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The Rock Island Arsenal Tinker Toy

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Once upon a time, energy was fun to watch. Steam engines, water wheels, windmills, steamboat paddles, and the glistening arc of rowboat oars all let you know they were hard at work.

Then along came electricity and spoiled the fun. Aside from lightning, it's hard to see electricity do anything at all, even if you believe it's there in the wires.

That's exactly what happened on Rock Island in 1899. The Army took much of the fun out of the Rock Island Arsenal. The arsenal itself, ten great U-shaped workshops facing each other along a main avenue, was the vision of General Thomas Rodman, its second commandant, but the General died in 1871, just as the shops reached completion, without any plan for powering the huge arsenal machinery.

Power became the responsibility of the third commandant, Lt. Col. D. W. Flagler. Steam was too expensive on such a large scale, and electricity was not yet feasible. The nearest potential waterpower was several hundred feet away—a small channel of the Mississippi called Sylvan Slough. How to get that power over to the shops?

Fortunately, there was enough boy left in the army colonel. Using an idea developed in Europe, Flagler built a dam across Sylvan Slough, installed a fifteen foot water wheel, attached the wheel to a set of gears, and ran an endless rope over the wheels set on high wooden towers across the island to the shops. At each of the first five workshops, an additional tower and wheel arrangement turned a large shaft running through the shop. At each workstation, belts from this shaft transmitted power to operate the machines. It must have been quite a sight, humming along.

Flagler's mechanical system powered the Arsenal until 1899, when the Army decided to switch to electricity. Although the colonel called his contraption the Telodynamic Power Transmission System in order to impress the higher-ups, we boys know it for what it really was: a combination tinker toy and Gilbert Erector Set—the super deluxe model we hoped Santa would bring us each Christmas.

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.