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The Automobile Invasion

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Tri-City Street Railway Company would have been more than happy to share the roads with those few newfangled automobiles which appeared around Rock Island at the turn of the century—if only they would have behaved, and remained an adult toy for rich men. But by early 1915, there were disturbing rumors from the west coast.

On January 21st, the Argus reported that in Seattle, Portland, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, there were already 2,375 cars—and some of them were picking up people waiting for streetcars and taking them to their destination for five cents.  Streetcar companies in those towns estimated they had already lost $19,000.

Could this unnatural plague ever sweep Rock Island, the heart of the heart of the country?

The plague did take most of a whole year to reach Rock Island. By then, streetcars could see they were in trouble. In June of 1916, a country-wide convention gathered in Rock Island to plan the great Diagonal Road, paved all the way from Miami to Seattle, passing right through Rock Island, and full of jitney busses thumbing their noses at streetcars that had to stop at the end of 9th Street.

That same month, Rock Island's first motorcycle traffic cop pulled in five speeders on his first day, including a jitney bus going 34 miles an hour—three times the speed of a streetcar.

Streetcars in Rock Island apparently made some timid efforts to fight back: on June 24th, a streetcar demolished three autos with 20 passengers in a single accident.

But the leak in the dike was large for such a small thumb. There was treachery right at home. The Velie Company was making automobiles over in Moline, and had just announced their new model, the Velie Biltwel Six, at a mere $1,065. The Argus began advising its readers on ways of beating the high price of gasoline. And four years later, the Illinois Oil Products Company had opened a new, ornate temple to the American automobile at the corner of Third Avenue and 24th Street. Its nine gasoline pumps, six inside and another three outside, made it the largest service station in the world.

In the aging Rock Island streetcars, the creaks and groans grew louder, forced as they were, to hear those gasoline engines purring their song: anything you can do I can do better.

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.