It might seem unusual but arguably this object (though not exactly this one) is part of the reason why Dubuque exists today!

It is a windlass, or at least part of one, and while it may look like simple machinery it was an integral piece of a business empire in the Upper Mississippi River Valley. A windlass functioned in a pulley system like lowering buckets into a water well – only it transported men and tools underground to mine for lead and zinc.

In the history of mining, the story of its development has all the major plot points of most natural resources.  It was “discovered” by Europeans, and a business boomed with that resource at the center, which created fortunes and established towns. Though the boom was short-lived (for various reasons of resource loss or new products developed) the impacts remain. One of the greatest outcomes of the local mining operations is that it left the area with its name, Dubuque.

The namesake of the city, Julien Dubuque, was one of the leading businessmen in the mining boom of the district of the early 1800s before the California Gold Rush took interest away. He developed agreements with local representatives of the Meskwaki peoples, who are documented mining and smelting lead since the late 1600s, to operate on their lands. Basic in construction, a windlass like this object might be made from parts rather than purchased and was a common tool found at mining sites or farms throughout the region. We do not know the origins of this exact windlass, but it is still a tool – today we can use it to tell stories of the important economic and environmental history of our area.