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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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Dubuque's Town Clock as it originally appeared.
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

TOWN CLOCK. The town clock has been a prominent landmark of Dubuque since 1864. A campaign for subscriptions for its purchase was successfully led by Dubuque physician and surgeon, Asa HORR. (1) Mr. and Mrs. George Wood gave the city a perpetual lease to Lot 54, the site of the JOHN BELL AND COMPANY store, a building they owned on the west side of Main Street between Eighth and Ninth STREETS. The understanding was that the top of the building would be used for the installation of the clock. (2)

The clock and bell were manufactured in New York and cost $304; the tower in which it was hung was designed by William Longhurst of Chicago for $1,000; putting the clock in place cost another $2,000. (3) The clock, bought from Naylor & Company of New York, was said at the time to be the most accurate town clock in the United States. The clock's striking gong weighed one ton, the bell weighed a half ton, and the face, hands and mechanism added an additional four hundred pounds. The clock began operating in November, 1864.

The question of who owned the clock was settled on December 11, 1865. Everyone who had subscribed $25.00 or more became a member of the Dubuque Town Clock Company. (4)

About five o'clock on the afternoon of May 5, 1872, workmen nearby noticed cracks appearing in the walls of the Town Clock building. Shouting an alarm, they rushed for cover as the belfry swayed before crashing to the ground. A child, Mrs. Herman Ellwanger, and her sister Miss Street were inside the building as the falling clock demolished the store. (5) The child died instantly while the women died within hours of their injuries. (6) One eyewitness stated that workmen had undermined the foundation of the building which appeared to be constructed on a layer of sand. (7) The Bell Building suffered damage estimated at $20,000. (8)

In October 1872 the mayor and finance committee met concerning the town clock and tower. At that meeting it was decided to take the job of construction out of the hands of L. T. Farwell, the contractor of the Wood Block, and award it to John MULLANY. It was felt Farwell had too much to do and Mullany accepted the contract that the work would be done in thirty days. (9) The clock was to shipped in from New York as soon as it was finished. The bell used to strike the hours was being manufactured in Sheffield, England. It weighed four thousand pounds and had a diameter of four feet and a height of six feet. (10)

Asa Horr received a letter from the clock manufacturer, E. Howard & Company, on January 6, 1873 saying that the clock would not be ready for shipment until the middle of February. The reason given was that new plans were being used and that the clock would be guaranteed to run for ten years. (11) Late arrival of the clock was not the only problem. On February 3, 1873 around 9:00 p.m. residents realized that the new tower was on fire. It was discovered that the blaze had been started by a tinner's furnace left among some wood shavings. The fire was extinguished before serious damage could result. (12) Late minute recalculations included whether to illuminate the dials of the clock. The committee responsible for the clock apparently thought the cost could be cut; the Dubuque Herald supported the additional price which it considered small. (13)

The town clock arrived on March 11, 1873 in a heavy lumber box standing on cast iron legs. (14) Pieces of the clock were hoisted into place. The pendulum weighing 350 pounds was lifted into place on March 17, 1873. (15) On Apri1 17, 1873, a new clock costing $5,309.45 graced the downtown area. (16) The clock operated by weights which hung from chains within shafts running to the basement of the building. Two strong boys were hired to wind up the weights--a task that took an hour and thirty minutes to operate the clock for a week.

Residents were pleased with work on the clock dials, but were not pleased at the sound of the large bell which did not ring out as clearly as expected. Theories ranged from a poorly constructed tower to the casting of the bell itself. (16) Concern about the tower led to the formation of a council committee and mechanics being appointed to determine the stability of the tower. On May 29th Aldermen Beach, Howard, and Pier joined H. L. Fulton, the architect for Rhomberg's mill; and local mechanics F. Demars; B. B. Provost; and J. Brophy to inspect the construction. (17)

In 1878 the tone of the town clock bell was increased by the addition of a "hydrodynamic machine." It was said that the tone of the bell could be made louder by adding power to the strike apparatus. (18) A motor to wind the chains replaced the two boys in 1918. (19) In 1887 the new building was the home of SULLIVAN AND STAMPFER, a dry goods store, which advertised itself as "under the Town Clock." (20)

In 1923 the financial cost estimated at between $4,000 and $5,000 of repairing the tower led the city council to decide to have the clock removed. there was some suggestion made that the TOWN CLOCK should be removed from its tower and placed on the new building. The thought was the tower would not be as stable and in its new position, the clock could be seen from a further distance. Fans of the tower rejected the idea.This action was rescinded when a poll conducted by the Times Journal found that the citizens wanted the clock maintained. The repairs were made. In 1927 a new Seth Thomas mechanism was added. The clock was electrified by INTERSTATE POWER COMPANY and synchronized by Western Union. (21)

Following the construction of the FEDERAL BANK BUILDING in 1935 the suggestion was made again that the Town Clock should be removed from its tower and placed on the new building. The thought was the tower would not be as stable and in its new position, the clock could be seen from a further distance. Fans of the tower rejected the idea. (22)

This iconic photograph of the relocation of the town clock was taken by James SHAFFER and used as a cover for his memorable and photo-laden book with John TIGGES

In 1967 designers of the TOWN CLOCK PLAZA decided that the site should have some vertical feature which would "recall some object, event or person important in the history of Dubuque or of the Dubuque central area." They advised the use of the town clock because of its historic relationship to the area, classical appearance, and function. (23)

The city council agreed to the clock if funds for the relocation were raised through donations. (24) Several service club leaders told the council that funds had already been received. INTERSTATE POWER COMPANY contributed $5,000, JOHN DEERE DUBUQUE WORKS gave $2,500, and DUBUQUE SAVINGS AND LOAN ASSOCIATION had pledged $1,000 toward the estimated cost of $62,830. The project planner assured the council that the beams which had been installed to support the bell at its present location (825 Main) would not have to be removed. (25)

On July 16, 1970 the "Your Town Clock Committee" was organized with the goal of relocating the Town Clock to the Town Clock Square.

A "Town Clock Telethon," the first telethon ever held in Dubuque, was presented on July 26, 1970. Joining in the fundraising were the Chamber of Commerce, Downtown Association, and the "Your Town Clock Committee" made up of seven Dubuque service organizations. Several musical groups donated their talents to the broadcast when ran from 6:00 p.m. until midnight from the conference room of the Interstate Power Company. (26)

Disappointing news came on July 30, 1970 when the only bid for the removal and relocation project came in $12,000 over the estimate. Contractors were given the option of removing the clock by "conventional methods" from the top of the building at 825 Main St., refurbishing it at the city-owned storage yard at the foot of 11th Street and relocating it to 7th and Main. Another possibility was using a helicopter to move the clock directly to the columned pedestal where it could be refurbished in place. This is thought to be the least expensive method. The city had also faced the possibility of having to remove the steel beams that supported the clock and ran through the building--if they were not part of the building itself. An engineer hired by Mrs. Anne Gallogly, the owner, revealed that the beams were an important part of the building and therefore did not need to be removed. Only minor repairs to the roof would be needed. (27) Your Town Clock Committee chairman Thomas J. REILLY announced that donations had reached $32,000 and that the 250 members of the committee would conduct a "Buck Night" on August 4, 1970. (28)

On August 24, 1970 the city council voted unanimously to award the clock contract to WALSER RAPID TRANSIT COMPANY with the date of starting the project about September 15th. The council's action came as a surprise since it had previously wanted to raise all the money before awarding a contract. Service club leaders who had been raising money pleaded for the council to make the decision since $47,000 of the target amount of $62,830 had been raised. City engineer John White commented that the amount raised would be enough to finance moving, renovating, and returning the clock to a pedestal at the former intersection of Seventh and Main STREETS. The $15,00 to be collected would finance architect's fees, constructing access to the clock in the new location and other work which might be needed. (29)

After fourteen months, the necessary $70,000 was raised through voluntary contributions.

The thirteen-ton "tower" was brought to the site Friday, February 12, 1971, where it was bolted to the four-column concrete pedestal. The four "faces" of the clock, weighing nine tons, were put into place on February 16 followed by the cupola weighing seven tons. The completely assembled clock stands about two feet taller than it did at its former location at 825 Main Street when it stood 108 feet above street level on a three-story building.

Commemorative coin sales helped raise money. Photo courtesy: Mark Beall
Photo courtesy: Mark Beall
Photo courtesy: City of Dubuque
Photo courtesy: Bob Reding

The TOWN CLOCK PLAZA, with its Town Clock, was formally dedicated on Friday, August 3, 1971, by Dubuque MAYOR Dr. Gaylord M. COUCHMAN and George W. Romney, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Concern about vibrations caused by loud music and hundreds of dancers led to a feature story in the TELEGRAPH HERALD in 1989. City officials stated their confidence in the structural soundness of the tower. The Durrant Architects of Dubuque designed the pre-cast four-column pedestal that supports the clock since its relocation.

In 2001 with the reopening of Main Street to traffic, the question arose whether to move the clock from its tower to the top of the Town Clock Building at 835 Town Clock Plaza. On August 20, 2001 the city council voted 6-1 to leave the clock where it was and direct traffic around it. (30)

As a postscript--In 1880 the residents of the Fifth Ward along Couler also wanted a town clock. The Dubuque Herald, tongue-in-cheek, agreed editorializing

         A town clock is needed in that part of the city,
         whereby a man could take his beer at regular
         intervals and not make one glass crowd close
         upon another. (31)



1. Kruse, Len. My Old Dubuque,Dubuque, Iowa: Center for Dubuque History--Loras College, 2000, p. 30

2. Ibid.

3. "Dubuque's Famous Town Clock," Telegraph-Herald, August 24, 1930, p. 11

4. Kruse, p. 31

5. "Mason City Visitor Saw Crash of Town Clock Here in 1872," Telegraph Herald, August 21, 1924, p. 5. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=gTFFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=hbsMAAAAIBAJ&pg=3040,2257734&dq=town+clock+dubuque&hl=en

6. "Old Town Clock Building Destroyed May 25, 1872," Telegraph Herald, June 27, 1915, p. 36, Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=PaFdAAAAIBAJ&sjid=81wNAAAAIBAJ&pg=2380,714590&dq=town+clock+dubuque&hl=en

7. "Pioneer Citizens Talks About Early Days; Once Town Clock Fell From Tower Into Street," Telegraph Herald and Times Journal, March 8, 1931, p. 17. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=icBFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=jr0MAAAAIBAJ&pg=2881,4718299&dq=town+clock+dubuque&hl=en

8. Kruse, , p. 33

9. "Town Clock," Dubuque Herald, October 10, 1872, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18721010&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

10. Ibid.

11. "The Clock Heard From," Dubuque Herald, January 7, 1873, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18730107&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

12. "Clock Tower Afire," Dubuque Herald, February 4, 1873, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18730204&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

13. "Clock Dials," Dubuque Herald, February 14, 1873, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18730214&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

14. "Town Clock Arrived," The Daily Herald, March 13, 1873, p. 4

15. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, March 17, 1873, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18730318&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

16. Kruse, p. 33

17. "Clock Tower Investigation," The Daily Herald, May 29, 1873, p. 4

18. "The Bells," Dubuque Herald, March 25, 1873, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18730325&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

19. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, December 6, 1878, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18781206&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

20. "Sullivan and Stampfer" advertisement, Dubuque Daily Herald, July 14, 1887, p. 1. Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=YXhFAAAAIBAJ&sjid=v7wMAAAAIBAJ&pg=6574,236044&dq=dubuque+town+clock&hl=en

21. Kruse, p. 34

22. "Dubuque's Famous Town Clock," Telegraph-Herald and Times-Journal, August 4, 1930, p. 21

23. Miller, Jim. "Hearing on Town Clock," Telegraph Herald, July 7, 1970, p. 20

24. Ibid.

25. Bulkley, John. "Council Okays Clock Switch," Telegraph Herald, July 28, 1970, p. 1

26. "Clock Telethon Date is Switched," Telegraph Herald, June 21, 1970, p. 21

27. "New Bids to be Sought for Town Clock Project," Telegraph-Herald, August 4, 1970, p.3

28. "Bid is Over Estimate on Clock Move," Telegraph Herald, July 30, 1970, p. 8

29. Bulkley, John, "It's Official: Town Clock is Moving," Telegraph-Herald, August 25, 1970, p. 1

30. "Council Votes Not to Move Town Clock," Telegraph Herald, August 26, 2001, p. 16, Online: http://news.google.com/newspapers?id=EwpaAAAAIBAJ&sjid=b0sNAAAAIBAJ&pg=4793,4278359&dq=dubuque+town+clock&hl=en

31. "Caught on the Fly," Dubuque Herald, January 23, 1880, p. 4. Online: https://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=uh8FjILnQOkC&dat=18800123&printsec=frontpage&hl=en

Dubuque Folklore. American Trust and Savings Bank. 1976

175 Years, Volume 2, "A Tour of Dubuque's Landmarks," Telegraph Herald, June 23, 2008