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Cranes

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you believe there is no connection between the disappearance of cranes and of steamboats on the Mississippi River, then you don't know steamboat lore.

During much of the 19th century, the shallow water around islands and close to shore was full of cranes. They enjoyed good fishing, or just visiting by the dozens, in ghostly white flocks, especially at early morning and in the evenings.

Every riverman who ever threaded the channel of the Mississippi knew who those cranes really were. They were river pilots who had died, and who had returned to the river they loved as cranes, reincarnated so they could stand in the river and watch the paddlewheels churn past. And aware of the dangers of piloting a boat on the Mississippi river, these souls of pilots were especially watchful of their still-human counterparts.

Watching the behavior of cranes on the river made that explanation easy to believe. Steamboat pilots swore that whenever the fog was too thick to see the snags, sandbars, and shallows that lay in wait to wreck boats, the cranes would appear as guides. They would fly ahead of a steamboat to a dangerous rock or snag. Here they would stand at attention on one leg until the pilot became aware of the dangers. Then, they would fly ahead to the next danger, and so on, until the boat was out of danger or the fog lifted.

"Plenty of time I've had them cranes take me home," said one pilot, "mile after mile."

With the disappearance of the steamboats and the coming of diesel towboats and their newfangled radar, the cranes are no longer needed. They have retired to Texas where they spend their days reminiscing about old times on the Mississippi.

In their place, you must have noticed, have come the crows and the eagles. I have a suspicion as to who these birds were in their human life, but I've got a few more tests to run until I know for certain, and I'd best keep quiet until then.

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.