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Throckmorton's Thinking Cap

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Late in the month of June 1828, a small steamboat, the “Red Rover,” arrived at St. Louis from the Ohio River. At the wheel was its owner-captain, Joseph Throckmorton, a young man not yet thirty years old.

Steamboating itself was brand new on the Mississippi, the first boat having appeared at New Orleans in 1811. The first steamboat to reach St. Paul, the “Virginia,” had not done so until 1823.

The Mississippi proved to be a demanding school. During the 1828 season, the young greenhorn captain barely broke even hauling goods and passengers in the St. Louis area. In April of 1829, however, Throckmorton faced his first severe examination. Extremely low water that spring had made the Rock Island Rapids more dangerous and impassable than usual. Throckmorton arrived at Rock Island on April 17th, loaded with military supplies headed for Prairie du Chien and a full complement of passengers, including Caleb Atwater, Indian agent at Prairie du Chien, and Brigadier General John McNeil. Both the men and the supplies were needed immediately at Fort Crawford.

Like other steamboats, the “Red Rover” was too heavily loaded to navigate the rapids. It was already customary for steamboats to unload their cargo at the rapids and have it taken around the rapids by small boats called lighters, or by horseback along shore.

How would the young captain pass his first river examination? With a perfect score, as it turned out. Realizing that loading and unloading all that cargo would be time-consuming—and very expensive—Captain Throckmorton did what no previous boat had ever thought of doing. He unloaded the passengers instead—all except the General and several ladies—and ordered them to walk to the head of the rapids. The passengers got a chance to stretch their legs on a leisurely fifteen-mile stroll through the woods for free, and the “Red Rover,” its cargo intact, easily navigated the Rock Island Rapids, and proceeded with all haste to Prairie du Chien.

With quick thinking like that, it's no wonder that Joseph Throckmorton went on to become the Dean of Mississippi steamboat men. We will certainly be hearing more of him.

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.