On May 10, 1869, at Promontory Summit in Utah Territory, the Jupiter of the Central Pacific Railroad, heading east from Sacramento, met with Engine No. 119 of the Union Pacific Railroad, coming west from Omaha. On July 20, 1969 – Americans walked on the moon’s surface for the first time. These two historic events – separated by 100 years – were turning points in American history.
Unfortunately, on neither one of these two historic days – separated by a century – did anyone ever stop to remember John Plumbe, Jr. – a visionary from Dubuque, Iowa who was one of the first Americans daring enough to dream about a transcontinental railroad, and fool-hearty enough to present the idea to Congress, only to be told that it would easier to sell the idea of building a railroad to the moon!
John Plumbe, Jr. – American engineer, author, photographer, print-maker, and inventor – was actually born in Wales on July 13, 1809, coming to the United States with his family when he was twelve years old (July 1821). From the very beginning, John had creative juices running in his veins. His father was a physician with an engineering mind who came to Philipsburg, PA to establish an iron forge, opening America’s first metal screw factory. As a young boy, John worked in his father’s business, while attending school in Philipsburg, and at age 17, became a naturalized U.S. citizen.
In 1827, John apprenticed as a civil engineer, carefully calculating a feasible railroad route across the Allegheny Mountains from the Plumbe foundry in central Pennsylvania to eastern markets. That endeavor commenced Plumbe’s lifelong interest in the potential of rail transportation. After serving briefly as postmaster for his hometown, Plumbe moved to Virginia (1832), where he worked on the construction of the first interstate railroad in America, a 60-mile stretch between Petersburg, Virginia and Blakely Depot, N.C.
Plumbe returned home after that project, where he married Sarah Zimmerman, having one daughter in 1833. After fire destroyed Dr. Plumbe’s metal foundry in 1836, John and his family made the big move to Dubuque in Wisconsin Territory, which then included all of present-day Iowa.
It’s here in Dubuque when John became a huge advocate for a transcontinental railroad, reasoning that it “would hasten the formation of dense settlements throughout the whole extent of the road, advance the sales of the public lands, afford increased facilities to the agricultural, commercial and mining interests of the country…and enable the government to transport troops and munitions of war.”
As a land speculator in Wisconsin Territory, Plumbe purchased and sold several Dubuque city lots, playing an active role in civic affairs, serving as president of the Board of Trustees for the Village of Dubuque (1837). In 1838, he became secretary of the Dubuque Literary Association and the Temperance Society, and he drafted a resolution to Congress for improved postal routes. As it turned out, John was also a prolific newspaper correspondent, advocating for a variety of social causes under the pseudonym Iowaian.
As an engineer, Plumbe established the Wisconsin General Land Agency in Dubuque, engaging himself as a surveyor and agent for the town of Sinipee (Wisconsin Territory), a river port four miles north and east of Dubuque. It was there that John first gave voice to his dream of building a transcontinental railroad, drafting a survey that focused on the first link of his grand project: a rail line stretching from the shores of Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. A persistent man, Plumbe convinced one of his political friends, George W. Jones, to take his phase one plan to Congress. The response was not what he expected. Jack T. Johnson explains…
(BH-054) Disappointed, but not defeated, John turned his efforts toward drawing people’s attention to the many economic opportunities and natural bounties of Iowa, authoring Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin (1839), one of the earliest works published west of the Mississippi advocating immigration. This now, very rare book from 1839, provides us with the one of the earliest overviews of Iowa Territory. In the back of his book, Plumbe included a large fold-out map which indicates (see below) the new “City of Iowa” as it had now been established as the new Iowa Territorial capital city! Read more here.
After working briefly for the Wisconsin territorial legislature in late 1839, Plumbe decided to venture east to continue his campaign for a Pacific railroad. While in Boston, he discovered the newly introduced daguerreotype process of photography, and saw it as a means of support for himself and his life’s goals. Within six years Plumbe had attained a national reputation through photographic competitions and by establishing a chain of twenty-three galleries.
Plumbe’s Dubuque gallery, opened in 1841 and operated by his brother Richard (1810-1896), was the first photographic establishment west of the Mississippi. Plumbe manufactured and imported photographic materials, gave instruction to the first generation of photographers, and published dozens of lithographic prints of noted Americans based on his daguerreotypes. Among his many achievements are the earliest photographs of the White House and the U.S. Capitol, the earliest photograph of a president in office – James K. Polk – and thousands of portraits of the most noted personalities of the era.
Plumbe created a lithographic process for reproducing photographic images, called the “plumbeotype,” pioneering brand name recognition while publishing a magazine (see pic above) filled with illustrations based on his photographs. This branding approach to photography would soon be adopted by Mathew Brady, who successfully put his name on thousands of Civil War photographs, making his name synonymous with 19th century photography. But for Plumbe, he was not that fortunate, and by late 1848, had experienced severe financial reverses due to competition and mismanagement, and was forced to sell his galleries to pay his debts.
Plumbe walked away from it all and answered the westward call of 1849, joining the thousands of other Forty-Niners who headed west for the California gold fields. Yet, for an engineer with an unfulfilled dream, it wasn’t gold dust John was looking for, but a way to sell his transcontinental railroad idea, which the swelling tide of westward expansion made not only practical but necessary. Over the next five years, he traveled up and down the West Coast surveying for a practical route for his railroad. At Sacramento in 1850, he served as surveyor and register of the Settlers Association, publishing a pamphlet challenging John Sutter’s claim to that city. The following year he issued his Memorial Against Mr. Asa Whitney’s Railroad Scheme, exposing Whitney as a land grab opportunist. All the while, John worked as a customs inspector for the port of San Francisco, engaging in California state politics, and continuing his efforts to lobby Congress for a Pacific railroad.
In 1854, Plumbe decided he had had enough of California, and returned to Dubuque to open a patent agency and with his brother Richard, established a steam-powered mill near the present site of Cottage Hill, Iowa, then known as Plumbe’s Mills. Sadly, the mill was a failure, and the Panic of 1857 drastically reduced Plumbe’s financial resources. Suffering from the prolonged effects of malaria and from acute depression, Plumbe ended his life at age 48, committing suicide at his brother’s residence in Dubuque on May 28, 1857 – only twelve short years before the transcontinental railroad he dreamed of was actually completed!
Suicide, in John’s era, was seen as the ultimate disgrace, so, sadly, little records were kept surrounding his personal affairs. No one seems to know the whereabouts of John’s wife and daughter, and it was only in 1977, as historians began to better appreciate this amazing man’s life, when a monument was finally erected in Dubuque’s Linwood Cemetery recognizing his burial site. Here, from Jack T. Johnson’s 1938 article is a fitting conclusion for one man who many believe was the “Father of the United States Transcontinental Railroad… John Plumbe, Jr.
Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.