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This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Mark Twain's claim that the reports of his death were greatly exaggerated shows how good he was at understatement, but Twain doesn't hold a candle in that department to the English writer, Harriett Martineau. Her comments on a steamboat trip up the Mississippi from New Orleans to Memphis in 1835, wins the prize by a vote of 8 to 3, some say 9 to 2.

Like many Europeans in the 1830s, Miss Martineau had come to America curious about what these new Americans were like. It was almost obligatory on these explorations to take a steamboat trip on the Mississippi River. Miss Martineau began hers at New Orleans on the 6th of May 1835.

She was not worried much. After all, how dangerous could a steamboat be compared to a long ocean voyage? She was not even alarmed much when she was told she was leaving just in time, as 40 new cases of cholera had broken out that very day in New Orleans. She was a little perplexed when a hundred extra passengers--members of a rowdy raft crew heading back upriver poured onto the boat, packing it stem to stern, forcing the captain to fire the boilers hotter. And a bit perplexed when a Mr. E. told her that on steamboat trips, he stayed up all night and slept during the day to prevent the gamblers aboard from taking the lifeboats for themselves in case of a nighttime accident.

Indeed, the first night she learned about river snags when a floating log scraped the bottom of the steamboat with a great shudder and smashed the lifeboats to pieces. And in the morning, she found that a passenger who had died of cholera had been put ashore quietly so as not to disturb the other guests.

The remainder of the trip consisted of crocodile watches, crying children, more and more passengers almost sinking the boat, several wild storms rocking the cabins, and fights over the scarce supply of milk.

And when it was all over, and she was safe in Memphis, what emerged from her stiff British upper lip? "If there be excess of mental luxury in this life," she wrote, "it is surely in a voyage up the Mississippi, in the bright and leafy month of May."

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, 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.