© 2023 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 105.7 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
Community

Sawdust

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you were a Rock Island boy in the 1930s, you just may remember that the city had a record fire in 1936, and in 1937, and in 1938. And in fact, every year for at least fifteen years.

It was all the same fire. And it was caused in part by those new-fangled electric refrigerators.

Here's how it happened. For forty years after the Civil War, the great sawmills of Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann, Dimmock and Gould, and others in Rock Island, Moline, and Davenport, sawed nearly one-third of all the white pine in Wisconsin and Minnesota into lumber—white pine floated down in dozens of rafts a day.

Sawmilling produced incredible amounts of waste: sawdust piles a hundred feet high, along with stacks of defective logs, slabs, and bark. At first there was a use for this waste. Some of it went to fill in all the sloughs and ponds and swamps along the low ground beneath the bluffs. Much of it was taken by the carload to area ice houses, where it was used to keep ice for ice boxes insulated during the long hot summer.

Eventually, the low ground was filled in, and the iceboxes gave way to refrigerators. The sawdust just sat there, creating islands and extending shorelines into the river. When the sawmills closed in 1905 and the mills torn down, the sawdust was soon forgotten and buried under other debris.

It was one of these underground piles of sawdust that caught fire in 1936, three blocks east of the 24th Street Viaduct Bridge. Attempts to put it out were futile, and the fire department eventually decided just to let it burn, and so it did for fifteen years. The flames were never visible, but listeners could hear a crackling sound beneath the surface, and white smoke drifted up through crevices in all weather year around.

There was only one casualty: In 1940, a hobo sleeping at a hobo jungle near the bridge awoke one morning to find that a companion had disappeared into a crater and burned to death. The official Rock Island coroner’s jury report concluded that he had rolled over into a campfire. The whole idea of eternal underground flames just beneath Rock Island was probably something best not looked into.

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.