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The Rock Island Fire

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If a simple fence can make the grass greener on the other side, just think what a river like the Mississippi can do. That must explain why the accounts of the great Rock Island Fire differed so much in the Davenport and Rock Island newspapers.

From either side of the river, the scene was spectacular. At about 11:00 on the night of August 1st, 1856, fire broke out in a small building next to Captain Cook's lumber yard. Before it burned itself out, the fire had destroyed an entire block, from the lumber yard to Ainsworth and Lynde's Store—ten to fifteen thousand dollars’ worth of damage.

For the small village of Rock Island, then only twenty years old, this was a disaster. Editor J. B. Danforth of the Argus praised the citizens for their heroism in fighting the fire and called for the city to organize a fire department.

Across the river in the rival city of Davenport, there was a different view. D. N. Richardson, editor of the Iowa State Democrat, pointed that the building where the fire broke out was a saloon, as were most of the buildings in the destroyed block. Clearing out these saloons, he pointed out, "may be considered a great benefit to the city," as it will "give room for some beautiful blocks which should take the place of the old shanties." It would improve Davenport's view of the river, he noted. Iowans were tired of looking at a monotonous row of tinder-dry two-story buildings.

The fire itself proved to be an entertaining sight from the Davenport waterfront, as editor Richardson noted. Every building in the block was wrapped in flame. The sight of so vast a sheet of flame was splendid.

Did Davenporters think of going over to Rock Island to help? Why, no. It would have been futile to fight the fire, Richardson said. Besides, the editor and his staff were trying to see if the fire was bright enough in Davenport to read the very finest print in the Iowa State Democrat.

It was, noted editor Richardson.

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.