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Crossroads or Heartland?

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Even before becoming a state in 1818, Illinois was caught on the horns of a dilemma: should she advertise herself as the crossroads of the United States, or as the heartland? Was Illinois the calm, settled center from which all else emanated, or the restless crisscross of rivers, rails and roads of an America on the move?

"Heartland," wrote the naturalist Donald Culross Peattie, "the core of America." "Crossroads of the continent," responded the National Geographic magazine. "Every traveler changes boat, plane, train, or car in Chicago."

Had Illinois paid more attention to its little boom town of Rock Island back in the 1850s, there might never have been a dilemma. Rock Island in 1850 could have gone either way. She was trying to establish herself as a major river port—the heartland of the Mississippi Valley. At the same time, it was Rock Island where the first railroad reached the Mississippi in 1854. Vast waves of immigrants headed for newly opened farmlands of Iowa and Minnesota. For them, Rock Island was a crossroads where they changed to steamboat or wagon for the rest of the journey west. Heartland or crossroads, which should Rock Island choose to be in order to become something in this world?

Both. Rock Island did some quick, creative thinking. When Rock Island needed workers—carpenters, stone masons, store clerks—during boom times, she simply advertised "heartland" and enticed the best of the immigrants passing through to settle out in Rock Island. Many a carpenter headed for Minnesota ended up building houses in Rock Island.

On the other hand, when the supply of workers had matched the current demand, Rock Island hung out the crossroads sign, and eagerly helped the immigrants on their way. The result was always just enough workers and no unemployment.

Somewhere stored away, Rock Island still has those signs ready to hang out as needed. If you come out our way and see a billboard that says, "crossroads," you are advised to keep going to Oregon or least across the river to Davenport.

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.