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Steamboat Heaven

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Even if you have never wondered where steamboats go when they die, I'm going to tell you: LaCrosse, Wisconsin. Not their bodies, of course, just their souls.

Steamboat heaven was the idea of two angels: Edwin Hill, Special Collections Librarian at the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse, and Ralph DuPae, a LaCrosse history buff. In the early 1970s, they came across several antique glass plate negatives of early LaCrosse and its riverfront, found in an old factory being torn down, and they decided to save as many souls of old boats as they could.

DuPae was especially equipped to search for lost sheep. He was a traveling salesman whose route took him all over the Mississippi Valley. He let it be known that he was looking for steamboat photographs, and soon, he had a number of scouts helping out. The collection slowly grew. Other libraries, museums, historical collections, and antique dealers sent their photographs to be duplicated.

By now, 27 years later, the LaCrosse steamboat heaven has a population of some 40,000 steamboat photographs, the earliest dating back to the beginnings of photography in 1860. Here, preserved for at least a reasonable eternity, are the Robert E. Lee and the Natchez racing each other. Here, also, are clamming boats, rafts of white pine, pilot's logs, locks and dams.

Of course, there are still a number of lost souls out there that haven't found their way to LaCrosse. Until they're found, every one, the two angels will keep looking.

Meanwhile, there is work to be done. Steamboat heaven is open to the public during library hours, especially to all those who are doing research on the old days of steam boating, or tracing relatives who might have been river captains or boat pilots.

And that, I'm sure, is the way the steamboats like it. They were always hard working while alive, and they'd be bored silly in a heaven where there was nothing to do but spend all day playing on a harp—or even on a steam calliope.

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.