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The Empire Builder

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

When James Jerome Hill was born in Rockwood, Ontario, in 1838, he already had two of the credentials required for greatness: he was born in a log cabin, and his parents were staunch Scots who taught the young boy thrift and industry. But it required one more credential, a stop at Rock Island, Illinois, to send him on a path that led to his becoming the great Empire Builder, founder of the Great Northern Railroad.

Young Hill's dilemma was that alongside his finely tuned Scots work ethic, he had an imagination that dreamed large. In 1856, at the age of 18, he decided to head for the Orient and become a second Marco Polo. When those plans fell through, Hill headed west to seek fame and fortune in that wide-open country.

On the way west from Chicago, he passed through Rock Island. Unfortunately for the visionary Hill, the industrious Hill saw a help-wanted sign at a Rock Island sawmill. He applied for the job. For several weeks, the two Hills fought each other. The industrious Hill worked hard as a saw mill accountant, while the dreamy Hill left work and ran down to the levee every time a steamboat whistle sounded, to watch the tall smokestacks belching fire, and thrill to the swan-like motion of the boats with their marvelous superstructures.

The dreamy Hill was tempted, and soon it won out. The young man left his job, booked passage on the "Molly Devine" heading upstream. By the time Hill reached St. Paul, however, his industrious conscience was bothering him again, and he took a job as shipping clerk for the steamboat company. Rock Island must have convinced Hill that he would never be content until he had found a calling that combined hard work and romance.

That opportunity came to Hill shortly after the Civil War, as the country was pulling itself together again. He saw grand possibilities in a small, failing Minnesota railroad, his enthusiasm combined with industry brought investors on board, and the end result was the Great Northern Railroad stretching to the Pacific Ocean.

Not that he had forgotten Rock Island. He returned here in 1901 to add the Chicago, Burlington and Quincy Railroad to his holdings, extending both his dreams and his hard work.

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.

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.