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Romance and Work

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

No wonder people still come down to the levee, with awe and reverence as they have always done, whenever a real steamboat passes by. Even more than the flag, the steamboat represents the heart of what it means to be American.

The Mississippi River steamboat, a four-tiered white wedding cake floating down the channel, its lowest deck inches above the water, decorated with shiny black smokestacks and layers of delicate filagree icing, its paddle wheels turning in silence, seventeen times a minute, always seemed as if it had come directly out of a fairy tale rather than from Dubuque.

In truth, every part of that haunting beauty was dictated by hard, unforgiving, river necessities. The Upper Mississippi River was shallow, dotted with islands, obstructed by snags and sandbars, which twisted the main channel now to one shore, now to the other. A steamboat had to be as high as four stories to let the pilot see far ahead in order to thread his way past obstacles. The smokestacks had to be tall in order to keep passengers safe from smoke and ash. The shallowness of the river necessitated a flat-bottomed hull without a keel, and a paddle rather than deep propellers. The decks of the steamboat had to extend far beyond the hull, making the boat seem to float above the water, in order to carry cargo which could not be stored in the flat hull.

In this way, the Mississippi steamboat combined romance and work, beauty and necessity, as Americans have always tried to do. Our American heroes have always been heroes because of their work, not in their afterhours. The cowboy, Paul Bunyan, Florence Nightingale, Davey Crockett, Mike Fink, Abraham Lincoln. Americans have seldom had the leisure time to search for holy grails or climb beanstalks.

And so, too, with the steamboat and its practical beauty. All that puffing of smoke, the steam whistles, and the music of the calliope as a steamboat pulled up to the levee was romance at its best, but it also let potential customers know the boat was arriving, and it used up the extra steam no longer needed once the boat had landed. The captain, like his boat, in the best American tradition, had one eye for romance, the other for business.

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.