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The Little Steamboat that Could

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It is not likely that steamboat men paid much attention to the "Otter" when she was launched in 1841. At 92 tons, she was less than half the size of most of the other steamboats engaged in hauling lead from the mines at Galena, Illinois, down to St. Louis. A small packet boat, at best, hardly serious competition for real boats such as the "Wisconsin" and the "Amaranth."

Had the steamboat men paid more attention to the size of the captain rather than the size of the boat, they might have worried more. The "Otter's" owner, captain, and pilot was Daniel Smith Harris, already famous on the Upper Mississippi for his dogged determination to outsmart and outcompete everyone else on the river.

As it was, the tiny "Otter" slipped into the Galena-St. Louis trade with little fanfare and went about her business. Few noticed that the "Otter" was able to tow nine keelboats alongside, more than tripling her capacity. Quietly, the "Otter" carried passengers and lead downstream to St. Louis and returned with passengers bound for Galena and supplies for the miners already there.

When low water closed the season in August for the largest boats, the tiny "Otter" kept going. When the Mississippi began to ice over in November, the "Otter" kept going, the keelboats serving as protection against the sharp ice.

By the time the "Otter's" season ended in December, Captain Harris had made fifteen trips back and forth between Galena and St. Louis. The receipts for the year totaled $15,000 from freight and $7,000 from passengers: $21,000 dollars.

"Hardly a record," the smug captains of the large boats would tell you. Their boats could make $4,000 on a single trip. Then why was Captain Daniel Smith Harris smiling?

The tiny "Otter" had cost a mere $5,000 to build. At the end of her first season in 1841, she had paid for herself four times over, while the larger boats were struggling to pay for their gingerbread. The "little steamboat that could" had set a record that would never be equaled.

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.