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This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

In the summer of 1853, the Keokuk Packet Company extended its steamboat operations all the way to St. Paul, Minnesota, into territory claimed by the Minnesota Packet Company. The move meant war, an unequal one which pitted the small Minnesota company against the Keokuk Goliath.

Both sides sent their best into combat. The Minnesota Packet Company invited Daniel Smith Harris, the most popular captain on the river, to join them with his speedy little steamboat, the “West Newton.” Harris was a demon in competition.

Up against the “West Newton,” the Keokuk Packet Company sent the grand “Die Vernon,” a $50,000 455-ton luxury boat, 255 feet long, with an army of waiters, sparkling wines, a brass band to play martial music whenever the boat passed a rival. Twenty-five firemen and an illegal barrel of old butter were brought aboard to ensure that the fires under the boiler were kept white hot. The boat also had enough whiskey toddies on board to keep the firemen well lubricated all the way to St. Paul.

The “Die Vernon” left St. Louis on June 13th, 1853 and set a record time on her way to meet the “West Newton” at Galena. Galenians offered bets at heavy odds that their hero, Captain Harris, would defeat the Keokuk bully. They knew that Harris had promises from every woodlot along the way to sell only to him.

The following morning, the “Die Vernon” backed out of the Fever River first, headed for the Mississippi, followed by the “West Newton,” blowing steam like a stalled freight train. The “Die Vernon” made a short stop at Dubuque, and Harris left her behind. Rather than continuing on to St. Paul, Harris decided to wait at Lake Pepin so the two boats could race up the lake and then on to St. Paul. 

The “Die Vernon” caught up, and the race was on. The boilers of both boats had their safety valves closed, and the boilers were red hot, heading for St. Paul. Mere yards separated the two boats. But the “Die Vernon” was simply too much boat for the “West Newton.” Near the head of Lake Pepin, Harris was forced to land to avoid being overtaken, and the “Die Vernon” set a new record run of 84 hours from St. Louis to St. Paul. Captain Harris refused to step off his boat at St. Paul. It was a bitter defeat.

Which, of course, you were not expecting in this story, although as you well know, now and then Goliath wins.

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.