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Poe and Oquawka

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

I wonder if the good people of Oquawka, Illinois, ever wonder about the fish that got away. If so, they could tell a whopper of a tale.

Oquawka was laid out as a speculative venture in 1834 by John Patterson, an itinerant, unsuccessful newspaperman. Midway between the Des Moines and the Rock Island Rapids, it seemed an ideal location for a great steamboat port.

If Patterson was not so good at news, he proved to be a whiz at public relations. The prospectus he drew up describing Oquawka's potential brought bidders from as far away as New Jersey and New York. Illinois Governor Joseph Duncan immediately agreed to invest $50,000 in the venture to buy a fourth of all the lots in town. Soon lots were selling for six hundred dollars, then nine hundred. River lots went for a thousand dollars each.

By 1836, three construction companies were busy building houses. A hotel-saloon went up, along with blacksmithies, mills, taverns and groceries.

In the middle of this feeding frenzy, John Patterson received a nibble from a very interesting and odd fish. In his news days, he had met the writer, Edgar Allan Poe. Now here was Poe, writing to him, proposing to move to Oquawka and go in with Patterson on a literary journal. Perhaps Poe was attracted by the sound of Oquawka.

Alas, that fish got away. The nation-wide Panic of 1837 led to an economic depression which ended Oquawka's dreams. Poe went on to found his Southern Literary Messenger elsewhere, and a local Midwest boy from Missouri, Samuel Clemens, went on to give us his version of the Mississippi River.

Think of how different our valley would be had Poe actually come to Oquawka. Think of the House of Usher in Dubuque, or the tell-tale heart buried in Muscatine. Think of all the mists, and fogs, and dark bluffs snaking up our valley. Or school children reciting the story of Annabelle Lee, by the Mississip-ee.

And Poe's own troubled life might have been different, too. Why, he might even still be alive today, trying and trying to teach a bald eagle to say "evermore.”

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.