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The Flying Machine

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

John P. Newburg of Rock Island had an almost ideal job for a tinkerer. He was manager of the Watch Tower Inn, high on a bluff overlooking the Rock River. When guests dwindled during the long winters, Newburg had time to dream, to imagine, to solve problems.

At the end of the season in 1903, he turned his thoughts to flying machines. The famous Professor Samuel Langley of the Smithsonian Institution had just failed in an attempt to fly his airplane off a ship in the Potomac River.

In Rock Island, Newburg began building small models of an airship of his own design. By April, he was ready to explain to newspaper reporters where Langley had gone wrong and how he, Newburg, was going to win the hundred-thousand-dollar prize at the aeroplane competition at the World's Fair that summer.

Newburg showed the reporters a one-third size model of the real thing, made of pine sticks tied with music wire and covered with brown paper wrapping. It resembled a large fish with wings on each side and a tail to steer with. Unlike Langley and the others, air went through Newburg's plane rather than over it—his secret. A fan at the rear would propel it through the air.

"I would feel perfectly safe in sailing off the Watch Tower in that device, so thoroughly do I believe I have solved the problem of aerial navigation." he told the reporter. The reporter was not so sure.

Alas, by May, the guests had returned to the Watch Tower, and Newburg's airplane languished on his back porch, never to fly. But before you take a last laugh at this local Tom Swift and his fantastic ideas, you need to know about another invention of his. Several winters before this, John Newburg had hatched another crackpot idea: why not build a wooden ramp all the way down the Watch Tower bluff and out into the Rock River, and send a row boat on skids down the ramp faster and faster until it splashed out into the river? Then row the boat back to shore and winch it up the bluff and do it again.

That is how the Watch Tower's famous Shoot the Chutes came to be, one of the most popular amusements in the area. Shoot the Chutes quickly spread to Chicago, and elsewhere. Today, no respectable amusement park would be without the log flume, as it's now called, all by courtesy of a man who really wanted to fly—one way or another—but never got off the ground.

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.