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Winter Dreams

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It was a late February day in 1870 when the city of Rock Island came out of a twenty-year hibernation, wide awake and hungry. At least, that is how Argus editor, J. B. Danforth saw things. "Rock Island has her thinking cap on," he wrote, on what must have been a slow news day. His dreams filled the entire news section of the paper.

Danforth's article was headlined "Rock Island the Manufacturing Center of the West." He called on citizens to wake up, realize that with limitless waterpower available from the Mississippi and Rock Rivers, the untapped veins of coal underlying the whole valley, the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad, and the "great continental highway, the Mississippi, flowing at our feet," Rock Island lacked only a bit of capital and a fresh idea or two to make herself a rival to Eastern manufacturing cities like Lowell, Massachusetts. We could be Pittsburgh without the smoke, wrote Danforth. "The day is not distant," wrote the Editor, when we will hear the merry hum of millions of spindles mingled with the clatter of the busy looms employing 20,000 Rock Islanders. The separate communities of Rock Island, Moline, and Milan will merge into one metropolis as they fill with beautiful homes.

All we have to do is wake up. "For years, while we have slumbered and slept," said Editor Danforth, his vision growing as he wrote, "there have been beneath our feet, giant genii, waiting to do our bidding." All we need is an Aladdin to rub our lamp."

It took a little longer than expected to wake up. Six years, to be exact. Then, in 1876, the Rock Island city fathers went east to attend the Centennial of the United States. While visiting Philadelphia, they discovered what was holding Rock Island back. Smart, up-to-date Philadelphia numbered its streets—First, Second, and Third—while sleepy, backward Rock Island had given its streets old fashioned names: Water, Washington, Eagle, and Cherry.

The city fathers could hardly wait to return to Rock Island and awaken the city from its frontier hibernation. When they returned, they quickly dropped the old street names and gave them fancy new numbers, like Seventh Avenue, the first step toward a wide-awake Rock Island.

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.