© 2023 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 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

Canal Town

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

For almost a hundred and forty years, the Rock Island District Corps of Engineers has worked with the Mississippi River to maintain navigation and control flooding. That is their mission from Congress. In 1892, however, the Corps made a slight detour: they took time out of their river work to build a company town.

And like most Federal projects, this town had to be different. The company town the Rock Island Engineers built ended up several hundred feet wide and seventy-five miles long. It was built to run the Hennepin Canal, a Corps project that connected the Illinois River to the Mississippi at Milan. The canal required 33 locks, and each lock required a lock master and assistants to be in attendance 24 hours a day.

Although the Hennepin Canal may not have looked like a company town, stretched out as it was and with large, substantial houses for employees, it met all the requirements. Its residents worked for a single employer and were banded together by a common purpose.

The Corps built 55 houses for canal employees and deducted the rent from paychecks. The engineer in charge of the canal got a concrete block home at Lock 33; overseers, just below the engineer in social status, got two story frame houses, with eight rooms on a 24 by 30-foot foundation. Overseers also got indoor plumbing, a rarity in 1892. The 38 houses for lock tenders were slightly smaller, seven rooms on 22 by 28-foot houses. Lowest in social status were the patrolmen who checked on breaks in the dike.

In lieu of a company store, the Corps gave each employee a large garden and orchard plot, and exclusive rights to graze livestock and trap muskrat and other burrowing animals who threatened the dikes. A telephone line connected all of the homes on the canal, primarily used to keep families in social contact with each other. Everyone knew everybody else.

The Hennepin Canal lacked only one thing that other company towns had plenty of: work. It was a boondoggle. At its peak use in 1921, use of the canal reached one-sixth hundredths of its capacity. It closed for good in 1951, and with it, a close-knit, if very long, company town.

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.