The University of Iowa LibrariesThe Biographical Dictionary of Iowa: Jacket Art - Agriculture - Cresco, Iowa by Richard Haines ca 1934 -  Photo by Scott Christopher courtesy of Gregg Narber


University of Iowa Press Digital Editions
Reynolds, Joseph "Diamond Jo"
(June 11, 1819–February 21, 1891)

–steamboat entrepreneur, grain dealer, railroad builder, and miner—was born at Fallsburg, Sullivan County, New York, the youngest of six children of Quaker parentage. After attending elementary school, he engaged in various businesses, including butchering, general merchandising, flour milling, and tanning. In 1855 he and his wife, Mary E. (Morton), moved to Chicago, where he established a tannery. Customarily, he supplied his business with hides and furs by touring Iowa, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Originally, he addressed his shipments to himself as J. Reynolds. But when he discovered that Chicago had another J. Reynolds, he developed his distinctive trademark of a diamond shape enclosing his nickname "Jo."Throughout his subsequent business career he was known as "Diamond Jo."

    His career change to wheat dealer for the Chicago market prompted him in 1860 to move to McGregor, Iowa, a major wheat market. To establish an efficient purchasing and shipping system, he invested in railroad line elevators in Iowa and Minnesota and entered steamboating to collect wheat along portions of the upper Mississippi.

    He had his first steamboat built at Lansing, Iowa, in 1862, but generally until 1868 he paid other boatmen to transport his wheat. But dissatisfied with the service, he reentered steamboating by forming the Chicago, Fulton, and River Line. The company's four steamers, including the Diamond Jo, and accompanying barges operated in connection with the Chicago and North Western Railroad out of Fulton, Illinois. The two firms arranged for freight exchanges to supply wheat to the Chicago market and deliver a variety of goods shipped westward by the railroad.

    While based at Fulton, Reynolds's line became known as the Diamond Jo. However, the name was not formalized until the incorporation of the Diamond Jo Line in 1883.

    In 1874 Reynolds moved his general office from Fulton to Dubuque and started a large boatyard at Eagle Point, three miles north of town. The boatyard, which employed many carpenters and mechanics, was used to build and repair Reynolds's boats as well as those of other upper Mississippi operators.

    The financial difficulties of the rival Keokuk Northern Line Packet Company enabled the efficient Reynolds to expand. In 1879 Diamond Jo boats began offering St. Paul-St. Louis service, and when the Keokuk Northern went bankrupt in 1880, Reynolds turned from his previous freight business to the passenger trade. In the 1880s the most famous Diamond Jo vessels, such as the Mary Morton, were luxurious passenger boats. When the successor of the Keokuk Northern ceased operating in 1890, the Diamond Jo Line was the only remaining organized steamboat company between St. Louis and St. Paul.

    Steamboating and wheat dealing were his main enterprises, but Reynolds turned to other ventures as well. Displeased with the stagecoach service between Malvern and the health resort town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, he had a 22-mile narrow gauge railroad built between the towns in 1875. Later he replaced the line with a standard gauge.

    In the mid 1880s Reynolds got involved in gold and silver mining in Colorado and Arizona. His most successful investment was the Congress Mine, which produced both gold and silver, at Congress, Arizona. He died of pneumonia in 1891 while visiting the mine.

    The Diamond Jo Line passed to his widow, and after her death on August 2, 1895, to a group headed by her brother Jay. Finally, in 1911 it was sold to the Streckfus Steamboat Company.

    Reynolds, remembered by friends and colleagues as a frugal, unpretentious, teetotaling gentleman with a kindly disposition, loved to tinker in carpentry and mechanics. Even after he had become very wealthy, he would often appear in work clothes to repair boats.

    Leaving an estimated $7 million fortune (approximately $150 million in 2006 dollars), Reynolds generously willed substantial amounts to some individuals and made two other significant bequests. In memory of his only child, a son named Blake, who predeceased him, he and his wife established a memorial park replete with artesian well and fountain in McGregor. His endowment to the University of Chicago was used to construct the Reynolds Club, a building still used as the institution's student union.
Sources The McGregor Public Library has a small collection of newspaper clippings and other items about Reynolds and the Blake Memorial Fountain. The University of Chicago Archives has records of Reynolds's gift to the university and the history of the Reynolds Club. Reynolds's business career, with emphasis on steamboating, is described in George B. Merrick, "Joseph Reynolds and the Diamond Jo Line Steamers, 1862–1911," Proceedings of the Mississippi Valley Historical Association for the Year 1914–15 (1916). Four popularly written, undocumented articles by William J. Petersen in the Palimpsest contain detailed information about the Diamond Jo Line. "Joseph Reynolds" and "The Diamond Jo Line" were published in July 1943. "Good Times on the Diamond Jo," which contains numerous photographs of the line's steamers, and "Some Diamond Jo Vignettes" are in the April 1970 issue. Lena Myers, "McGregor Notable, 'Diamond Joe [ sic ],' North Iowa Times (McGregor), 5/31/1951, sketched Reynolds's career, with coverage of his home and other Reynolds-related sites in McGregor. A biographical sketch in The Portrait and Bio graphical Record of Winona County, Minnesota (1895) emphasized Reynolds's wheat purchasing. Captain Fred A. Bill, a longtime manager in the Diamond Jo Line, reminisced about Reynolds in the St. Paul Pioneer Press, 7/11/1915.
Contributor: William E. Lass