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.

 

Why Preservation Matters

Why Preservation Matters

By Megan Viertel, Communications & Marketing Coordinator at Heritage Works 

It has been over three months since I started my role as Communications and Marketing Coordinator at Heritage Works. I walked in on my first day as a recent college graduate with only a basic understanding of the impact that preservation has on the community. After some time on the job, let me tell you what I’ve learned about preservation and why my generation needs to care.

What is preservation? 

Preservation is the conservation of materials and architectural elements in a historic structure. The goal of preservation is to revitalize historic, sometimes underutilized, buildings so that they can generate economic and cultural value as they once did. Preservation benefits cities in a variety of ways.

Aesthetic

Historic architecture has unique design and charm that has stood the test of time. Revitalized historic buildings add character and authentic beauty to our streets, drawing in residents and tourists alike. Who doesn’t want to live in a beautiful community, after all?

History

Imagine walking down the street and being transported to a different time period. Imagine being surrounded by some of the same buildings that people lived and worked in decades – even centuries – ago. Once these structures are gone, they are gone for good. Preserving historic architecture preserves the past so that it can be enjoyed for generations to come. This is the “feel good” part about preservation; saving places that connect us to our community’s history.

Built to last

Old buildings were built to last for hundreds of years. Newer buildings, on the other hand, are not built in the same way with the same high quality materials. It is not environmentally or financially responsible to demolish buildings with years of life left in them.

Less waste

Demolition creates unnecessary waste and pollution, only to use up more raw materials, energy and funds on new buildings. It is much more sustainable to preserve materials and structures that already exist. For instance, demolitions result in millions of tons of historic building materials ending up in landfills every year. Instead of demolishing historic buildings, it is better to restore buildings and maintain historic character while reducing waste.

Economic development

Historic preservation sparks economic growth. Rehabilitation work creates jobs and gives vacant or underutilized buildings a purpose. Rather than sitting unused, revitalized buildings bring in people and generate income as commercial and residential spaces. And where does that income go? Right back into our local economy!

Preservation makes communities more authentic. We know that younger generations desire authentic experiences. A vibrant, historic town plays a role in attracting and retaining a youthful, talented workforce.

 

Before (top) and after (bottom) photos the revitalization of a commercial space on Central Avenue.

Before (top) and after (bottom) photos the revitalization of a residential space on Central Avenue.

Community

Downtowns are a place for local businesses, community events, art and culture, stimulating economic growth and a sense of togetherness. Vibrant, authentic communities foster pride in their citizens and offer a space for heritage to be remembered and celebrated.

As someone born and raised in Dubuque, I love seeing how our historic city has transformed over the years. With a bustling downtown, plenty of job opportunities and affordable housing, it was an easy decision to continue living here after college. The revitalization of our unique town has made it a more lively and attractive place to live, work and play for all ages. Investment in preservation leads to more investment, attracting people and creating jobs. It is, without a doubt, an exciting time to live in a historic town. If we want to keep the momentum going, preservation work needs to continue. The younger generations are the ones who are going to need to make it happen.

At Heritage Works, it is our mission to provide resources for those engaging in preservation work. We offer consulting services, assistance with the tax credit application process and training opportunities for the next generation of preservationists. If you are interested in learning more about historic preservation and our work, visit www.heritageworksdbq.com. To contribute to our continued preservation efforts, educational programming and fulfillment of our mission, consider becoming a Heritage Works member at https://heritageworksdbq.com/donate.