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No Respect

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The poor little Rock River which meets the great Mississippi at Milan, Illinois, has spent years trying harder, but it still gets no respect. The Rock has flooded as much as five times in a single spring, but it doesn't matter. CBS News never shows up. They're two miles away in Davenport waiting for the Mississippi to go over the levee once.

Only once has the Rock River ever outdone the Mississippi, and then it was only in the imagination of a young civil engineer named James Worrall. Worrall was assistant to Lieutenant Colonel James H. Wilson, the Corps of Engineers officer assigned to the Upper Mississippi River in 1866. Colonel Wilson undertook surveys of the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers himself and sent Worrall off to examine the Rock River.

In his report the following April, Colonel Wilson concluded that the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers could be made useful for navigation with some hard work.

Worrall's report took a different tone. The Rock River fired Worrall's imagination. The headwaters of the Rock in Wisconsin came so close to Lake Michigan that Worrall could almost see a canal connecting the two. With only 117 miles of canal and 56 locks, two hundred feet long and thirty feet wide, Worrall wrote in his report, towns along the Rock could practically become seaports.

Worrall was sure a day would come when iron ore from Lake Superior would combine with limestone and coal from the Rock Island area, and there would arise "Birminghams and Pittsburghs along the Rock River.”

Worrall admitted that his predictions were probably too conservative. “In a decade,” he wrote, “reality will outstrip the most visionary anticipations. The towns along the Rock River, Beloit, Rockford, Sterling, and Dixon will all be Buffalos, Rochesters, and Uticas."

James Worrall and the Rock River were a perfect match. Being number two made them both try harder, but in the end, neither got much respect. Worrall's report to Congress contained a disclaimer by Colonel Wilson and was never acted on. And Beloit still has a long way to go to become Buffalo.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.