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Steamboat Gambling

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Traveling up and down a shallow, twisting channel was hard and dangerous work for the Mississippi River steamboat, but its looks and movement belied that fact. With its four stories of delicate gingerbread, a steamboat looked like a wedding cake floating inches above the water, some said. Its great paddled turned with grace, pushing the boat along five miles an hour.

That same grace and charm spilled over to the captains of those boats. Many of them were Southern gentlemen with plantation manners. A few had good reputations at swearing, but that was more a skill than a symptom of anger. In his formal uniform full of braids, the steamboat captain kept a steady keel. Captains, by custom, were cool, even when the pilot was clearly taking the boat into danger. Pilots had complete control of the boat, and the most a captain could do in the pilot house is muse out loud, "Why, look at that snag up there." It took some effort to follow river custom at the expense of losing the boat since most captains had invested heavily in their own boats.

On rare occasions when a captain did lose his dignity, there was good reason for it. Take the captain in the St. Louis trade steamboat men used to talk about. The captain was approached by two crooked gamblers who wanted to work his boat. The captain refused. The two men offered a hundred dollars. Politely, the captain refused.

The captain kept refusing, and the gamblers kept upping the bribe. There was good money to be made gambling on a large steamboat that some boat owners charged a concession fee of as much as $60,000 for the rights to gamble and sell liquor on board.

Finally, the two gamblers offered the captain ten thousand dollars if he would permit them on their boat. The captain exploded, turned the air blue with a string of epithets, and ordered the crooked gamblers off his boat immediately.

When he had regained his composure and straightened out his uniform, he explained the sudden lapse of courtesy. "Well," he said, "they were getting too close to my price."

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.