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Striking it Rich

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Mark Twain was not the only dreamer along the Mississippi Valley to pull up stakes and head West in the 19th century, attracted by the cry of "gold" and "silver." Nor was he the only one who discovered that it was somewhat harder than it looked.

As rich ores were discovered in Colorado, Nevada, California, and the Yukon, Rock Islanders were especially tempted to head west. Beginning with the California Gold Rush in 1849, a good share of the prospectors crossed the Mississippi at Rock Island. Rock Island was in a direct line between Chicago and the gold. Watching this stream must have whetted Rock Island appetites.

The Rock Islanders who returned from California more wise than rich did not discourage others. In the 1850s, many young local men headed for gold in Pike's Peak, Colorado. None struck it rich, but one party left its mark there. Dr. Thomas Galt, Milo Lee, and several others took time to found the town of Black Hawk, Colorado, before the returned.

In the 1890s, when the Yukon in Alaska began to give up its gold, Rock Islanders tried again. A whole party of men from Rock Island spent a year prospecting in the Yukon, but returned like the others, empty.

By now, however, several Rock Islanders were wising up. They saw what the problem had been. The Rock Islanders had headed for the mines without the slightest idea of how to mine. Dr. W. H. Ludwig, L. A. Kahlke, and Carl Pachow knew how to fix that. They incorporated as the Alaska Mining Company and headed for the Yukon. However, the men stopped in Seattle first. They didn't know the first thing about panning for gold, but being from Rock Island, they did know boats. The Rock Islanders built a modest steamboat in Seattle and headed for the Yukon.

When they arrived, they set about mining—not for gold, but for gold miners. Thousands of prospectors coming to the Yukon needed transportation. The Alaska Mining Company hit a rich vein. During one stretch of 38 straight days, the Rock Islanders rented out their steamboat for five hundred dollars a day—payable, of course, in gold.

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.