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Ice Trains

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

During the summers of 1848 and '49, thousands of immigrants, settlers, Yankees, and restless southerners streamed up the Mississippi River past Rock Island headed for the new territory of Minnesota, full of dreams of new beginnings and rich prairie earth. The immigrants carried implements, seed, and even livestock. They overlooked only one thing: winter.

It was hard enough to get to Minnesota in July. The Upper Mississippi was shallow for much of the way; the channel twisted past islands and sandbars. By August, low water made steamboat travel past Winona almost impossible. By November, thick ice had stopped all travel.

Roads were no better; the first dirt paths into Minnesota were often muddy all the way until the snowdrifts hid them under several feet of snow.

Minnesotans could have told Whittier a thing or two about being "Snowbound." Perhaps it was the isolation, or just plain American ingenuity, that caused two famous steamboat captains to have a better idea in the fall of 1849. That November 15, the Minnesota Pioneer carried an advertisement announcing that the Icelander, run by Captain Orrin Smith, and the Glidiator, run by Captain Daniel Harris, were ready for business.

What were the Icelander and the Glidiator? The ad explained that they were "Locomotive Ice Trains prepared expressly for travel on the ice of the Mississippi" between Galena, Illinois, and the Falls of St. Anthony in Minnesota. Each train would have ten cars, with ample arrangements for sleeping and eating. The trains would stop at all the regular steamboat landings, at a price for passengers and freight equivalent to regular steamboat fares. The ad announced that the trains "will commence running as soon as the ice is sufficiently strong" and invited the public to liberally patronize this expensive project.

Apparently, the ice never got sufficiently strong in the winter of 1849 to hold the ice trains. There is no more mention of them, even though there are still people who would like to go to Minnesota. No doubt the trains are stored in some Galena warehouse, patiently waiting for the ice to become sufficiently strong one of these years, after El Nino is through teasing us.

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.