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The Christening of the Owatoga

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Perhaps love really is blind, as Shakespeare claimed in The Merchant of Venice. How else to explain the epic poem Henry C. Withers composed in 1896 as his part in the dedication of the Owantoga near the mouth of the Illinois River. The Owantoga, after all, was no beauty. She was not even a boat. A mere barge, rather, on which had been placed an ungainly, lop-sided derrick and a steam-operated clamshell bucket. The Owantoga was a dredge.

Henry Withers seemed not to understand that dredges were not worthy of epic poetry. In his best lawyer voice, he began the dedication: "The sun arose with morning light / The day for christening was bright: / All the country round came down / Filing past Bridgewater town. / Frogs in the race had ceased to sing. / The blue-winged teal were on the wing. / Blue mist above the mountains hung. / As morning hymns were sung."

The ungainly dredge even had an epic name. The Owantoga was the Indian chief who had killed the mythical Piasa bird, whose likeness was painted on the Mississippi bluffs near Alton.

Withers wound up to a grand climax. In the last stanza, he turned to the engineer: "I pour this water on the iron beam / Al Smith, Turn on the steam, / And now the Owantoga floats / Proudest of the river boats." And plop, the dredge bellied out into the water.

An example of blind love? There is another possibility. Withers was a successful attorney who had even won cases before the Supreme Court. His only failure was a long, losing struggle to convince the Government to remove the dam across the Illinois River at Kempsville—a dam which kept thousands of acres of bottom land flooded—land that would produce excellent stands of timber.

In 1896, Congress relented. The mission of the new dredge, Owantoga, was to take that dam down and drain the bottom land—several thousand acres of which were owned by Henry C. Withers. Or, as Withers put it in epic words: "The Owatonga dredge / Is under solemn pledge / To fight the Kempsville dam / Till it lays down to die. / And now, commissioned as I am, / I let her fly."

Was it love or money? Both are capable of eliciting fancy words.

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.