This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
I'm sure most Congressmen in Washington were unaware of what their vote had done back in June of 1930. They had just passed legislation establishing the longest zoo in the world: a string of twenty-six cages that ran from Minneapolis and St. Paul some six hundred miles down to St. Louis.
No, I'm sure most Congressmen thought they were voting for a system of locks and dams that would provide a nine-foot transportation channel on the Upper Mississippi. To call it something as frivolous as a zoo would not have been proper in a nation gripped by a great depression.
Yet a zoo it most certainly was; it tamed the wild Mississippi which had roamed free for a million years. Between 1933 and 1939, beginning at the wildest stretch of the river, the Corps of Engineers imprisoned the Mississippi behind secure locks. Twenty-six of them. No river as wild as the Mississippi could be contained behind a single cage. The first cage, Locks and Dam 15 between Rock Island and Davenport, doomed the treacherous Rock Island Rapids. Six years later, with the completion of the lock and dam upstream at LeClaire, the last few free miles of the Mississippi were captured and turned into a tame pool.
Like all zoos, this river zoo is an ambiguous place. While the wild river had a magnificence, the tamed river is healthier. The Corps of Engineers have been excellent zookeepers. In its wild days, during hungry dry seasons, the Mississippi grew so thin that humans could walk across it between Rock Island and Davenport. Now, its feeding is carefully controlled so that it stays at a decent nine feet. It’s better for fish and for the plants and animals who live in its wetlands. And much more dependable for the people who visit the zoo to watch the river.
Even when the Mississippi escapes every few years and goes on a rampage, the zookeepers do not shoot it the way they do to escaped elephants and tigers. They patiently round the river back up, and charge Congress for the damages the escaped river did while out of its cages.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.