Baseballs once flew where a gas station now stands on South Locust Street, and horses raced in an area of U.S. 52 now occupied by a lumber supply firm and a soft drink distributor.
Dubuque once boasted among its parks and recreation venues Rafferty Park, which featured baseball and softball diamonds created on land along South Locust Street reclaimed from a Mississippi River slough, and Dubuque Driving Park, later known as Nutwood Park and a popular venue for horse racing in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“It was very popular,” said Mike Gibson, archivist at the Center for Dubuque History at Loras College. “They ran the trolleys out there, and they had huge crowds of people. They had some big money paying races that drew people from outside the area.”
Here is a look at several parks and recreation venues of Dubuque’s past:
Originally known as Dubuque Driving Park, the horse racing venue north of Dubuque gained its greatest fame from 1894 to 1899 when it was known as Nutwood Park — named for a champion stallion — and drew thousands of fans.
Horse racing began at the site in Couler Valley in spring 1866, but the park was heavily in debt by 1882, according to the Telegraph Herald archives. Wealthier investors purchased the park and renamed it after the famous horse. The park then entered its heyday, with trains bringing thousands of fans to watch more than 100 horses race at the harness-racing track during the 1894 season. The number of horses rose to more than 300 in 1898, according to the TH.
Races in August 1899 offered $123,000 in prizes and attracted the world’s fastest horses to Nutwood, bringing the venue to national prominence, according to a historical overview of the park published in the TH in 1963.
An account of the 1899 races published in 1933 notes that “thousands of strangers poured into the city on special trains and many who planned to sleep were forced to sleep in Washington and Jackson parks or stay up all night and raise whoopee with the boys at the bars.”
“The Julien Hotel and the old Lorimer House, later the Wales Hotel, had cots in every available inch of space, as did the smaller hotels,” according to the account. “Dubuque simply couldn’t take care of the crowds.”
Racing never reclaimed that prominent position in Dubuque, and interest gradually began to wane. The 1911 racing season stood out as a nadir during the lean times for harness racing. Races scheduled for September of that year were rained out for an entire week, according to the TH.
Racing ended around 1915, and an early city airport was constructed on the site.
Crews reclaimed land from Rafferty Slough in the mid-1930s, where plans originally called for a municipal swimming pool.
By May 1936, the planned pool had been placed elsewhere and the City of Dubuque opened the land, named Rafferty Park, as a recreational sports venue.
The Telegraph Herald described the diamond as “unusually large” in a report published May 14, 1936: “From the hitter’s plate it is 400 feet to the centerfield line, 320 feet to right field and 360 feet to left field.”
The report noted one rule that recreational staff would strictly enforce: “No softball team will be permitted to use rocks for the bases. Teams wishing to play on the field must equip themselves with cloth bags or squares of wood for the bases.”
Rafferty Park hosted about 20 teams in the city’s softball leagues by 1959, according to a Telegraph Herald report. However, Sears Roebuck and Co. negotiated the purchase of the land from the city to build a department store, and the park’s fields were relocated to a patch of ground at Kerper Boulevard and Hawthorne Street, where they remained until that land was developed for businesses.
Horse racing revived in 1938 in Dubuque with the opening of Silver Acres, a quarter-mile track located on Middle Road (now Pennsylvania Avenue). The park was created by business owner Bart L. Molo.
The first major event at the venue, an annual horse show, was July 3-4, 1938.
The TH at the time reported that “some of the best horses in the Middle West, from nationally known stables, will be exhibited.”
“Features of the afternoon will include such events as hackney races, the local equestrian event in which Dubuque riders will dominate, and the showing and judging of five-gaited saddle horses, hunters, jumpers and hackney and Shetland ponies,” according to the report.
The Molo family and the Wahlert Foundation donated the land to the City of Dubuque in 1954. It was subsequently developed as Flora Park.
Green space and a vaudeville venue once occupied the current site of the Eagle Point Apartments at the corner of Rhomberg and Shiras avenues.
Also known as Riverside Park, it was described as “a broad expanse of greensward in the northern part of the city,” in the Dubuque Daily Herald edition of June 7, 1900.
Entertainment at the park was provided under the auspices of theatrical manager J.C. Morris.
Morris produced “a first-class vaudeville show and enjoys the patronage of the best class of people of the city,” according to the newspaper report.
The park also hosted workers’ picnics that drew as many as 4,000 visitors.
Not much historical information remains concerning this Dubuque greenspace, which was located near present-day Bryant Street and Mt. Loretto Avenue.
The Aug. 4, 1892, edition of the TH includes a report on a lawn festival at the park, which benefited from its location on the end of a streetcar line.
“The delightful Sylvan retreat, which is just at the terminus of the Allen & Swiney Line, was thronged all through the day and evening and the ladies of St. Columbkille Catholic Church, under whose auspices the festival was held, left nothing undone which could conduce the comfort and enjoyment of those present,” according to the TH report. “Benches and refreshment stands were scattered all over the grove, and under the shady bows of giant oaks a large, dancing pavilion was erected. Nearby was a platform on which the Russo-Italian orchestra was stationed, sending out sweet strains of music, to the time of which the agile toes of the young folks tripped in poetic motion.”