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Mark Twain's Geology

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Nearly all of his life Mark Twain was fascinated by science and technology. Now and then, he tried some of it himself. In 1883 he applied his small smattering of geology to a subject he knew inside out: the Mississippi River.

Twain knew first-hand that the Mississippi was always tinkering with itself, trying out new channels. Now and then it sent part of Missouri over into Illinois and back again. It washed away whole towns such as Kaskaskia, Illinois, and Napoleon, Louisiana.

Mostly, however, it tried to straighten out its crooked channel, cutting through those lazy bends the Mississippi is famous for. These cuts shortened the river at the rate of almost two miles a year. The town of Delta, Mississippi was originally two miles below Vicksburg; then the Mississippi cut a new channel and put Delta two miles above Vicksburg.

"Geology has never before had such a chance to speculate," Twain wrote in Life on the Mississippi. Twain figured out that the Lower Mississippi alone had shortened itself by two-hundred and forty miles in the space of one-hundred and seventy-six years. Projecting ahead, Twain concluded that in exactly 742 years, the river would have shortened itself to a mile and three-quarters, so that New Orleans and Cairo would be one city with one mayor.

That would not bode well for us Rock Islanders and Moliners, who would be squeezed together between St. Louis and St. Paul, finally forced to merge into one community. But I imagine that even then, Rock Island and Moline would fight over whether we should become a suburb of St. Louis or St. Paul.

It's not going to happen, of course. The Corps of Engineers got ahold of the Mississippi and tamed its wanderings and explorations by levees, lock, and dams. We're safe, pretty much where we are.

"There is something fascinating about science," Mark Twain wrote. "One gets such wholesome returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact."

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.