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The "Keokuk"

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Today, I'm only going to give you the characters. You'll have to write the story.

The two characters are husband and wife (or were they?), who appeared daily at the Mississippi River steamboat landing in Pontootsuc, Illinois. Along with everyone else, fishermen, shopkeepers in suits and ties, laborers in bib overalls, they were waiting for the small steamboat, the “Keokuk" which made a round trip each day between Keokuk and Burlington, with stops in-between.

The “Keokuk” was one of these boats everyone made fun of. "The Tub," some called it, or "Old Paddlewheeler." Others called it the "Shake-Me-Down" because of the way every timber and joint rattled as the paddles hit the water. The boat had only a single passenger deck full of crude wooden seats facing outward along the sides, in front of the boiler and engine. The front of the deck was reserved for barrels of fish and cages of chickens and ducks going to market. Black coal soot rained down on everyone from the smokestack. The fare from Pontootsuc to Dallas City and back was ten cents.

As the Keokuk drew within sight of the landing, the man and the woman would embrace repeatedly and tearfully. He cautioned her to be extremely careful. "Do not forget me while I'm away" she pleaded. He asked her not to forget him. They pledged each other that they would not forget. Theirs was true love.

Then, with one last plea not to be forgotten, and one last embrace, the woman would board the boat and head for Dallas City—whose grain elevators were visible from the Pontootsuc landing. Then she was gone, not to return until that evening when the “Keokuk” completed its round trip.

The English novelist, Virginia Woolf, claimed that all good novels begin with Mrs. Brown—a woman who gets on the same subway car as you, whose sighs attract your attention. You begin weaving a story about her, about what life has done to her. Soon, you have your novel.

That's why I'm not offended that you have already begun to tune me out, your imagination already down the river at that steamboat landing in Pontootsuc.

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.