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Stephen B. Hanks

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Stephen Beck Hanks of Albany, Illinois, might have become a legend on the Upper Mississippi River—perhaps even an American folk hero to rival Mike Fink, King of the Riverboat men—had he been a bit more careful in his choice of cousins.

Stephen Hanks was part of a large clan of Kentucky Hankses who moved to Illinois in the 1820s. Some of them ended up in Springfield, but a few, including Stephen's mother, came to Albany.

When he was 19, Stephen took a job cutting trees for an Albany sawmill. From here, he went on to become a logger in the North Woods of Wisconsin, and then the leader of a crew floating logs out of the Chippewa River down the Mississippi to sawmills along the way. At the time, logs were floated free—a messy business—but Hanks was not one to let things along. After almost losing a whole shipment of logs in a storm in Lake Pepin, Hanks devised a way of tying the logs into small rafts, and those sections into one large raft.

Hanks new method revolutionized logging and made possible the great age of rafting on the Mississippi River. During that era, Hanks made and lost at least three fortunes with his derring-do. In one incident, Hanks sawed around a whole raft wintering in the ice and floated the frozen mass down to Rock Island.

Stephen Hanks went on to an equally famous career in steamboating, becoming a pilot for the legendary Diamond Jo line. He tried to retire in 1890 when he was 69 but could not stay away. When the last raft of white pine came down the river in 1915, ending the industry he had founded, Stephen Hanks was aboard as an honored guest.

Few rivermen deserved fame more than Stephen B. Hanks, and it did come, but not in a way those who knew him imagined. Several times in his early career, before the Civil War, he had taken time off the river to travel to Springfield to visit one of the Hankses there. He admired his cousin, and they got along famously. Otherwise, the encyclopedias and history books that mention Hanks at all today might have made him a river legend rather than insisting that you know only a single important fact: Stephen Hanks was Abraham Lincoln's cousin.

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.