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Seeding Islands

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

I like to think that it was just the stress of the great Mississippi floods of '65 and '93 that sent the U. S. Army Corps of Engineers into farming recently.

Other more suspicious types claim the farming was brought about by a guilty conscience. The Corps has been busy remodeling the Upper Mississippi for a hundred and fifty years—damming and dredging and diking and straightening and locking the channel into a tame river. In the course of all this tinkering, many of the Upper Mississippi's beautiful islands were washed away. In several spots, such as Stoddard, Wisconsin, high water created by the locks and dams washed away 90% of the islands.

By 1987, the Engineers decided it was time to grow some new ones to replenish the supply.

Farming islands turned out to be harder than it looked. A Mississippi island won't grow just anywhere. First, one has to find just the right seed to plant. For an island this means a rock just big enough to slow down the current enough to deposit the sand it's carrying until a baby island is born. If the current is too weak, the island won't grow, too strong and the island is washed away. Then, as soon as the island is born, it must be stabilized by grass and fast-growing willow trees before the next flood.

The first crop of islands planted near Stoddard failed. Other attempts produced sickly islands that need constant attention. This did not phase the Corps of Engineers. They have always learned by doing, and today you can see for yourself a string of adolescent islands growing up in the river between Onalaska and Genoa, Wisconsin. Drive down Highway 26 south from Brownsville, Minnesota, about two miles south, until you come to the parking lot of the Shellhorn Roadhouse. From here you can see a whole string of healthy islands being farmed which will mature into healthy habitats for a diversity of wildlife.

Farming islands turned out to be more difficult and more expensive per acre than corn and beans. Enjoy the view. By the time the islands are grown, the crop will have cost 2.3 million dollars of your tax money.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

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.