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The Last Cruise of the Elsie

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When the little steam launch "Elsie" gets to steamboat heaven, and stands before the judgment seat, and the book is opened, she is not apt to come away with many stars in her crown. She spent her whole life just sitting around.

The “Elsie” was built along the Rock River near Milan sometime in the 1890s. Her machinery was installed by C. M. Witherall, superintendent of the Rock Island Waterworks. However, upon being inspected by a Corps of Engineers officer before going into commission, she failed to pass muster, and was condemned. She was not allowed to leave the shore.

Superintendent Witherall sued in the Rock Island Circuit Court to recover his machinery, and finally did so. The hull was sold several times, and eventually fell into the hands of a Mr. Tarbox, who built a cabin on it.

In the summer of 1899, Mr. Tarbox took on a partner, a Mr. Harris, who owned a menagerie of bears and elks that had been on display at Black Hawk's Watch Tower. The two entrepreneurs planned to tour the Rock River with an animal show but had a falling out before they could find and install the necessary machinery. One day when Mr. Harris was absent, Mr. Tarbox took possession of the “Elsie” and refused to let his partner back on board.

Mr. Harris appealed to his brother, a photographer, for help. The brother got a writ of attachment for the entire outfit. In the end, the bears and elks were sold to pay debts, and the photographer ended up with the “Elsie.”

The photographer was just in the process of negotiations to trade the “Elsie” for two lots in Joplin, Missouri, when, on Saturday morning, March 23rd, 1901, amid a spring storm and breaking ice, the “Elsie” was torn away from her moorings between Vandruff's and Big Islands. In a helpless and sinking condition, the little steam launch floated down the Rock River toward the Mississippi, and then headed south on the longest cruise she had ever taken, but not one likely to rate more than one star in steamboat heaven.

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.