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The End of the Keelboat

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Joining the crew of a Mississippi River keelboat back in 1810 guaranteed low pay and long hours of backbreaking, repetitive hard work. Keelboats were propelled by muscle-power, by men pushing the boat with long poles or hauling in ropes tied to trees upstream, often for a thousand miles or more. But there was one fringe benefit: glory and fame. It was the keelboatmen, like Mike Fink, who became larger-than-life American folk heroes. Their exploits were told and retold wherever rivermen gathered.

By 1823, the keelboatmen had ruled the Mississippi for fifty years, carrying furs and lead down to St. Louis. So, they were not worried that year, when a small makeshift steamboat, the “Virginia,” delicately made its way north of St. Louis, past Rock Island, all the way to Fort Snelling loaded with military supplies.  Cumbersome steamboats would never be able to avoid snags or maneuver their way through the twisting Rock Island Rapids, or across the numerous sandbars that sprinkled the channel the way keelboats could.

But the steamboat multiplied, eager to compete with the keelboat for the lucrative lead trade from the mines at Galena.

At first, the competition remained even. Steamboats could haul more cargo, but the shallower keelboat was superior on the Rock Island Rapids. The competition might have remained even for a long time, had the fight remained fair. But it was not to be.

Early in the spring of 1828, keelboatmen watched in disbelief as a steamboat appeared on the rapids with two 40-ton keelboats tied alongside, loaded down with cargo. Without all that weight on the steamboat itself, the whole flotilla crossed the rapids with ease.

Soon, many steamboats were towing keelboats to increase their cargo capacity, and to protect the steamboat itself from snags and rocks which would hit the keelboat first.

Keelboatmen were tough, but to see their beloved boat turned into a barge was too much for their pride. By the 1850s, they had all but dwindled away, leaving the Mississippi to the paddle wheel.

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.