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Samuel B. Reed

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Samuel Benedict Reed was only one of thousands of Yankees who answered the call to seek their fortunes in the newly opened lands to the west in the 1840s, but he may have been the only one who got there one mile at a time.

Reed was born in Vermont in 1818. In a country rushing to send civilization west via new roads, bridges, canals and waterways, Reed chose the perfect occupation: he became a civil engineer.

His first project, in 1841, was an enlargement of the old Erie Canal. When that was finished, he was a bit further west than where he began. Then, Reed turned to the new-fangled invention, the railroad. In 1846, he surveyed the Michigan Central line from Kalamazoo to Mattwan, becoming division engineer of that railroad. He was even further west. Now, he became engineer of the Michigan Southern and Northern Indiana Railroad—the first railroad to reach Chicago. So far, so good. Reed next took a job as the locating engineer for a rail line from Chicago west to Joliet in 1852, and then took charge of construction of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad lines, which, in 1854, became the first railroad in the United States to reach the Mississippi River.

The great river was only a temporary obstacle. After taking a short break to marry Miss Jane Earl of Geneseo, Illinois, in 1855, Samuel Reed selected the site for the first bridge across the Mississippi, and soon, the railroad became the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, later, the Rock Island Lines.

The Pacific, of course, was still a dream, but not for long. Reed next surveying the route from Davenport west to Washington, Iowa. By the time Reed reached the Pacific coast, he was chief of construction for the Union Pacific Railroad. In 1869, these tracks met those from the east at Promontory, Utah, fulfilling Columbus's dream of a route to the Indies.

People like Samuel Reed deserve their own monument—if only we could figure out where to put it—or what he looked like. He didn’t move very fast, but he never sat still long enough for a portrait.

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.