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The Western Engineer

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

On March 28th, 1819, a brand-new steamboat, the “Western Engineer,” was launched at the United States Arsenal on the Allegheny River near Pittsburgh.  So far, the nameless government official whose idea it was has never confessed.

The “Western Engineer” was the first military steamboat ever built, coming only eight years after the first steamboat of any kind. It was designed for service on the Western rivers and named in honor of the Army Engineers already at work improving those rivers. Fort Snelling and other army bases had just been established and transportation was needed for men and supplies.

What distinguished the “Western Engineer,” however, was not its cargo capacity—it was a mere thirty tons, drawing nineteen inches of water—but its looks. Someone at the arsenal decided to use the boat to send a message to the restless Indians whose lands were rapidly being taken over by settlers.

The problem was, which message? Should the Indians be terrorized or pacified? The “Western Engineer” solved the dilemma by doing both. The bottom half of the boat was built to resemble a black, scaly sea serpent rising out of the water, its side bristling with guns, with waste steam pouring out of the figurehead’s open mouth. "It would require a daring savage to approach and accost her," wrote a St. Louis paper when she arrived there in July 9th.

Atop the serpent, on the sides of the main cabin, however, were a different set of messages. Here were painted a flag of the United States, an Indian and a white man shaking hands, and a large calumet peace pipe.

And the Indian reaction? The Indians felt sorry for the boat. They now understood just how bad white men really were. Only bad men could keep such a great spirit in chains and build a fire under it in order to force it to work a boat.

So much for intimidating the Indians. The “Western Engineer” steamed up the channel as far as Keokuk that summer, where an even greater bully, the Mississippi herself, forced it to turn around in the shallow water of the Des Moines Rapids and head back where it came from.

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.