFISH CREEK flowed toward the MISSISSIPPI RIVER.
On the evening of July 4, 1876, celebrations of our nation's centennial had just finished when a summer shower began. What started as a drizzle turned into a downpour that within an hour caused Catfish Creek to crash out of its banks and roar toward Rockdale. A wall of watery destruction was estimated to be twenty feet deep and hundreds of feet wide.
Rockdale was never the same. In the fury, the village lost a saloon, hotel, two stores, post office, several houses, and a blacksmith shop. Among the unbelievable escapes was that of Charles Thimmesch, a barkeeper, who after warning others of the dangerous waters climbed to the roof of the post office. He ended up swimming naked to safety with his money clenched in his teeth. Other survivors were found in treetops where the water had carried them.
The flood did much to destroy the future potential of the community. Highways 151 and 61 were constructed to bypass the area that was later annexed to the city of Dubuque.
Sabula Gazette, July 15, 1876
THIRTY-NINE PEOPLE DROWNED
Terrible Fate of the Village of Rockdale, Iowa-The Town Swept Away by a Flood, and Every Inhabitant Drowned.
Dubuque, Iowa, July 6- On the night of the Fourth, the little hamlet of Rockdale, three miles southwest of the city was swept away as with the besom of destruction. Every building in the little town save the Catfish Mill was washed from its foundation and torn into a wreck that defies description. The dozen buildings-all that were located on the bottom lands of the Catfish save the mill-were carried off as if they were so many cockleshells and whirled down the surging and boiling current, crushing them into fragments.
Thirty-nine human beings were swept hurriedly from life into the great maelstrom of death. Men, women and children to that number were drowned, and their stiff bodies-those of the thirty that have been rescued up to this hour-were ranged side by side along the shady side of the mill awaiting the last sad funeral rites. In one instance we saw an entire family of four lying dead; in another every member of the family but one lay dead. The bodies of some were found in the debris of the crushed buildings near the scene of their death, while others, and the greater part of them all, were found along the banks from a few rods to a mile down the stream. Some were almost entirely hid from view by the floods of mud that had been swept along by the maddened waters, with perhaps a hand only exposed to sight, or a foot or a portion of the face, or perhaps only a small portion of their clothing. A large number of little children, boys and girls, ranging from 3 to 12 years old, were the victims of the dread avalanche, and altogether the scene was a most sickening one.
Through the day the people of the village had joined more or less in the festivities of the Centennial Fourth. In the evening the rain began to fall, and all took shelter in their homes or at the stores or saloons. At about a half an hour after midnight the Catfish was discovered to have become so swollen that the streets were overflowing, and escape to the surrounding highlands cut off. Higher and higher rose the rushing waters, while the storm kept pitilessly on. Down rolled the surging waters several feet high and the smaller buildings were swept away. At about 1 o’clock a portion of the dam gave away. Now the stream had grown to 1,000 feet wide and fully twenty feet deep. As the buildings were swept into wrecks, the inmates were buried into the surging torrent, their voices crying out for help amidst the roar of thunder and storm and crash, while lurid lightnings flashed every minute, lighting up the dreadful scene for an instant, and leaving it blacker than before.
The Dead: Joseph Becker, Ellen, his wife, and two children; James Pearce, Emma, his wife, and two children; Peter Becker and five children, also his housekeeper and two children; Mrs. Carey and two children; John Klassen, wife and five children; Peter Kapp, wife and four children; Mrs. Kingsley, Thomas Blenkiron, Oliver Blenkiron, William Bradbury, and Richard Burke-thirty-nine in all, of which thirty-two have been recovered.
Altogether the scene was one to touch a heart of stone. Thousands of people have visited it during the day, and people are going and coming constantly. The neighbors wished kindly alacrity, opened their doors to such of the afflicted as remained, and afforder every comfort in their power. The bodies of the dead were washed by kind hands, and many of them taken into the dwellings nearby. The members of the Board of Supervisors were early on the ground, working like Trojans to recover the dead and give care to the living.
Later. Thirty-one bodies of the drowned have been recovered. Further search will be continued until all are found. William Watters, William Coats, and the Board of Supervisors labored with untiring industry to aid the sufferers and to recover the dead.
On July 20, 1876 a total of $500 was quickly collected from local residents for flood relief. (1) On August 4, 1876 a benefit concert to help the people of Rockdale was held at what later became FIRST CONGREGATIONAL UNITED CHURCH OF CHRIST. (2) Ironically the Committee of the Rockdale Suffers, responsible for the concert, created a confrontation. The GREAT WESTERN UNION BAND was invited and agreed to play. It was then considered best to also invite the GERMANIA BAND. They also agreed. When Fred HOPPE of the Great Western found that the other band had also been asked to perform, he announced that his band would perform only if it were the only one on the program. This led them to lose the opportunity to perform and the Germania Band to receive the contract. (3)
1. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, July 21, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760721&printsec=frontpage&hl=en
2. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, August 4, 1876, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18760804&printsec=frontpage&hl=en
3. "The Band Controversy," Dubuque Daily Herald, August 13, 1876, p. 4
Online: Rockdale Flood-Thirty-nine Drowned iagenweb.org/boards/dubuque/documents/index.cgi?read=209037