Time Machine: Eagle Point Park Dubuque distiller set aside land; Depression-era workers enhanced it
Anyone standing on the bluff at Eagle Point near Dubuque in the late 19th century saw a wealth of riverboat traffic on the Mississippi River.
In 1862, the 21st Infantry, an Iowa volunteer regiment, was organized at Eagle Point. The regiment left Dubuque aboard the steamboat Henry Clay and headed south to fight in the Civil War.
In the spring of 1876, the steamer Enterprise collided with another steamer, the Colossal, and sank. The Enterprise was raised and towed to Eagle Point in late fall to be repaired. Repair crews found the lower jawbone and ribs of a man among the wreckage. The remains were assumed to be that of a young man who was reported missing after the accident.
In 1895, the remodeled stern wheeler Pittsburg was launched at Eagle Point, and an enlarged riverboat, the Texas, was launched with a glass-lined observatory added.
Joseph A. Rhomberg, who established a very successful distilling company in Dubuque in 1864, owned the land that included the Eagle Point bluff. Rhomberg also was involved in establishing several railroads, including the Chicago, Clinton & Dubuque. He was president of the CC&D as well as the Dubuque Street Railway Co.
The Rhomberg & Co. Distillery — shut down in 1873 by the Internal Revenue Service, which charged that Rhomberg hadn’t paid excise tax on the whiskey he was making — was refitted and became the Iowa Pacific Flour Mill.
The flour mill lasted a few years until the feds seized it as well, and the operation shut down, leaving the distillery’s buildings empty until its reincarnation as the Dubuque Star Brewery in 1898.
It was in 1873, that Rhomberg purchased Ham’s Addition to Dubuque. The property included 600 lots, the Ham House and the particularly beautiful property that included a limestone bluff that was one of the highest points along that stretch of the Mississippi.
Under Rhomberg’s direction, the Rhomberg family kept the bluff area in its natural state until the city could take it over.
Charles M. Robinson, a noted Eastern city planner and park specialist, visited Dubuque in 1907. His statement — “I have never seen a place where the Almighty has done more and mankind less than in Dubuque” — challenged retired Judge Oliver Perry Shiras to establish the park.
Shiras immediately went to work with a committee and the Civic Division of the Dubuque Women’s Club.
The 100-acre property at the north end of Dubuque was purchased from the Rhomberg family and deeded to the city in 1908. After improvements were completed in 1909, Eagle Point Park became a reality.
Within five years, the new Eagle Point Park was served by both streetcar lines and railroads. A streetcar turnaround and waiting area was built near the park entrance.
About eight years later, the Eagle Point bathing beach opened.
While the Traveling Men’s Greater Dubuque Club was fundraising in 1917 to build the Shiras Memorial shelter in memory of the judge, who had died in 1916, the Hawkeye Conference Tennis Tournament was held on the courts at Eagle Point. Nine colleges participated in the doubles tourney. The Shiras building was dedicated in 1921.
Over time, several more parcels of land were added to Eagle Point, increasing its size from its original 100 acres to 164 acres.
The park became one of the work sites for the Depression-era Works Progress Administration when it was awarded a $200,000 grant in 1934.
Landscape architect Alfred Caldwell was hired as Dubuque’s park superintendent and became the WPA supervisor, directing his inexperienced crew of WPA workers. Caldwell, heavily influenced by one of his mentors, Frank Lloyd Wright, designed park shelters and the fish pond in the Prairie Style of architecture.
When President Franklin Roosevelt made a campaign stop in Dubuque on Oct. 9, 1936, he made a point of touring the WPA work at Eagle Point. Newspaper accounts say the day was overcast and drizzly.
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her “My Day” diary entry for Oct. 10, “The park which is on Eagle Rock Point commands a glorious view of the Mississippi River and is being much improved by WPA work. One little item which the commissioner of parks mentioned particularly interested me. They have used native stone for the buildings in the park, and though many of the workers have never done any similar work before, he said they were not building themselves houses of this stone.”
Roosevelt’s New Deal critics had called the WPA a poor use of tax dollars, but when he saw the WPA work at Eagle Point, President Roosevelt joked, “This is my idea of a worthwhile boondoggle.”
Even though Caldwell, known for his acerbic personality, was let go in 1936, the building crews, under the direction of Wendelin Rettenberger, finished the shelters and they were dedicated in 1937.
LOCK AND DAM
While the WPA projects were going on, construction of General Zebulon Pike Lock and Dam No. 11 had started in 1933. The construction eliminated the Eagle Point beach area.
The lock and dam, costing more than $7 million, opened in September 1937 just below Eagle Point bluff, with the dedication following a year later. Along with the speeches, there was a regatta organized by Richard Pike Bissell. Bissell would go on to write the book. “7½ Cents,” which became the Broadway musical comedy, “The Pajama Game.”
Terry Trueblood was the Dubuque parks and recreation director in 1983 when the city council initiated a fee for using the park. Some park users felt that some young adults were interfering with others’ enjoyment of the park.
“We didn’t have any real problems,” Trueblood said, “but a lot of people felt the presence of those young people bothered them.”
The initial charge of $1 per carload and $5 for buses is still in place. Joggers, walkers and bicyclists are admitted free.
The American Institute of Architects in 2004 recognized the park’s structures as among the most influential in Iowa from the 1930s.