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John Hay

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When Mark Twain published The Adventures of Tom Sawyer in 1876, John Hay must have felt like an athlete watching his world record not only broken but trounced. Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn soon made Mark Twain's reputation as the great writer of the Mississippi River, eclipsing Hay’s earlier achievements of.

John Hay was born in 1838. He grew up in Warsaw, Illinois, across the Mississippi River from Keokuk. He grew up amid the frontier accents and idioms of a busy river port and its mix of river stories and settler’s tales. Following a short stint studying law in Springfield, where he became friends with Lincoln, Hay turned to a career in writing. His editorials for the New York Tribune earned him a tribute from Horace Greeley as "the best newspaper writer in the United States."

On November 19th, 1870, Hay published one of his poems, "Little Breeches," in the Tribune, a poem in which a mother laments for her child lost in a snowstorm.  It was followed a few weeks later by "Jim Bludso of the Prairie Belle," a poem about a steamboat man who remained at his post in a wreck, giving his life to save the passengers. A fellow steamboat man spins the Jim Bludso story:

Whar have you been for the last three years

That you haven't heard folks tell

How Jimmy Bludso passed in his checks

The night of the Prairie Belle.

With these poems, and others which followed, collected in a book, Pike County Ballads, John Hay became the first poet to let the world hear the authentic voices of the Mississippi Valley frontier. Along with Bret Harte, he was the first American writer to use dialect of any kind. Jim Bludso's story was soon on many lips, making Hay and the Mississippi famous.

Then that late-comer, Mark Twain appeared six years later with Tom and Huck, and hogged all the credit, and the fame. John Hay did the only American thing to do: he turned to politics, earning more lasting fame for his skill at diplomacy as United States Secretary of State under both McKinley and Teddy Roosevelt.

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.