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Winona

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Many an early town along the Mississippi Valley saved itself from extinction by winning a fight to become county seat and erecting a grand courthouse in the center square. A courthouse meant business. Winona, Minnesota, had to be different, as towns in Minnesota are wont to be. Back in 1857, Winona saved itself by not building a courthouse.

Winona was founded promptly at ten o'clock on the night of October 15th, 1851. That's when Captain Orren Smith of the steamboat "Nominee" put his ship's carpenter ashore to hold the site. Smith's boat was engaged in the Galena to St. Paul trade, a stretch of the Mississippi where wood was at a premium—wood which the boiler fires on steamboats consumed at a fierce rate. Winona and its wooded bluffs seemed like an excellent place to supply such wood, especially after Captain Smith advised his crew to begin cutting wood across the river in Wisconsin to lessen the competition.

Winona was soon a thriving port, supplying wood for steamboats and huge profits for the captain. That is, until 1857, when the unruly Mississippi plowed a brand-new channel across a beach in Latsch Island just upstream from Winona. Rival steamboats, jealous of Captain Smith and his monopoly, began using the new channel, leaving Winona high and dry.

Winona appeared to take no notice. In fact, the city fathers met and voted to build an elaborate stone courthouse in the town square. They voted the contract for the stonework to one of their own number, who began quarrying stone from a huge quarry across the river in Wisconsin.  The contractor soon had enough stone to fill an exceptionally large barge. He began towing the barge down the river toward Winona.

By the most unfortunate and ironic of accidents, just as the barge of stone crossed the mouth of the new channel at Latsch Island, the barge began taking on water. It listed and sank, permanently blocking the new upstart channel, forcing steamboats back past Winona with its wood supply.

Poor Winona never got its fancy courthouse. The city fathers were so discouraged they gave up, and instead set about making Winona an important lumber and wheat shipping port for the rest of the century.

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.

Community
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.