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Hugh Robinson

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This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Had the daring young aviator, Hugh Robinson, understood human nature as well as he understood airplanes and flying, he might well have carried out his plan to become the first airman to fly the entire navigable Mississippi River from Minneapolis to New Orleans that fall of 1911.

His aircraft was a Glen Curtis biplane to which Curtis had attached a large pontoon in order to take off and land on water. Robinson planned to take off from Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis on October 11th and fly from river town to river town in hops of fifty miles or so. His route, 1,917 miles long, would set a new distance record for aircraft. Robinson and the towns which hosted him would become famous.

Hugh Robinson's plan was to have the towns where he stopped pay for that privilege by raising the necessary $20,000 to complete the trip. In return, he would do some demonstration flying at each site. Rock Island was to raise $500.

Bad weather and repairs delayed the Mississippi trip until October 19th. By then, the distance record had already exceeded 2,000 miles elsewhere and Robinson realized he would have to come back up the river to set a new record.

Alas, the world record hydroplane attempt got only as far as Rock Island. By then, Robinson had set two smaller records: one for speed between Red Wing and La Crosse, 60 miles an hour and one for carrying the U.S. mail higher—at 7,000 feet—than it had ever been before. But as he approached Rock Island, he made the mistake of landing near the Davenport levee and taxing by water across to Rock Island. He should have known better. Davenport immediately claimed the record, making Rock Island very unhappy. Meanwhile, St. Louis, used to having everything its own way, realized Robinson would have to come past there, money or not, and canceled their contract. Robinson should have insisted on the money upfront.

And so, on October 21st, the first attempt to fly the Mississippi ended at Rock Island, but not before another world record. Hugh Robinson dismantled his hydroplane on the Rock Island levee and shipped it off to Oklahoma for some exhibition flying there, giving the Rock Island Lines a new world distance record for carrying an airplane by rail.

Rock Island Lines is supported by grants from the Illinois Humanities Council, the Illinois Arts Council—a state agency—and by Augustana College, Rock Island.

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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.