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A $50,000 Bonus

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Had the good citizens of Iowa City been thinking as clearly back in 1855 as they do today, now that the University is there, they might have saved themselves $50,000.

That July, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad had begun building tracks west from Davenport, where the first railroad bridge on the Mississippi had already begun to cross the channel.

The citizens of Iowa City, concerned that the tracks might bypass their community, offered railroad officials a bonus of $50,000 not to bypass them. In order to make the offer seem more like a bonus than a bribe, Iowa Citians stipulated that the tracks must reach Iowa City by December 31st, 1855. The railroad confidently built a station in Iowa City.

The distance to Iowa City was only 55 miles, but by Christmas Day, the tracks were still ten miles from Iowa City, bad weather was closing in, and prospects seemed dim.

By the time the construction crew arrived for work on the morning of December 31st, prospects were dimmer. The temperature was 30 degrees below zero. By nine o'clock that night, the tracks were still 1,000 feet from the station.

Then, a strange thing happened. The very citizens who had offered the bonus got so excited by the race that they pitched in. Some picked up tools and took their places alongside the railroad crew. Others built bonfires all along the right-of-way to keep men warm and light the construction.

Eleven o'clock. The tracks had been laid to within 200 feet of the station. Then disaster. The engine, named the "Iowa City," froze up. There was no time to thaw it. While the chief engineer helped his men lay the remaining rails across the ties up ahead, the citizens of Iowa City inched the engine forward with crowbars.

Church bells had just begun to ring in the New Year when the engine reached the station platform. There was a brief ceremony presenting the bonus to railroad officials.

The citizens of Iowa City must have awakened on New Year’s Day with a new kind of hangover when they realized that joining the railroad party the previous evening had cost them $50,000. And I expect a few of them made a resolution never to get that excited again.

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.