© 2023 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Duel at Bloody Island

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

One day at the beginning of the nineteenth century, a small sandbar appeared in the Mississippi River just upstream from St. Louis. The sandbar turned into an island which grew until it had split the river into two channels, one along the Illinois shore past a community known as Illinois Town, and one along the Missouri shore past St. Louis.

Because ownership of this island was not clear, it became the favored location for duels which were outlawed in Illinois and Missouri. Missouri senator Thomas Hart Benton fought two duels here. In 1831, Major Thomas Biddle and Congressman Spencer Pettis, standing only five feet apart, killed each other to prove they were real men. These duels eventually gave the island a name: Bloody Island.

Of all the duels, however, the last one was the bloodiest and the longest, and the island itself was the weapon of choice.

In about 1820, St. Louis noticed that the channel past its waterfront was growing smaller, while the channel on the Illinois side past Illinois Town was growing larger. More and more steamboats avoided the Port of St. Louis in favor of the Illinois side.

St. Louis did what it had to do: it challenged Illinois Town to a duel. To oversee the duel, the Government sent Robert E. Lee, a young lieutenant in the Engineer Corps to St. Louis in 1837. One look at Bloody Island and the Mississippi currents told Lee that the duel between St. Louis and Illinois Town was a matter of life and death. One of the channels would have to be cut off to create a new main channel. One community would have to be sacrificed to save the other.

St. Louis pulled out all the stops and wined and dined Lee as if it had been one of those gracious Eastern cities Lee was used to. Lee was impressed. He made a choice and built a dike from Bloody Island to the Illinois shore. In time, silt filled in the Illinois channel between Bloody Island and the mainland until the island was no more. St. Louis was saved.

Here a new Illinois city grew up, whose name paid homage to the winner of the duel: East St. Louis.

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.