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Kaskaskia

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The first settlers who moved into the Territory of Illinois in the early 1800s apparently forgot about that foolish fellow in Matthew who build his house upon the sand. The new Illinoisans built a whole city there.
Kaskakia was not just any city. French traders had settled on this peninsula between the Mississippi and Kaskaskia rivers in 1703. For more than a century, it was the cultural and commercial center of Illinois. In 1804 the United States established a land office here. In 1809, Kaskaskia became the first capitol of the Territory of Illinois.

The proud little city swelled in importance: the 160 modest French homes were supplemented by several stone mansions, a post office, and nine general stores. There were even three tailor shops and a hat shop to service important residents like Pierre Menard, Illinois first Lieutenant Governor, and Governor Ninnian Edwards himself.

Kaskaskia grew to a population of 500. In 1814, Illinois’ first newspaper, the Illinois Herald, began publishing in Kaskaskia. In 1819 a stage line opened between Kaskaskia and St. Louis. Then came the Convent of the Ladies of Visitation.

Kaskaskia echoed with receptions and parties and balls in the great stone mansions. No one paid much attention to the flood plain on which Kaskaskia sat. Then, in 1844, as Matthew said, the rains came down and the floods came up. The Mississippi broke through the narrow tongue of ground that was Kaskaskia, and the town was doomed. Kaskaskia was abandoned. The territorial capitol was moved just up the bluff the Chester.

The ruins of Kaskaskia might have served as a visible warning of the dangers of building on low ground, but an even greater flood in 1881 changed the course of the Mississippi. 20,000 acres of Illinois land turned overnight into a Missouri island. Kaskaskia itself, like Atlantis, disappeared forever beneath a brand-new channel. All that remains today is the 650-pound bell from the convent, placed on the island as a memorial to the city built upon the sand, our own very modern parable.

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