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Illinois City

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Was N. F. Swander ever lucky. In 1840, he and two friends, John Boyd and Samuel Marple headed west from Reading, Pennsylvania to seek their fortunes, when they discovered fortune seeking them.

They were on a mule-drawn canal boat when they bumped into Jacob Coleman who had just come from the Mississippi Valley seeking young men like Swander and his friends. He convinced them there was a fortune to be made in Illinois City on the Mississippi River. There was no town there yet, of course, but Coleman was certain that Illinois City was destined to rapidly outgrow Rock Island just up the river. Coleman believed Illinois City was destined to become the great metropolis of the Middle West.

Coleman's enthusiasm was understandable; he owned Illinois City. And he had a plan. Swander and his friends would build a flatboat for Coleman, and with the profits it earned, the men would develop Illinois City.

Swander built an eighteen by one-hundred-and-eight-foot boat. He and Coleman loaded it three feet deep with potatoes, onions, beets, beans, and cabbages, and headed down for New Orleans. The overloaded boat scraped every sandbar along the way and took forty days just to reach St. Louis. Then, at Helena, Arkansas, a snag punctured the hull and sank the boat and its cargo.

Coleman was generous. "I owe you something for building the boat," he told Swander. "I'll give you power of attorney to sell 400 lots in Illinois City. Keep enough to pay for the boat and your commission and send me the balance."

Swander knew the perfect place to sell Illinois City lots: back in Pennsylvania, where there must be hundreds of young men like Swander eager to go west and seek their fortune, eager to get in on the growth of a great metropolis.

As it turned out, Swander had overestimated the market. By exactly four hundred. Not one lot sold.

Swander eventually returned to the Mississippi Valley, and in 1852, became Rock Island County's third sheriff, no doubt a convenient position from which to go searching for Jacob Coleman.

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

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.