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The Kahlke Boat Ways

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It was one of the largest construction projects that had ever been undertaken in Rock Island back in February of 1870. And had it not been completely submerged in the Mississippi River, it would also have been the most impressive.

The project was the boatways at the new Kahlke Boatyard at the western tip of Rock Island. John Kahlke and his sons had already built several steamboats at their boatyard in Port Byron. Now, they were moving to Rock Island to build the largest boat building facility on the Upper Mississippi River—one that would provide Rock Island with 500 new jobs.

The boatways was the sloping platform by which newly constructed steamboats could be slid down into the river and old ones hauled out for repair. The riverbank at Rock Island was gravelly rather than muddy and provided just the right slope to do this in high water or low. On the Kahlke Boatways, six of the largest steamboats on the Upper Mississippi River could be hauled up at one time.

To build the boatways, the nearby Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann Lumber Mill floated an entire raft of giant oak logs down the Mississippi from Wisconsin, cut them into shape, and spliced them into beams three hundred feet long. There were fifteen such parallel beams extending 150 feet out into the river and held together by four-inch-wide iron plates from Pittsburg. The sixty 185-pound rollers on which the steamboats were to ride were cast at the Buford Plow Works in Rock Island, as were the steam engines, blocks and tackles used to haul boats up on the ways.

The whole gridwork was assembled on the ice, and then sunk to its place on the riverbed, and the Kahlkes made plans to begin building barges and boats that spring. They knew their boatyard would give them a monopoly on all boat building and repair on the Upper Mississippi.

"Our boatways will last a hundred years," said John Kahlke. The only problem, as it turned out, was timing. "You can lead a horse to water," as the saying goes, but only if you first have a horse. By 1870, steam boating was in its dwindling last days. Passengers had already shifted to trains. Within 30 years, every passenger boat left on the river would have fit on the grand Kahlke boatways at the one time, with space left over.

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.