Dubuque’s Streetcar Lines

Dubuque’s Streetcar Lines

By Bill Doyle, Preservation & Programs Manager at Heritage Works 

As a young person, I was interested in understanding the world around me. I did my undergrad in Anthropology, and one of my favorite courses studied the interactions between humans and the environment.  In the class, we learned about the extinction of a great swathe of animals that coincided with humans crossing into North America for the first time. My teacher, Dr. Jamie Hodgkins, of University of Colorado Denver asked:

“Does anyone know what the fastest land animal in North America is?”

None of the students knew.

“It’s the Pronghorn, it can run sixty miles per hour.” She paused. “Do you think it’s odd that it can run so fast?”

We sat there nonplussed.  

“The pronghorn evolved to escape the former fastest animal in North America, the American Cheetah.”

This event, strange as it may seem, taught me to appreciate the fact that anything I was studying may be missing a key piece of historic context. It also taught me a good method of learning. Look for oddness. When something seems odd, there is usually an explanation.

Like the American Cheetah, Dubuque’s streetcar system is gone. However, the urban environment that it informed, the urban design, remains remarkably intact. A chief example of the streetcar design are the rows of worker housing set between small commercial buildings that characterize Dubuque’s north end, especially north of 20th Avenue on Jackson and Central, as well as the neighborhoods around Rhomberg and Windsor.  

Dubuque’s downtown design was created by a city of walkers. The walking culture valued the dense, multi-story, mixed-use, commercial buildings that shouldered up next to one another on Main Street. And the blocks around them, such as those on Bluff Street had simpler duplexes and fourplexes. Those buildings housed the factory workers and laborers that enabled this town to grow so quickly one hundred and fifty years ago.

The streetcar network started in 1868, to meet the needs of an industrializing city. A handful of wealthy Dubuquer’s formed a horse drawn streetcar that drove development northward, up to the street car barn at 24th and Central.

The inside of the bus barn at 24th and central. Photo from Center for Dubuque History and Tim Olson.

In 1877, another company was formed to carry passengers up the bluffs with a noisy steam locomotive. It was able to ascend a carefully plotted route, chosen to minimize the grade increase as much as possible. The streetcar trundled up Hill Street, turned on Third, then on Alpine Street westward onto University Ave. The older houses in that neighborhood were served by the streetcar line.  And on University Avenue, west of Alpine, that odd strip of old commercial buildings is also explained by the streetcar. Those commercial spaces served the commuters that lived in the streetcar neighborhood.

Image: Dubuque County Historical Society

In the late 1880s, three electric trolley companies battled it out to establish dominance of Dubuque’s transportation network. During this time the North end and Rhomberg neighborhood filled with worker cottages. The competition lasted a little over a decade before the Union Electric Company consolidated the network into one company in 1900. The golden era of streetcars was underway, and they became the dominant method of transportation for the common man.  

Like the American Cheetah, the streetcars are extinct, but we can still ponder all of the remaining Pronghorn’s, those parts of our town that seem puzzling at first, but make sense with the forgotten context.  It is my hope that the Dubuque Streetcar story map will surface that context.

Here is a link to a story map I created that will take you through some of the history of Dubuque’s Streetcar lines.  https://storymaps.arcgis.com/stories/df7402dad6be4b3399996484f3e7e7ce

Take special care to zoom in and look at the tiled Fire Insurance Maps. They have so much detail about our past environment. If you are a history nerd like me, you may find yourself staring at them for hours.