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Let There Be Light

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Whenever someone opens a conversation by telling you that "it would be impossible for words to describe the magnificent luxury" of a place or an event, you have a pretty good idea that he's going to try anyway. That's exactly what the reporter for the Rock Island Argus did when Rock Island, for just a single night—New Year's Eve, 1899—was transformed into Camelot.

It was too much for mere words. "At the appointed hour," the reported noted, "the spacious parlors were thronged with all the beauty and chivalry of this and surrounded towns." All the invited guests—each had been issued a number—marched to their assigned places in the dining room of Rock Island's new Island City Hotel, accompanied by a fine band.

Before them lay a banquet the likes of which few had ever seen. Here were all the luxuries and delicacies of every clime, in the most bountiful profusion, served in a most tempting and delicate manner. In the center of the hall rose an immense pyramid of the choicest cakes, costing over $200.

Slowly, Rock Island's finest dispatched the oyster stew and gumbo fele and went on the Mackinaw trout and northern pike. Then came the game course: opossum, quail, rabbit, wild goose, squirrel and partridge. There was venison with cranberry sauce, boned turkey with lemon sauce, oyster pie, mutton, pork, corned beef and, of course, an assortment of boiled meats. Then there were clams stewed in butter, lobster, brandy omelets, and liver hash. Pastries, tarts, cakes, creams, and pies followed.

The Argus reporter did stumble when it came to the wines. The wine list was too long for publication, said the reporter. But he did write up the toast. At the end of the evening, he wrote, "when the sparkling champagne and bright-eyed beauties had made all as merry as a marriage bell," a fine gentleman rose and held his glass high. "To the City of Rock Island, city set on a hill," he said, "May the element that now shines in her midst ever be her emblem."

Then, the party trooped outside to witness the reason for the celebration: the city's brand-new gas streetlights were turned on for the first time. An especially impressive sight for those guests whose intake from the extensive wine list made them see each light in triplicate.

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.