When the explorer Zebulon Pike voyaged up the Mississippi in 1805 in his failed search for the river’s headwaters in northern Minnesota, he was transfixed by the stretch of country between what became northwestern Illinois and the future site of Minneapolis. Pike described it as “the most mountainous and beautiful in the entire valley of the Mississippi.” Indeed, the scenery here is astonishing and often unexpected to drivers crossing the great river or traveling up the Great River Road from Keokuk, Iowa, toward Galena and La Crosse, all the way to the Twin Cities. Compared to the huge flatlands to the east and west, this part of the valley is a great relief. Americans today are perhaps as unprepared for the amazing beauty of the Mississippi Valley as Pike must have been when he first came up the river, having no idea what he would find there.
Situated at the heart of the unique geological area known as the Driftless, the bluff country along the upper Mississippi is a masterpiece of nature’s chisel. The beauty goes on for miles, into the heart of this landscape where four states come together. The Driftless is virtually the only part of the Midwest that was not flattened by glaciers during the last Ice Age. Its trout streams and breathtaking topography are often compared to the cozy valleys of the Southern Appalachians and the karst country of central Kentucky. Wider expanses in the interior evoke the Flint Hills of Kansas. Due to the nature of the sloping terrain, big industrial agriculture has never been feasible in this dramatic place, and in recent years it has become home to movements in “alternative” organic farming and sustainable living.
And while the Upper Midwest was settled mostly by Germans and Scandinavians, when settlers first began to move here in the 1830s, the contours of this unique land must have immediately appealed to Southerners.
Such a man was Peyton Vaughn, who arrived from North Carolina around 1830. Coming with his wife, Vaughn purchased a small tract of land about a half-mile from the Mississippi near the mouth of Sinipee Creek. If he climbed the impressive bluff on his property, Vaughn could have seen for many miles up and down the great valley. Four miles downstream was the future site of Dubuque, Iowa (then a part of Wisconsin Territory), which was chartered as a town three years after Vaughn arrived in the area. The most important nearby settlement, however, was Galena, Illinois, three miles inland from the Mississippi on the Fever River and about twenty miles south of Sinipee Creek. Galena was rapidly becoming the center of all activity in this region.
Vaughn settled in what was known as the Lead Mining District or Mineral District, a general term including much of what later became the state of Wisconsin. The Driftless region, in the southwestern part of this territory, was incredibly rich in lead ore, which at that time promised even greater fortunes than gold and was more abundant. The valuable mineral could be melted into lead bars for easier export downstream and was eventually shipped to the East Coast and to Europe, where manufacturers turned it into a range of products – from bullets to pipes to newspaper print.
In fact, it was lead, not agriculture, that was the primary lure drawing settlers to Wisconsin in the 1830s. (A growing population led Wisconsin Territory to be carved out of Michigan Territory in 1836.) Lead mining was so important to the early economy that it led to the state’s nickname, “The Badger State.” Miners dug into hillsides like burrowing animals, and a lead miner – not a farmer – stands next to a sailor on the state flag. The center of mining operations in Wisconsin was clustered around the U.S. Land Office at Mineral Point, thirty-five miles from the river.
Today, Mineral Point is one of the most beautiful small towns in the Midwest. Most of its unique sandstone architecture dates from the late Federal period, which lingered into the 1830s, when mining was dominant here. Many houses were built by Cornish miners who resettled from England and built diminutive buildings resembling those of the Old World villages they came from. Pendarvis, a Wisconsin state historic site, is the best known of them. It sits across the road from a spot, once mined, called the Merry Christmas Mine, now restored to grassland and woods and called the Merry Christmas Prairie.
(J.E. Whitney, Views on the Upper Mississippi, circa 1865. New York Public Library Digital Collections.)
(J.L. Nye, Tornado damage, Mineral Point, Wisconsin, 1878. New York Public Library Digital Collections.)
The problem for early Wisconsin miners was that in order to get lead to market, they had to sell it to middlemen in Galena, the region’s only shipping port. Railroads, still a new innovation, had not reached this far west, and roads for ox-drawn wagons were primitive at best and not ideal for carrying a heavy product like lead. In the 1830s, Galena’s monopoly as a shipping port guaranteed its position as a wealthy and cultured town, which it remained until after the Civil War. Its famous architecture dates mostly from its boom days.
Peyton Vaughn, who survived the violence between whites and the Sauk during the Black Hawk War of 1832, was neither a miner nor an enterprising industrialist. He operated a cable-pulled ferry on his property for a year or two. Then he became aware of his great luck in having bought land here. A group of twenty-three investors from Mineral Point determined that the mouth of Sinipee Creek would be the ideal location for a port to rival Galena. In 1838, they started up the “Louisiana Company” (presumably because everything shipped downstream would eventually go to New Orleans.) They offered Vaughn $12,000 (at that time a huge sum of money) for a piece of his river frontage. In exchange, Vaughn agreed to use half of the money to build a suitable hotel at the site, which he would become proprietor of. In the August 4, 1838, Iowa News of Dubuque, it was announced that “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.”
When town lots were laid out, they sold for large sums, as much as $2,000. Port Sinipee showed every sign of being caught up in a real estate frenzy. Carpenters and craftsmen came from Galena, Dubuque, and other parts of the territory, and homes, shops and warehouses rapidly sprang up. Mechanics and merchants came to oversee the construction of docks for the barges that now began to wander upstream from St. Louis to take on lead ore. By the spring of 1839, about twenty buildings had been erected. It is unclear whether they were of quick, shoddy construction, or solid like Vaughn’s hotel. Vaughn, for one, put all his effort into building the best edifice he could make, far exceeding the expectations of the Mineral Point investors. He built his hotel of local stone, two-stories high, with walls two feet thick. “The lower floors were of oak, those above of pine, the timbers of oak and red cedar.” Sitting at the base of the bluff, pure spring water is said to have passed right under the hotel. A fine ballroom occupied much of the second floor. Vaughn’s “Stone House,” though never entirely finished, was no primitive frontier tavern, for sure. It would have been one of the finest buildings in Wisconsin at that time.
A Methodist church was established. General stores carried “large stocks which included costly furniture and delicate chinaware that one would not expect to see offered for sale in such a wild country. Miss Isabel Fenley had in her living room a large, much prized mirror that was purchased at a store in Sinipee in 1840.”
By far the most interesting man to show up here and tie himself to its rising fortunes was the engineer, newspaper correspondent, and photographic pioneer John Plumbe., Jr. Plumbe’s remarkably tragic and unexpected story spans the history of mining, frontiers, and photography alike.
Born at Castle Caerinion in Wales in 1809, Plumbe immigrated with his parents to central Pennsylvania in 1821, where his father operated the first metal screw factory in the United States and helped drive the first railroad over the Alleghanies. John Plumbe, Jr., studied civil engineering, presumably in Philadelphia. While in his twenties, he worked on the construction of the first interstate railroad back East, between Petersburg, Virginia, and Roanoke Rapids, North Carolina. Seeing prospects for success in the west, he eventually followed the expanding frontier, ending up in the vicinity of Dubuque, Iowa, when it was still a booming new town. Noticing his talents, the Louisiana Company of Sinipee, located just a few miles upriver, hired the twenty-eight year old engineer to do surveying at the port and assist in laying out lots for the buildings that were projected to rise. Plumbe’s diary from these years, beginning October 17, 1838, is a record of his daily comings-and-goings during the quick rise and fall of the burgeoning town of Sinipee.
(John Plumbe’s diary, State of Wisconsin Collection, University of Wisconsin-Platteville.)
One of the oddest turns in Sinipee’s history and Plumbe’s own story occurred shortly after he came to Dubuque. Plumbe was a wild dreamer and a “jack of all trades,” never consistently tied down to one profession or one vision of his own career. Yet he was undoubtedly tireless, even obsessed, with the several professions that he pursued, from engineering to photography. It was his tireless effort to promote Sinipee, in fact, that led to his laying the first seeds of the Transcontinental Railroad.
Ironically, while the port’s existence was tied directly to the huge significance of the river as a transportation artery, Sinipee itself, as the “birthplace” of the railroad, would play an indirect role in the eventual eclipse of the Mississippi as the main highway through Middle America. On December 14, 1838, John Plumbe met with investors from Mineral Point and citizens of Sinipee at Vaughn’s Stone Hotel. From a certain point-of-view, this date can be considered the birthday of the railroad that would eventually traverse the U.S. Plumbe proposed petitioning Congress to fund a new rail line linking Milwaukee on Lake Michigan to Port Sinipee on the other side of Wisconsin, the first link in a series of lines that would (he hoped) connect the Eastern U.S. to Oregon.
At this time, existing rail lines in Europe and America were short, sometimes not more than a few miles long, and trains rarely moved at a speed faster than ten miles an hour, and even that was fast enough to make the Duke of Wellington – the victor of the Battle of Waterloo – faint from dizziness while taking a short train ride during his old age. Plumbe’s proposal, however, was unanimously supported by the investors and a resolution was forwarded to Congress by Wisconsin’s territorial delegate. The War Department later approved funding for a survey of the proposed route, which eventually culminated in the completion of a cross-country railroad thirty years later, its final golden spike driven into desert ground in Utah in 1869.
Tragically, neither Sinipee nor John Plumbe would participate much further in the railroad or in the economic prosperity of the country. The town fell victim to one of the ever-present causes of “town demise” in the 19th-century Midwest. This was the destructive force of rivers and the persistence of water-borne diseases. In the spring of 1839, only a few months after Plumbe optimistically touted Sinipee’s importance to a nation being covered in rails, spring floods on the Mississippi inundated the town. The water itself did relatively little damage and the town’s inhabitants simply waited for the swollen waters to recede. Yet stagnant pools left by the flood bred a deadly array of diseases. Always a colossal nuisance near inland rivers, mosquitoes spread malaria in proportions far worse than what settlers here were used to. Sinipee’s citizens fell ill in large numbers. At least sixty of them, perhaps a quarter of the town, died.
Once a place was known to breed fever and other “bug” diseases (then sometimes called simply the “ague”), it was difficult to get other people to move there, even with great predictions of a coming fortune. As Sinipee’s inhabitants began to drift away, others were reluctant to buy their vacated property. After all, if the spot was so promising, why had the sellers left? By the beginning of 1840, it seems only the Vaughn family remained, though “wildcat” currency bearing the name “Sinipee, Wisc.” was still being printed four years later.
Thedore Rodolf, a Louisiana Company investor, rode into town in 1840 and claimed to find it all abandoned:
“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.”
(“Wildcat” banknote issued to “J. Davis,” July 10, 1844.)
By 1850, a large frame house was all that was left of Sinipee’s business district. In the years after the epidemic hit, the little port’s buildings were dismantled bit by bit for re-use in the mine shafts at Mineral Point. Wooden planks were carried over the ice on the river to Dubuque, still a growing town whose importance would have been far greater to Wisconsin miners if it had been on their side of the river. Payton Vaughn died around 1845. His wife lived in the grand Stone Hotel until her death in 1861. Their son later moved onto a farm up the bluff, a place called Sinipee Heights, which overlooked the town site.
When the uninhabited Stone Hotel burned in 1904, its ruins were left where they fell. Distanced in time from its “heyday,” folklore began to circulate about famous guests who once stayed or danced there. It was claimed that Zachary Taylor and Jefferson Davis lodged at the hotel while they were stationed at Fort Crawford, the remote frontier outpost upriver that became Prairie du Chien. Davis and Taylor were certainly in the vicinity during the 1832 Black Hawk War. (The future Confederate president protected the defeated chief Black Hawk during his journey to prison, earning the leader’s friendship and admiration.) But the story of them stopping at Vaughn’s hotel in Sinipee cannot be true. Though there is a “wildcat” banknote from Sinipee issued to one “J. Davis” in July 1844, the future Confederate president had resigned his military commission and left Wisconsin three years before the town of Sinipee came into existence.
Jefferson Davis’ experiences during these years were truly romantic. He fell in love with Taylor’s beautiful daughter Sarah Knox Taylor at Fort Crawford, married her against her father’s wishes in Louisville, Kentucky, in 1835, then went back South with her, down the Mississippi, where she died of malaria near their plantation outside St. Francisville, Louisiana, after only three months of marriage. Struck down by grief, Davis plunged into eight years of gloomy seclusion.
It has often been said that Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln were similar men. Both were native Kentuckians and sons of the frontier, both had served in the Black Hawk War on the Upper Mississippi, both were reluctant fighters who felt called by duty when the Civil War erupted but had already seen death themselves and would have been happy to stay away from it all.
They were alike in another way, too: Davis and Lincoln had both lost their first loves and their personalities were shaped by that experience. Lincoln, in his twenties, in New Salem, Illinois (like Sinipee, abandoned not many years later), nearly committed suicide when his great love Ann Rutledge, a bright and beautiful pioneer girl of 22, died of typhus in 1835. Like Davis, he was desolated by her loss. Lincoln spent weeks roaming the woods of the Sangamon River country in despair. Yet it was his response to pain, many thought, that “deepened” the young Lincoln and made him great. The poet Edgar Lee Masters, who wrote the epitaph on Ann Rutledge’s gravestone in Petersburg, Illinois, when she was moved out of a lonely pioneer grave years after Lincoln’s assassination to lie in honor in the town cemetery, included her voice in one of the few poems from Spoon River Anthology that spoke for real historical figures. “Out of me unworthy and unknown,” Masters had her say, a wraith by her own graveside, “the vibrations of deathless music, with malice toward none, charity for all. . . I am Ann Rutledge who sleeps beneath these weeds, beloved of Abraham Lincoln, wedded to him, not through union but through separation. Bloom forever, oh Republic, from the dust of my Bosom!”
(Unidentified woman. Daguerreotype by John Plumbe, Jr., circa 1846-48)
“Old Rough and Ready” Zachary Taylor had also disappeared from Wisconsin by the time Sinipee came into existence. In 1838, when Payton Vaughn built his hotel, Taylor was commanding troops in Florida during the Seminole War and never came north again. Both Taylor and Davis, however, traveling by military steamboat, would have sailed by the bluff towering over the site of Sinipee many times.
After the town’s demise, the optimistic engineer John Plumbe also left the area, returning east at first. As Sinipee’s buildings were dismantled and used elsewhere, Plumbe was in Washington, D.C. There, around 1840, he set eyes for the first time on a new invention that had come into the world around the same time as the locomotive and which would revolutionize it as much as any new kind of travel. Just three years after the Frenchman Louis-Jacques Daguerre, drawing on the work of Henry Fox Talbot in England and others in France, presented the world with a new art form, the daguerreotype, John Plumbe saw one of these amazing images in a Washington gallery. Fascinated, he took up the art of photography (then three just three years old), became a skilled practitioner of daguerreotypy within a few months, and quickly set up over twenty commercial portrait studios. Plumbe’s studios were scattered from Boston west to Dubuque and overseas to Liverpool and Paris, where he sought to compete with Daguerre himself.
Pioneering a process for transferring images to lithographs – an invention he called the “plumbeotype” – the Welshman and failed promoter of a port town in the Driftless became known briefly as the “American Daguerre,” advertising himself as a “professor of photography” just a few months after he learned to make these images himself. He may have worked briefly for the photographer Matthew Brady in New York or Washington. Plumbe made portraits of many of the famous Americans of the time, including the writer Washington Irving, the historian George Bancroft, naturalist John James Audubon, and the enslaved artisan of Monticello, Isaac Jefferson. He is also credited with making the earliest photographs both of a sitting U.S. President (James Polk) and of the White House and U.S. Capitol building.
(John Plumbe, Jr., Self Portrait, 1847. National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.)
Walt Whitman, then the little-known editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, paid a visit to Plumbe’s New York City studio in July 1846. It was almost a decade before Leaves of Grass appeared, but the revolution in human vision brought about by photography certainly flowed into Whitman’s own radical new vision of the world once he encountered this art form. He was obsessed the daguerreotypes ability to capture “reality.”
Plumbe’s studio was “at the upper corner of Murray street and Broadway, commonly known as Plumbe’s Daguerreotype establishment” and Whitman thought it “a lion of the great metropolis.” He must have had his own portrait made there. One of the best early daguerreotypes of the poet is sometimes attributed to Plumbe. As Whitman wrote on the front page of his newspaper, on July 2, 1846:
“Puffs, etc., out of the question, this is certainly a great establishment! You will see more life there — more variety, more human nature, more artistic beauty, (for what created thing can surpass that masterpiece of physical perfection, the human face?) than in any spot we know of. The crowds continually coming and going — the fashionable belle, the many distinguished men, the idler, the children — these alone are enough to occupy a curious train of attention. But they are not the first thing. To us, the pictures address themselves before all else. What a spectacle! In whatever direction you turn your peering gaze, you see naught but human faces! There they stretch, from floor to ceiling — hundreds of them. Ah! what tales might those pictures tell if their mute lips had the power of speech! How romance then, would be infinitely outdone by fact.
“You are indeed in a new world — a peopled world, though mute as the grave. We don’t know how it is with others, but we could spend days in that collection, and find enough enjoyment in the thousand human histories, involved in those daguerreotypes. . . There is always, to us, a strange fascination, in portraits. We love to dwell long upon them — to infer many things, from the text they preach — to pursue the current of thoughts running riot about them. . . Time, space, both are annihilated, and we identify the semblance with the reality.”
(Walt Whitman. Daguerreotype attributed to John Plumbe, Jr., circa 1846-48.)
Always an engineer at heart, however, Plumbe may have turned to photography mostly as a means to make money and keep his transcontinental railroad dream alive. By 1848, he found himself in financial trouble and sold off his portrait studios. When the Forty-Niners began to go west to California, the photographer ditched his art and went with them, though not just to look for gold. Plumbe surveyed land around Sacramento and was a customs inspector for the port of San Francisco in 1852, where he continued his involvement in railroad schemes.
He may have encountered another man who had come west from the Driftless. William Stephen Hamilton, the youngest son of Alexander Hamilton, who was six years old when Aaron Burr gunned down his father, came to southwestern Wisconsin from New York City and became a lead miner near Mineral Point during Galena’s boom days. He, too, fought in the Black Hawk War and founded a mining town, Hamilton’s Diggings, which later disappeared. (It was located near present-day Wiota, Wisconsin, on a branch of the Pecatonica River.) Hamilton loved the Driftless but went to California in 1849 to dig for gold. He died of yellow fever and was buried in a mass grave in Sacramento. Before his death, he told a friend that he would “rather have been hung in the ‘Lead Mines’ than to have lived in this miserable hole (California).”
Like William Stephen Hamilton, Plumbe also failed miserably in the Far West. A bad fate seemed to dog him everywhere, as all of his businesses and dreams failed. Returning to Dubuque in 1854, just a few miles from the ruins of ill-fated Sinipee, he opened a milling business with his brother Richard. But that endeavor, too, was crushed during the national economic panic of 1857, when he lost what little savings he had.
Struggling against a deep sense of frustration and failure, prolonged depression, and the effects of malaria contracted at Sinipee twenty years earlier, the 48-year-old John Plumbe cut his throat with a razor at his brother’s home in Dubuque, Iowa, in May 1857. As a suicide, this great man — one of the forgotten figures of American photography — was buried in an unmarked grave overlooking a great vista of the Mississippi, in Dubuque’s Linwood Cemetery. Lost for almost 150 years, the grave was recently identified by local historians and a memorial erected.
The graves of the epidemic victims at Sinipee were also mostly unmarked, though they still sit atop the majestic bluff, whose summit can be reached by a difficult hike. The ruins of the Stone Hotel were used as fill during the construction of Mississippi Lock and Dam No. 11, which when completed on October 15, 1934, flooded the old townsite. Only the graves on the bluff remain today.
The site of Sinipee is now the Fenley Recreation Area off Bluff Hollow Road in Grant County, Wisconsin, and is managed by the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources.
JOHN PLUMBE : A GALLERY