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
Dey, Peter Anthony
(January 27, 1825–July 11, 1911)

–railroad engineer—was born in Romulus, New York, the son of Anthony and Hannah Dey. When he was five years old, the family moved to Seneca Falls, where he attended Seneca Falls Academy. In 1840 Dey enrolled at Geneva (later Hobart) College and graduated in 1844. He then studied law for two years in the office of Dexter Bloomer.

    Dey's career began when he was hired as an engineer with the New York and Erie Railroad. His first work was the extension of the line through the Delaware River valley in Pennsylvania, completed in 1848. Dey then worked for the Cayuga and Seneca Canal until 1850, when he helped design enlarged locks on the Erie Canal. By 1850 he was convinced that future transportation would emphasize railroads over canals, and he moved west to design rail lines for the Michigan Southern and the Northern Indiana companies. When those were completed in 1852, he joined the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad to build a line to the Mississippi River.

    From 1852 on, Dey's career was associated with extension of railroad lines in the West. By 1853 plans called for the extension of the railroad line into Iowa, and Dey was chosen to be head engineer. Despite opposition by people involved in steamboat and barge traffic, a bridge across the Mississippi River was completed on April 21, 1856, but two weeks later it burned after the steamboat Effie Afton collided with the span. From 1853 to 1856 Dey, with his principal assistant, Grenville M. Dodge, continued to survey the railroad route west from Davenport. The line, designated the Mississippi & Missouri Railroad, was built as far as Iowa City.

    In 1856 the federal government made land grants of more than a million-and-a-half acres of public land to fund the construction of four railroad lines across Iowa. Dey established his home in Iowa City at that time and constructed a house that still stands.

    Even as the Iowa survey was proceeding, Dey was sent to Omaha to begin the surveys for the transcontinental railroad across the plains. He selected the gradual natural grade of the Platte River as the route. In 1859 Abraham Lincoln met Grenville Dodge at Council Bluffs, where Lincoln became convinced that Council Bluffs should be the eastern terminus of the prospective transcontinental Railroad. Congress passed the bill authorizing and funding the line in 1862.

    Dey was appointed chief engineer in 1864, and outlined the route through Nebraska, Wyoming, and Utah. General Grenville Dodge was released from military service to assist him, and Dey began work for the Union Pacific Railroad. Construction began immediately, although shortages of labor and materials delayed work. Financial problems forced the company to seek help from Crédit Mobilier of America. Herbert Hoxie, a consulting engineer from Crédit Mobilier, promoted a different route west of the Missouri River than the one Dey had chosen, one that was 20 miles longer and required more bridges and more extensive excavations. The contractor for Crédit Mobilier estimated that it would cost $50,000 per mile. Dey, claiming that the railroad could be built for $20,000 per mile using his route, resigned because he believed that the new route and cost estimate simply were a way to gouge money from the federal government and from Omaha and Nebraska.

    After his resignation, Dey returned to his home in Iowa City, where he became an active local businessman and politician. He was appointed to the Examining Board and the Building Committee of the State University of Iowa; South Hall and North Hall both were built during his tenure. Dey also organized and was president of the Iowa City Elevator Company. Dey surveyed a railroad line between Dubuque and Keokuk through Iowa City, although it was never completed. In 1872 Governor Samuel Merrill appointed him as one of three members of the Board of Capitol Commissioners to superintend the construction of a new state capitol. The new building was completed in 1886, and an audit of the finances involved accounted for all but $3.77 out of a total fund of $2,873,295.

    In 1878 the Iowa legislature authorized a Board of Railroad Commissioners, and governor John Gear appointed Dey as one of the three men to supervise railroad operations in Iowa. For the next 10 years, Dey was reappointed four times by three Republican governors–Gear, Buren Robinson Sherman, and William Larrabee –although he was a prominent Democrat who had served as delegate to the 1876 national convention that nominated Samuel Tilden. Legislation in 1888 forced the election of railroad commissioners. Dey was defeated in 1890, but won election in 1891 and served until 1894. In all, he spent 14 years as a capitol commissioner, and 15 years as a railroad commissioner.

    In Iowa City, Dey served on the Board of Curators of the State Historical Society of Iowa from 1887 until 1910, serving as president from 1901 until 1909. During his years on the board, the society began publication of the Iowa Journal of History and Politics and the Iowa Biographical Series, and Benjamin Franklin Shambaugh was chosen as Superintendent and Editor in 1907. For many years (1869-1878 and 1895-1911), Dey served as president of the First National Bank. Other business involvements included an ice company and the St. James Hotel. But he is best remembered for his integrity as chief engineer of the Union Pacific Railroad. Dey died at his home in Iowa City.
Sources A full biography is Jack T. Johnson, Peter Anthony Dey: Integrity in Public Service (1939). Dey prepared his own brief biographical sketch for Clarence Aurner, Leading Events in Johnson County Iowa History, 2 vols. (1912–1913). Obituaries appeared in the Iowa City Daily Press, 7/12/1911; and Annals of Iowa 10 (1911), 237–38. See also Loren N. Horton, "Prominent Iowa Episcopalians: Peter Anthony Dey," Iowa Churchman 79 (June 1977), 2.
Contributor: Loren N. Horton