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The Eagle Boats

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Perhaps Captain J. H. Brandon was trying to keep his new little steamboat from having an inferiority complex when he named it the Eagle. The captain took delivery of the sidewheeler when it was launched from the Warsaw, Illinois, boatyard in May of 1859. The Eagle was only seventy feet long and twelve feet wide, and it drew only 13 inches of water. Its two paddles were run by a 12-horsepower steam engine.

Captain Brandon intended the Eagle as a local packet, taking goods to neighboring towns, but neither that fact, nor its grand name prevented the Keokuk newspaper from making fun of the boat. "A miniature steamboat," the Keokuk Gate City called it. "We hope she will find enough encouragement to keep going," the editor said.

The Eagle operated alone for two years. By then, the Captain's business had grown too large for the small boat. Fortunately, the Warsaw Boat Yard had a new boat, eighty feet long and fourteen feet wide, almost ready. In October of 1861, Captain Brandon christened this boat the Young Eagle, although it was still not a boat large enough to be worthy of the Eagle name.

A year later, Captain Brandon tried again, this time with a 110-foot boat which sported a sixty-foot cabin with 24 sleeping berths, and two fifteen-foot diameter paddles. He named it the Eagle Number Two.

Captain Brandon's business expanded; he took on several partners and expanded to the Des Moines and Illinois Rivers, but he kept trying to match boat and name. In 1865, he launched the 135-foot Grey Eagle, which even Keokuk had to admit was a fine bird of passage. These were followed by the Little Eagle, the Little Eagle No. 2, the Spread Eagle, and finally, the Bald Eagle, 206 feet long and 34 feet wide, a boat at last worthy of the Eagle name.

By then, the Captain's business had grown to the point where he needed to officially incorporate. His company became, as you might expect, the Eagle Packet Company. It makes me wonder if the Captain got into the same rut trying to give his children proper names.

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.