Atlantis on the Mississippi!


Clifford Krainik.

This article was first published in Julien's Journal-The Dubuque Area Magazine, August 2001, and is reproduced here by permission of the author.

Just four miles to the north and east of metropolitan Dubuque, on a diagonal line across the Mississippi from Eagle Point Park, a sheer, flat-faced bluff rises above the river. It is the silent marker to an extraordinary and tragic tale. Here, a hundred and twenty-five years ago, Sinipee stood ready to rival Dubuque as the center for river commerce. The story of this ephemeral port is filled with the expectations of men establishing their presence on the frontier and their struggle for economic survival. The successes and failures of the doomed village were recorded in the diaries of John Plumbe, Jr., a remarkable man who played a critical role in the town’s development and who dared to dream and voice his vision of the future.

It was at Sinipee that the genesis of the United States transcontinental railroad was formed - an event that would impact the destiny of the nation.

The story of Sinipee begins with the earth itself. For centuries the Mesquakie people dug chunks of lead ore from the fertile ground in the Mississippi Valley in the region that one day would bear the name Dubuque. They plied the soft gray metal into ornaments and fashioned out tools and weapons. Lead was a commodity of exchange and prestige. In the late 1820s American settlers became aware of the considerable deposits of lead and began a frenzied rush to mine the valuable ore.

Long before gold became the driving force that would pull men inexorably westward, lead held out the allure of great and instant wealth. Soon it was discovered that the extensive but shallow veins of mineral radiated north and eastward from Dubuque, and within ten years this area became the Lead Mining Region. The Mississippi River provided an economic and constant avenue to transport the massy gray mineral to eastern and European markets. There, lead bars would be melted into pipes, bullets and newspaper type; it would be fashioned into pewter and mixed into paint with a hundred other applications demanded by the Industrial Revolution.

The town of Galena, Illinois, perched high on the banks of the Fever River became the dominant shipping port in the region. Great fortunes were amassed there by shippers at the expense of the men who dug and smelted the ore. Dissatisfied miners in lead-rich but landlocked Mineral Point, Wisconsin looked about for an alternate shipping center. The answer to their dilemma was found along the banks of the Mississippi in present day southwest Grant County, just a few miles south of Potosi, Wisconsin. Although thirty-five miles separated Mineral Point from the river, primitive roads were constructed suitable for the traffic of ox drawn wagons laden with lead ore. In the summer of 1838, a time of great national economic uncertainty, twenty-three Mineral Point investors formed the “Louisiana Company” and purchased a tract of river frontage from Payton Vaughn for $12,000. Vaughn, a native of North Carolina, had operated a successful cable-pulled ferry at this site for about a year. As part of their agreement, Vaughn was obliged to build a substantial hotel to accommodate the anticipated needs of the new community. The birth notice for the river-port town appeared in the August 4, 1838 edition of the “Iowa News.” It told in part, “the object of the company is to establish a depot for the lead made in the district … the landing is excellent, and reached with ease by the largest of boats. The name given to it is Port Sinipee

According to Virgil J. Vogel, in Indian Names on Wisconsin's Map, the name Sinipee is a Sauk word composed of assini meaning "rock" and nipee for "water," or "the place of the rock by the water." The name was well chosen for it aptly describes the land mass jutting into the Mississippi river at the base of a towering limestone bluff. The Louisiana Company retained the services of a twenty-eight year old civil engineer, John Plumbe, Jr., to survey the town and serve as agent for the sale of lots. Plumbe had arrived in the Wisconsin Territory in 1836 fresh from his experience in building a railroad from Petersburg, Virginia to the Roanoke Rapids in North Carolina - the first interstate railroad in America. A prolific newspaper correspondent and diarist, Plumbe left a detailed record of the day-to-day events in Sinipee. They are optimistic accounts of his work, his plans for the future and his correspondence with the leading statesmen of the territorial government. Two of Plumbe's Sinipee diaries are preserved in the archives of the University of Wisconsin and Loras College, Dubuque.

From the late summer of 1838 through the spring of the following year approximately twenty buildings were erected at Sinipee including private residences, shops, several warehouses and stores. The future looked very promising for the new town. Carpenters, masons, merchants and mechanics were successfully recruited from the Territory and best of all, large quantities of lead began arriving.

A fleet of St. Louis steamboats bearing such names as Hero, Smelter, and Osceola began to make Sinipee a scheduled port of call.

Stone House Hotel, Sinipee, Wisconsin Territory, 
now Grant County, Wisconsin. Photograph circa 1880. 
(Credit: Plumbe Archives; Krainik Collection.) Real estate values in the embyonic village took a speculative leap skyward. One report tells of choice town lots selling for $2,000. The steady flow of lead from the mining district with its increased riverboat traffic and the soaring real estate values were undeniable signs of Sinipee's prosperity. The hotel that Payton Vaughn was required to build was completed in a handsome manner. The expansive two story building was constructed from local stone, the front of which was dressed with a smooth surface. Local lore persists that Zachary Taylor and Jefferson Davis were guests at the Stone House while stationed at Fort Crawford, Prairie du Chien. Interesting as the thought might be, their visits are historically improbable based on the reason that both men had left the Wisconsin Territory years before Sinipee came into existence.

The Stone House at Sinipee did serve as the location for a critical moment in history.

John Plumbe considered the construction of railroads as an essential component of national economic development, the key to Manifest Destiny. He viewed the railroads as ties to unite the country, binding the industrial north to the agrarian south with the western frontier. He knew firsthand the tremendous commercial advantages the railroad could provide. On December 14, 1838 the citizens of Sinipee gathered at the Stone House and listened as Plumbe presented his idea to petition Congress for funding to build a railroad from Lake Michigan to the Mississippi River. Further, he reasoned this railroad would be only the first link in a chain of railroads that would stretch across the continent to the Pacific Ocean!

A unanimous resolution was passed supporting Plumbe's railroad plans. A Memorial was drafted and presented to Congress by Territorial Delegate George Wallace Jones. Plumbe's request was favorably received and funding for a survey was appropriated through the War Department. Plumbe's vision and the actions of the citizens of Sinipee were the beginning of the United States transcontinental railroad.

At the height of Sinipee's development the population probably did not exceed two hundred citizens, nor were there built more than twenty-five commercial buildings. Even though plans were under way to expand the residential areas, settlement was slowed by national economic reverses. Then, in the spring of 1839 disaster struck Sinipee. Much of the town was inundated by the swollen Mississippi, widened by early thaws and heavy rains. Although destruction to property was minimal, the stagnant pools left by the receding flood waters spelled doom to the town. The slimy ponds exposed to the heat of summer nurtured swarms of malaria-bearing mosquitoes. An epidemic swept the community - most of the citizens fell ill, many died. Soon the bluff became a burial ground.

In the mid 19th century the cause and treatment of malaria or "the ague" as it was then called were unknown. Flight from the deadly place was the only means of survival. Many of the investors tried for years, in vain, to sell their river property.

John Plumbe went east to continue his pursuit of a Pacific railroad.

By the beginning of 1840 all but two families had abandoned Sinipee. Theodore Rodolf, a member of the Louisiana Company returned to Sinipee and wrote this haunting account of his visit: Another view of Sinipee's Stone House Hotel, circa 1880. (Credit:Plumbe Archives; Krainik Collection.)

When we finally rode down the ravine to the Mississippi River, and the bankrupted city burst upon our view, a singular sensation took hold of me. The buildings were all new, showing no sign of decay or deterioration by usage or the weather, having stood there but a little over a year. I expected momentarily to see the occupants come out to bid us welcome. There, was, however, not a living being to be seen or heard … I think not even a bird gave life to the desolation. The quiet of a church-yard reigned. The houses, all painted white, seemed to loom up as monuments of departed greatness.

The wooden buildings of Sinipee were dismantled for their valuable plank boards or brought on sleds over the ice to Dubuque. The Stone Hotel survived into the 20th century but fell victim to an unintentional fire in 1904. The stone walls were eventually removed by a contractor as fill for a dam on the river. On October 15, 1934 Mississippi Lock and Dam Number 11, just below Eagle Point Park, was completed causing the area above the site to flood. The land mass where most of Port Sinipee once stood now reposes under water. Only the bluff and the unmarked graves at Sinipee remain.

Webmaster's Note: Mr. Krainik is an independent historian, appraiser, and dealer in nineteenth century photography. He resides in Warrenton, Virginia and is currently completing the biography of John Plumbe, Jr.

Finding Sinipee Today. The remains of the Sinipee settlement are located along the Mississippi River in Section 7, Jamestown Township, Grant County, Wisconsin. For a topographic view of the area, please click here.

Sinipee an overview based on Bill Starke's 1977 study of Wisconsin's ghost towns.

Diary of John Plumbe, Jr., Oct. 17, 1838 - July 5, 1839. (Original preserved at the Southwest Wisconsin Room, Karmann Library, University of Wisconsin, Platteville.)

Read more about Grant County's ghost towns by clicking here.