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THE BIOGRAPHICAL DICTIONARY OF IOWA

University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Plumbe, John, Jr.
(July 13, 1809–May 28, 1857)

—civil engineer, author, photographer, print-maker, inventor, and advocate for a transcontinental railroad—was born to English parents at Castle Caereinion in Montgomeryshire, Wales, the second of five children of John Plumbe, M.D., and Frances Margaretta (Atherton) Plumbe. In July 1821 Dr. Plumbe moved his family to Philipsburg in central Pennsylvania, where he established an iron forge and opened the first metal screw factory in America. As a young boy, Plumbe worked in his father's business, attended school in Philipsburg, and at age 17 became a naturalized U.S. citizen.

    In 1827, 18-year-old John Plumbe Jr. apprenticed as a civil engineer under Wirt Robinson, helping to locate a feasible railroad route across the Allegheny Mountains from the Plumbe foundry to eastern markets. That endeavor commenced Plumbe's lifelong interest in the potential of rail transportation. After serving briefly as postmaster for Philipsburg, Plumbe continued his employment with Robinson, moving to Virginia in 1832, where he worked on the construction of the first interstate railroad in America. Plumbe then returned to Philipsburg, where he married Sarah Zimmerman; their daughter, Sarah, was baptized in 1833. After fire destroyed Dr. Plumbe's metal foundry in 1836, the Plumbe family moved to Dubuque in Wisconsin Territory, which then included all of present-day Iowa.

    John Plumbe Jr. began his career in Wisconsin Territory as a land speculator. By mid November 1836 he had purchased and sold several downtown Dubuque lots. The following year he advertised the sale of properties along the Mississippi River, including the town of Parkhurst. He later established the Wisconsin General Land Agency in Dubuque.

    Plumbe played an active role in civic affairs, serving as president of the Board of Trustees for the Village of Dubuque in 1837 and secretary of the Dubuque Literary Association and the Temperance Society and drafting a resolution to Congress for improved postal routes in 1838. He was a prolific newspaper correspondent who advocated internal improvements under the pseudonym "Iowaian."

    In 1838 Plumbe was engaged as surveyor and agent for the town of Sinipee, Wisconsin Territory, a river port four miles north and east of Dubuque. There he first gave voice to his dream of building a transcontinental railroad and drafted a memorial to Congress for a survey from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River as the first link in that grand project. Congress responded favorably with an initial appropriation, but the work was not completed due to the economic uncertainties of the times. Plumbe remained committed to the railroad project and pursued an extensive correspondence with the leading newspapers in the East.

    In an effort to draw attention to Iowa's economic opportunities and natural bounties, Plumbe authored Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin (1839), one of the earliest works published west of the Mississippi advocating immigration.

    After working briefly for the Wisconsin territorial legislature in late 1839, Plumbe went east to continue his campaign for a Pacific railroad. He turned to the newly introduced daguerreotype process of photography as a means of support and excelled in that endeavor. Within six years Plumbe had attained a national reputation through photographic competitions and by establishing a chain of 23 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 U.S. Capitol and White House (exterior and interior), the earliest photograph of a president in office (James K. Polk), and thousands of portraits of the most noted personalities of the era. Plumbe pioneered brand name recognition, obtained patent rights for color photography, and published a magazine filled with illustrations based on his photographs. By late 1848, however, Plumbe had experienced severe financial reverses due to competition and mismanagement and was forced to sell his galleries to pay his debts.

    In the meantime, Plumbe had used his national notoriety to further his designs for a transcontinental railroad through a series of lectures and with a letter campaign to influential newspapers. In the spring of 1849 he journeyed to California to survey a practical route for a railroad. At Sacramento in 1850, he served as surveyor and register of the Settlers Association and published 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. Plumbe worked as a customs inspector for the port of San Francisco in 1852, engaged in California state politics, and continued his efforts to lobby Congress for a Pacific railroad. He briefly tried his luck at gold mining before returning to Dubuque.

    In 1856 Plumbe opened a patent agency in Dubuque and with his brother Richard established a steam-powered mill near the present site of Cottage Hill, Iowa, then known as Plumbe's Mills. 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 eventful life by committing suicide at his brother's residence in Dubuque on May 28, 1857. In 1977 a monument was erected in Dubuque's Linwood Cemetery recognizing Plumbe's contributions to western immigration and photography and his vision for a U.S. transcontinental railroad.
Sources Plumbe's diaries are in the Karrmann Library, University of Wisconsin–Platteville; and Wahlert Library, Loras College, Dubuque, Iowa. See also Chandler C. Childs, Dubuque: Frontier River City (1984); Clifford Krainik, "National Vision, Local Enterprise: John Plumbe, Jr. and the Advent of Photography in Washington, D.C.," Washington History: Magazine of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C. (Fall/Winter 1997–1998), 4–27, 92–93; and William J. Petersen, introduction to Sketches of Iowa and Wisconsin, by John Plumbe, Jr. (1839; reprint, 1948).
Contributor: Clifford Krainik

Cite as: Krainik, Clifford. "Plumbe, John, Jr." The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 17 December 2017