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The Atkinson Keelboat

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you want to know what the military mind does between wars, listen to this story. Its protagonist is Brigadier General Henry Atkinson, stationed at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis in 1824, responsible for getting troops and supplies to other military posts up and down the Mississippi River.

It was no easy job. Transportation by keelboat was the only expedient method, but it was slow and hard. Keelboats had to be pushed up the river by long poles or hauled ahead by ropes tied to trees on shore. At a best time of 13 miles a day, supplies could take weeks to reach Fort Snelling.

The General had a notion for an improved keelboat. He built two water wheels, one on each side of the keelboat, connected by a shaft across the center of the boat. In the center of the shaft, he placed a five-foot cogwheel. The cogwheel was run by a smaller cogwheel attached to an eight-foot flywheel, and the whole operated by a crank much like the pedals on a bicycle.

Atkinson powered the crank by two wooden shafts, one along each side of the boat, and pulled back and forth to turn the crank by forty men on a side, sitting four abreast on ten rows of benches, much like galley slaves, except that Atkinson provided awnings to shade his men from the sun. No more poling a keelboat up the river. Atkinson's boat paddled up the river—the first, and last, sidewheel keelboat.

And it worked. It could even be steered by one side paddling faster than the other. In a trial run, the Atkinson boat could average twenty miles a day—thirty in an emergency, the General estimated—twice as fast as an ordinary keelboat.

Of course, like all inventions, there were some bugs to work out. Eighty men sitting on benches left only a small space for cargo. And rowing for two weeks might not have put the new recruits at Fort Snelling in an especially positive mood.

And there was one other thing. General Atkinson was so busy thinking up new ideas for keelboats that he apparently had not noticed the previous spring when the first steamboat, the “Virginia,” had paddled past St. Louis headed north with a crew, not of eighty, but of two.

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.