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The Ark

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The statute of limitations has finally expired, so it is safe to tell you what happened to the Ark, and to encourage Chicago to right a wrong.

Over the years, Chicago has been very good about naming streets, parks, and public buildings after its heroes, with one important exception: the captain of a small steamboat named "The Ark." I'm convinced that it was that captain back in the 1840s, when little upstart Chicago was contending with the port of St. Louis to become the Queen City of the Midwest, who shifted the battle in favor of Chicago.

St. Louis had already become a big bully who feared no rivals. Her location allowed her to control all the steamboat traffic on the Mississippi, the Missouri, and the Illinois rivers. All steamboats passing up or down these rivers were required to stop at the St. Louis waterfront, check in, and, of course, pay port taxes. Upriver ports such as Rock Island and Davenport complained bitterly, but there was little they could do.

Until the incident of “The Ark.” The little steamboat's captain was from just upriver in Calhoun County, Illinois. Like other Calhoun residents, he had a mind of his own. One day as he maneuvered “The Ark” downstream toward New Orleans, he sailed right past St. Louis. No stop. No taxes.

St. Louis could not afford to let that happen. Other captains might get ideas. Several steamboat-loads of authorities pushed off from the St. Louis levee to pursue “The Ark.” The Captain eluded them by sneaking up the small White River and hiding out. He didn't just lay idle, however. He hurriedly repainted his steamboat, and renamed her "The Minerva," after the Roman god of wisdom. Then he calmly re-entered the Mississippi River, sailed right past the St. Louis boats still searching for “The Ark,” and continued on to New Orleans.

My suspicion is that so many St. Louis boats kept hunting “The Ark” up and down the river that none were left to guard the waterfront. Other boats were able to run the blockade. In the confusion, the great port city did not even notice that Chicago had taken heart at the event and had begun to send a railroad west toward the Mississippi River at Rock Island. The rest is history.

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.