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Rock Island Lines Archives

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

As Pandora learned the hard way, it's all but impossible for the human imagination to leave the lid on a closed box. What might be inside?

Now multiply that single box six hundred times. That was the temptation that faced Scott Petersen on December 10th, 1977, in Chicago's LaSalle Street Station as he sat through the Rock Island Lines Railroad Federal Bankruptcy auction of memorabilia. On the auction block were tables, silverware, dishes, tickets, timetables, mother-of-pearl artwork, and those six hundred unmarked, sealed, ancient tote boxes—to be sold unopened, at the end of the auction.

Scott Petersen's only interest in the Rock Island Lines came from his having been a student at Augustana College in the 1970s, but his curiosity was too strong. When the dust had settled, Scott was the owner of 45 boxes, at $3.50 a box.

And of course, he opened them. They were part of the Rock Island archives—letters and papers from 1865 to 1915. Letters from several United States Vice presidents, letters from Clarence Darrow, Anton Cermak, cabinet members, congressmen, supreme court justices—along with tickets, passes, legal briefs.

If it had ended there, Scott would have made a tidy profit on his investment, but his curiosity was stronger than Pandora's. Where were the rest of the Rock Island records? No one claimed to know. It took two years of pestering Rock Island Lines and bankruptcy officials to discover the rest of the archives housed in a 100,000 square foot building at the corner of Polk and LaSalle in Chicago. And none too soon. Scott found out that the entire archives was about to be thrown out. Officials finally agreed to sell him the contents of the building for $500.

Scott's wife was not happy with the original 45 boxes; you can imagine her concern now. Even if she moved out, their home would not be large enough. There were eight, over-the-road, 48-foot tractor trailers full of archives which took three weeks to load.

Apparently, Scott knew that, too. His curiosity had single-handedly saved the records of a great railroad. Now, he sold them to the University of Iowa and the University of Oklahoma where they would be safe. Do you have any Pandora in you? There are still hundreds of old boxes, waiting to be opened.

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.