|JOHNSON COUNTY IAGenWeb Project|
PETER ANTHONY DEY
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The ranks of the Old Guard, pioneers of a great civilization which blazed the way across the prairies when Iowa was a wilderness, are fast giving way to Time's decree, and one by one the members are passing out through the gateway of common departure.
We know the sound of the pioneer's axe has ceased; that the war whoop of the Indian has long since become a memory. We know that human progress, accelerated by the greatest of civilizers, the steel horse, has reclaimed the empire of the Mississippi from the virgin waste of the aborigine; that prosperous farms, with their golden grain and unnumbered herds, cities vibrant with industry and the rush of commercialism, a people contented and ever with their faces to the goal of success, occupy the territory where but a few short years ago land could he had for the asking, the requisite being but the hardy service of the pioneer willing to face danger as a part of his daily life and accept hardship as his portion, without shrinking or complaint.
It was during the period of early railroad building, and in connection with some of these important transportation enterprises, that Peter Anthony Dey first became a factor in the development of the Hawkeye state. Mr. Dey was peculiarly fitted by education, temperament, and training for constructive railway work. When but twenty-one years of age, two years subsequent to his graduation from Geneva (now Hobart) college, Geneva, New York, he entered the employ of the New York and Erie Railroad Company as civil engineer, and devoted three years to engineering along the Delaware and Susquehanna rivers in Orange county, New York, and in Pike and Susquehanna counties, Pennsylvania. In 1849 he went into the employ of the state of New York on the Cayuga & Seneca canal, building locks at Seneca Falls. Following this, he was engaged in the same line of work and for nearly the same length of time on the Erie canal at Port Byron. In the fall of 1850 he began work with the Michigan Southern Railroad, and remained with this road until it was completed to Chicago, having charge of construction of a division in the vicinity of La Porte, Indiana. In the fall of 1852 he became connected with the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad, being in charge of division work from Peru to Sheffield, Illinois. While making his headquarters at Tiskilwa, Illinois, he became acquainted with Grenville M. Dodge, then a young man, who afterward became famous as a general in the Civil War and prominent in railway construction. Mr. Dey gave General Dodge his first employment in railroad work. This was the beginning of a long association between these men, which ripened into a lasting friendship.
Mr. Dey was engaged in various railway construction enterprises in Illinois until 1853, when he came to Iowa City, bringing with him General Dodge. With that place as headquarters, he made the surveys for the Rock Island road from Davenport to Council Bluffs via Iowa City and Des Moines. After two years with the company in Chicago, in the winter of 1856 he again came west, remaining with the Rock Island road in Iowa until 1863. He left the employ of the road when it was completed to Kellogg. In 1860 he was elected mayor of Iowa City.
Mr. Dey's greatest service to the nation was in connection with the first survey and construction work of the Union Pacific Railroad, the outcome of his association with this famous enterprise establishing his remarkable and indomitable integrity as a man and a public servant. In September, 1862, he was employed by Henry Farnum, a railroad contractor, to go over the line of the newly organized Pacific Railroad Company and make a reconnaissance from the Missouri River to the Salt Lake Basin, with a view to ascertaining a practicable route and the probable resources of the country to be developed. In pursuance of his great task, he went carefully over the country from Omaha to Salt Lake. A thorough investigation of the proposed route via Denver convinced him that the line was not practicable, and he so reported. Crossing the Black Hills at Cheyenne Pass, minute examination of the range satisfied him of the availability of that route, and he so recommended. The correctness of his judgment was afterwards affirmed by the adoption of this route as the line of the nation's first transcontinental railway. In 1863, in company with John A. Kasson, Thomas C. Durant, and T. J. Carter, he went to Washington to ask the president to fix the eastern terminals of the proposed road. Mr. Dey had carefully prepared a map showing the approaches of the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy, the Chicago & Northwestern, and the Chicago, Rock Island & Pacific railways. From this map Mr. Lincoln decided that Omaha, Nebraska, was the proper terminal for the western road. The same year, while in the employ of Thomas C. Durant, Mr. Dey ran some preliminary lines of survey over the Cheyenne Pass and the Bridger Pass, also between Omaha and the Platte valley, and between Belleview and the Platte valley, and at other points. This work was finished early in the fall of 1863, and on December 30th of that year he was appointed chief engineer of the road by the executive committee.
Perhaps the best way to close this momentous experience in the professional career of this remarkable man will be to quote from the History of Iowa, by B. F. Gue, Vol. iv, pages 72-73:
"It was while in the line of his profession that a supreme test of the character of the man [Peter Dey] was made. The notorious 'Credit Mobilier of America' had been organized by Thomas C. Durant, Oliver Ames, Oakes Ames, and other capitalists for the purpose of constructing the Pacific Railroad. The government subsidies granted for the construction of the road amounted to the enormous sum of $64,000 a mile for a part, and $96,000 a mile for the remainder. Peter A. Dey vas the chief engineer of the construction, and, having made a survey of the first hundred miles, reported that it could be constructed for $30,000 per mile. The government was offering $32,000 and an enormous land grant in addition for this portion of the road. An article in Scribner's Monthly for March, 1874, tells the story of how the Credit Mobilier made a profit of $5,000,000 in building 246 miles of the road. The following illustrates the stern integrity of the Iowa man who was the chief engineer:
"When his estimate was made to the directors, it was returned to him with orders to retouch it with higher colors, to put embankments on paper where none existed oh earth, to make the old embankments heavier, to increase the expenses generally, and he was requested to send in his estimate that it would cost $50,000 per mile. When Mr. Dey was informed that this part of the road was let to ________ __________, at $50,000 per mile, which he knew could he done for $30,000, this difference amounting to $5,000,000 on the two hundred and forty-six miles, he resigned his position as chief engineer in a noble letter to the president of the road. He closed that letter with this statement: "My views of the Pacific Road are perhaps peculiar. I look upon its managers as trustees of the bounty of Congress ..... You are doubtless informed how disproportionate the amount to be paid is to the work contracted for. I need not expatiate on the sincerity of my course, when you reflect upon the fact that I have resigned the best position in my profession this country has offered to any man."
"This fidelity to public interest is the one bright spot in that disgraceful era of corruption which reached into Congress and blackened the reputation of scores of public officials. It is not strange that Peter A. Dey, whose stern integrity was thus tested, should have been chosen as the democratic member of the commission which built the (Iowa) State House, a work which for all time will stand as a monument to the ability and integrity of Robert S. Finkbine, Peter A. Dey, and John G. Foote."
Following his resignation as chief engineer of the Pacific Railroad, Mr. Dey returned to Iowa City, and from that point was engaged in making surveys for a north and south road, until the close of 1868, when he severed his connection with the Rock Island Company. In 1869 he was elected president of the First National Bank of Iowa City, which office he held until 1878, when he was appointed railway commissioner for the state of Iowa by Governor Gear. He was re-appointed to this office by Governors Gear, Sherman, and Larrabee respectively. In 1888 the office became elective, and he was three times elected to the position, suffering one defeat, in an overwhelming republican year, his tenure of service bringing him up to the year 1895. In 1872 he was appointed by the legislature as one of the commissioners to build the new capitol of Iowa at Des Moines, remaining on the commission until 1884, when the building was completed. Declining being again a candidate for railway commissioner, in 1895 he succeeded Mr. Parsons as president of the First National Bank of Iowa City, which office he held until his death. In all, during his two terms, he served twenty-six years as president of that bank. He was a member of the Iowa State Historical Society for twenty four years, and was its president for twelve years.
On the 23d day of October, 1856, Peter Anthony Dey and Miss Catherine Thompson, youngest daughter of Harry and Myra (Hull) Thompson, natives of Connecticut, were united in marriage at Trinity church in Buffalo, New York, the Rev. William Shelton, D. D., LL.D., F. R. S., officiating. On the 11th day of September, 1857, the young couple moved into the house on North Clinton street, Iowa City, which has been the family home since that time. Mr. Dey selected and purchased the beautiful site for this home when it was covered with hazel brush and a very slight growth of small trees. Today it contains numbers of great oaks, elms, and hickories, and is famous as one of the scenic beauty-spots of the University City. In this home, on July 11, 1911, this venerable and respected citizen passed away, after a brief illness. He was in full possession of his mental faculties to the last, and sat at the table with the family at meals until the last day. Time funeral took place from the home on July 13th, and the service was the simple ritual of the Episcopal church, of which he had been a member from childhood. A great lover of scientific thought, he was much in the company of the master minds of history, literature, and science. His private library was large and carefully selected, and he spent much time in the perusal of his books. It has been said of him that he "not only read his books, but he knew them," and frequently verified his memory in verbatim quotations therefrom. One of his last tasks during the winter of 1910-11 was to write his name in every volume of his library.
His beloved wife preceded him to the Great Beyond by about twelve years, having died in the family home June 12, 1899.
Six children were born to Peter Anthony Dey and Catherine Thompson, as follows: Harry Thompson, died in 1873, aged sixteen years; Anthony, died July 4, 1864, at Omaha, Nebraska, aged four years; Marvin Hull, married to Harriet Adaline Martin of Red Hook, N. Y., residing in Iowa City; Myra Thompson, now Mrs. Craig T. Wright, of Des Moines, Iowa; Curtis Thompson, married to Urania Susan Coldren, residing at Iowa City; Ann Hull, now Mrs. Clarence W. Eastman, of Amherst, Massachusetts.
Peter Anthony Dey lacked only sixteen days of being eighty-six and one-half years old at his death. His advanced age, in view of the vigor and strength of mind and memory which reached back across the years, was hardly conceivable to those who were intimate with this valiant member of the Old Guard. Eighty-six years battling with men and the world, he lived during a period of time that marks the greatest progress in the world's history; he witnessed the entire growth and development of Iowa as a state and of Johnson county from a small pioneer settlement to a teeming, prosperous community; he saw the expanse of broad prairies, where houses were forty miles apart, covered with cities and homes, with fields of golden grain and herds of cattle; he saw the locomotives climb chamois-like over cliffs and to the very crest of the Rocky Mountains, and a web of steel spread over the wilderness by the great spiders of commerce; he saw the Indian's camping grounds covered with churches and beautiful homes and abounding with commerce and education. Today a line of steel marks the first invasion into a new country, and the pioneer seeking an unsettled region may ride there in a palace car. But the old clays of the stage coach, of the ox team and the covered wagon, should not be forgotten. Their memories are and shall be precious to men.
Peter Anthony Dey was a member of the seventh generation of the Dey family in America. The founder was Richard (Dirck Jansen) Dey, who came from Amsterdam at an early date and settled in New Amsterdam (New York City), where he married, December 2, 1641, Jannetje Theunis, also of Amsterdam. From Richard Dey (first generation) the line of direct descent is as follows:
Second generation — Theunis Dircksen Dey, of Staten Island, New York, baptized September 24, 1656.
Third generation — Dirck Theunis Dey, of Bergen county, New Jersey, baptized March 27, 1687.
Fourth generation — Colonel Theunis Dey, born 1725 near Preakness, New Jersey.
Fifth generation — Dr. Philip Dey, born July, 1754, at Preakness, New Jersey.
Sixth generation — Anthony Dey, of Geneva, New York, born February 6, 1781.
Seventh generation — Peter Anthony Dey, born January 27, 1825, at Romulus, Seneca county, New York, one mile east of Seneca Lake.
The first ancestor of the Dey family of whom we have any knowledge, was Count Isarn de Die, Grand Maitre De L'Ordre Teutonique Seigneurs, in France, Premiere Croisade, 1096, whose descendants left France, after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, and settled in Scotland, England, and Holland.
Richard Dey, the founder of the family in America, owned property in New Amsterdam (New York City) and established a mill and ferry at the foot of what is now Dey street, running from Broadway west to the Hudson river. He resided on Broadway, at a point which is now the head of Dey street.
Theunis Dircksen Dey, son of Richard, "owned at his death the fee of a lot of land lying without the City land gate, on the west side of the highway (now Broadway, New York City), having to the north the farm of His Royal Highness, afterwards called the King's Farm, mid to the south the land of Olof Stevenson (Van Courtlandt)" — containing five and one-half acres, 309 feet front on Broadway and 800 feet deep to the Hudson river. In 1750 Dey street was laid out through these premises.
Dirck Theunis Dey succeeded to the estate. He conveyed, March 25, 1758, to Trinity church, a lot of land lying west of Broadway, near the present Canal street. In this deed he is styled, "Richard Dey, Gentleman, grandson and heir-at-law of Richard Dey." His residence was in Bergen county, New Jersey.
Colonel Theunis Dey was a colonel of the Bergen County Regiment, 1776. He built some years before the Dey House at Preakness, New Jersey, which house was, for three months during 1780, the headquarters of General Washington. According to de Chastellux, Washington occupied four rooms in the Dey house. It is said he had them papered at his own expense, and that the paper then put on remained until about twenty years ago. The Dey estate at Preakness originally consisted of 600 acres, but this has gradually been reduced in size during the past 140 years, until hardly anything is left of the wide acres of field and wood which the family once held. But the old house still stands in as good condition (seemingly) as when it was built, and is pointed to with pride by the antiquarians of the neighborhood as the house which was for months Washington's headquarters. Colonel Theunis Dey died in 1787.
Dr. Philip Dey, Peter Dey's grandfather, was a physician, and practiced in the region west of Paterson, Now Jersey, for many years. He died August 2, 1810, at Little Falls.
Anthony Dey, father of Peter A., was a tanner by trade, and died November 14, 1851, at Seneca Falls, New York. He resided formerly at Geneva, New York. On January 14, 1816, he married Hannah Dey, who was born June 12, 1787. She died March 17, 1841. Their children were:
Eleanor, born October 30, 1816: unmarried; died August 22, 1861, Iowa City.
Philip, born October 9, 1818; died December 21, 1822.
Jane, born June 5, 1820; died January 11, 1837.
Mary, born April 30, 1822; died August 10, 1837.
Peter Anthony, born January 27, 1825; died July 11, 1911.
Source: Leading Events in Johnson County,
Iowa, History (1913); Volume: 2;