You can almost see the gold out there.
High above downtown Dubuque, there are tingles for treasure hunters a Kelly’s Bluff.
“He amassed so much wealth,” said Mike Gibson, Director of the Center for Dubuque History at Loras College.
According to legend, lead miner Thomas Kelly buried more than $100,000 in gold coins there before his death in 1867. Those legends are probably a mix of fantasy and reality, but it sure does make one tempting tale. And over a half-century, several stories also surfaced about kids and others unearthing gold coins worth thousands of dollars.
Kelly, an Irish immigrant, struck it rich when lead veins were found on his land above Dubuque. He was one of Dubuque’s wealthiest citizens, but he lived like a hermit.
“Most indications are that he was pretty aloof from Dubuque society,” Gibson said. “He obviously didn’t trust banks.”
Dubuque historian Bob Eichman remembers the rumors. “Kelly always insisted to be paid in gold,” he said.
Kelly also had a dark side. There was a murder conviction in New York and an eventual escape from an insane asylum. Such bizarre experiences left him with a lifelong paranoia over money.
“He always felt, for some reason, that the Masons were out to get him,” Gibson said.
“He left a note which said, ‘If you want my gold, you’ll have to come and dig for it,'” Eichman said.
Those who make their way to Kelly’s Bluff still see the street signs. But these days, any searching just leads to a dead end.
A tall monument remains on display at Dubuque’s Linwood Cemetery, standing in dedication to a mystery that left Tom Kelly with the last laugh.
“There are some that said he took it with him,” Eichman said.
The mystery of Kelly’s Bluff probably followed Tom to the grave in 1867.
Kelly’s Bluff is now fenced off as private property. Human remains were the only things found there recently. The bones were excavated by accident during a defunct condo project, but Kelly’s elusive stash of gold coins remains just a dream.
“There’s certain things that will never be known, period,” Gibson said.
It’s a tantalizing legacy that lingers at Kelly’s Bluff in Dubuque.