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Smith, Platt
(May 6, 1813–1882)

–attorney and railroad promoter—was born to poor parents at Hoosick, New York. He had no opportunity for formal education, and when he landed in Iowa as a young lad he could read but little and was barely able to sign his own name. Yet when he died in 1882 he was recalled as one of the notable lawyers and public men of early Iowa.

    Smith was a big man with a long, stern face and was remembered by one contemporary as rather rough and unsocial in his manners. In his early years, he found employment as a farmhand, carpenter, mechanic, and store clerk. He went into business on his own, only to see his enterprise vanish during the Panic of 1837. He then worked as a millwright before rafting lumber on the Mississippi River.

    Fortune smiled on Smith at the age of 30 when a friend staked him to a set of law books. Shortly thereafter he clerked for an attorney at Bellevue and read law in his office; it served as an apt apprenticeship for Smith to hone his natural talents, to mature his great persuasive ability, and to provide an environment where he could become familiar with court procedures. He moved to Dubuque; was admitted to the bar; won acclaim in criminal defense, in claims cases, and in civil matters; earned a reputation as one of the city's best attorneys; and was admitted to practice before the Iowa Supreme Court and the U.S. Supreme Court.

    Given the railroad fever sweeping the country, it is hardly surprising that Platt Smith got caught up in it. His vision, shrewdness, and abiding common sense were skillfully applied in several railroad ventures in Dubuque and beyond. Smith shared in founding the Dubuque & Pacific, drawing up its articles of incorporation on April 28, 1853, and he personally secured much of the road's right-ofway leading from the Mississippi River to the west. Smith and other Dubuque advocates– Jesse P. Farley and Frederick Jesup among them–quickly learned, however, that railroads were capital intensive and that capital for their project was extremely competitive. Progress was slow. Rails reached only to Dyersville four years after incorporation papers had been filed. The Panic of 1857 then entrapped the road. Smith appealed to Governor Ralph P. Lowe for state assistance, arguing that public sentiment favored public aid in railroad construction. To no avail. The Dubuque & Pacific stumbled and in 1860 was reorganized as the Dubuque & Sioux City. Smith represented the new company as its attorney, and he and others from Dubuque remained on the board, but control passed to Morris K. Jesup, a New York financier and iron merchant, and brother of Dubuque banker Frederick Jesup. Rails pressed westward as the economy improved–to Nottingham in 1858 and to Cedar Falls in 1861. The Civil War stalled most railroad construction in Iowa and around the country. The Dubuque & Sioux City finally reached Ackley in 1865, Iowa Falls a year later. Then crews were ordered to lay up. The Jesup brothers and others had run out of capital and enthusiasm. Smith took exception, arguing that the franchise demanded completion of the road to the Missouri River at Sioux City and that the road's potentially lucrative land grant would be lost if construction was not vigorously prosecuted. A breach between Smith and the others became a full rupture.

    Determined to see rails put through to Sioux City, Smith allied himself with John I. Blair of New Jersey, who had successfully constructed a Chicago and North Western predecessor across the state from Clinton to Council Bluffs and had additional Iowa rail interests. Farley and others at Dubuque and elsewhere denounced Smith, calling him a traitor to their cause. Undeterred, Smith joined with Blair in creating the Iowa Falls & Sioux City, which pressed on to Fort Dodge in 1869 and completed the Sioux City link a year later. The Illinois Central soon thereafter leased and eventually purchased the Dubuque & Sioux City and the Iowa Falls & Sioux City–later adding other lines to Cedar Rapids; Albert Lea, Minnesota; Omaha; and Sioux Falls, South Dakota, to establish a formidable presence in Iowa.

    Smith took great pride in the completion of the Dubuque-Sioux City project, but he had other major railroad interests, especially in the Dubuque area. He was aided in these several endeavors by a hard-hitting, commonsense style and a superb gift of satire coupled with a talent for making important friends such as Governor Ralph Lowe, Senator William Boyd Allison, industrialist Andrew Carnegie, and investor John I. Blair.

    After 1870 Smith devoted himself to founding the Dubuque Library Association, taking on only infrequent legal work, and living off his investments. He suffered strokes and paralysis and died in 1882.
Sources For more on Platt Smith, see Edward H. Styles, Recollections and Sketches of Notable Lawyers and Public Men of Early Iowa (1916); Arthur Q. Larson, "Platt Smith of Dubuque: His Early Career," Palimpsest 58 (1977), 88–96; and Arthur Q. Larson, "Railroads and Newspapers: The Dubuque Controversy of 1867," Annals of Iowa 48 (1986), 159–76.
Contributor: Don L. Hofsommer