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The Port of Galena

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

No one has ever accused river towns of being nice to each other. Take Dubuque, Iowa, and Galena, Illinois, for example. Dubuque must have looked across the river at Galena, green with envy in 1827 when keelboats and small steamboats began arriving there to haul lead from the newly discovered rich mines. Lead had already been mined near Dubuque for more than a hundred years. Galena's few odd lead miners hardly even constituted a settlement. And Galena certainly had no business being a steamboat port. The town was on the tiny Fever River more than a dozen miles from the Mississippi. Yet here she was in 1827, her waterfront full of boats. By the end of the season, seven million pounds of lead had left Galena by boat.

And that was only the beginning. Galena's population swelled to ten thousand within two years; lead shipments doubled. Galena could boast a weekly newspaper, forty-two stores and warehouses, a good supply of lawyers and twenty-two groceries and taverns.

Even when the lead mines began to give out, Galena kept going because of her ideal location, almost midway between St. Louis and St. Paul. By 1850, more steamboats arrived at St. Louis from Galena that from the entire Ohio River and Lower Mississippi. Galena boasted of visits by such people as Abraham Lincoln and Robert E. Lee.

Dubuque could do nothing but wait. That turned out to be enough. By the mid-1850s, steamboats had grown too large for the Fever River. The river itself had been slowly silting in, making navigation difficult, even for keelboats. In 1854 the railroad reached Galena—and continued on around to Dubuque.

Galena dwindled eventually to less than half its former size. Dubuque grew, and by 1855 had more people than Galena. "That inland town across the river," the Dubuque papers said.

In 1860, a Dubuque city council meeting proposed a resolution that the bed of the Fever River be plowed up and planted in potatoes.

"It might have passed," the editor of the Dubuque paper noted, had not a councilman pointed out that the ground was too dry for crops.

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.