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The Wild West

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Apparently, during the first half of the 19th century, it was impossible to be a genuine English gentlewoman without a tour of America to experience the underclasses close up, especially if one intended to become an author. Isabella Lucy Bird, daughter of an evangelical Church of England clergyman, made her trip in 1854, at the age of 23.

What better way to meet the underclasses than by taking a train trip west to the very end of the line: the Mississippi River at Rock Island. Accordingly, on a September morning, she boarded the train at Cincinnati and headed west.

The underclasses more than lived up to her expectations. "If you went this far back home," a man with a gun in his belt told her, you'd fall off that little island." A woman informed her that America's only ruins were British fortifications." As if Americans weren't dying to have just one Tintern Abbey, Miss Bird thought to herself.

Crossing over into Illinois, both the land and the underclasses got rougher. Signs that had warned of pickpockets now became signs warning about pickpockets, swindlers, and luggage thieves. Even with hundreds of unwashed passengers crowded into each car, Miss Bird fell asleep as the train crossed the Illinois prairie. She awoke to discover the train had been stalled all night because of an accident ahead.

The following day, the train emerged from the last stand of woods, and there was Rock Island, an unfinished settlement she nicknamed the "Desert City." The edge of civilization. She could not resist the temptation to press on to the real West, the wild west of Indians and buffalos, as long as she had come this far. She boarded a rickety steamboat at the Rock Island levee, and after a frightening ride amid whirlpools and strong currents the boat landed, and she found herself in the wild west, full of immigrant wagons and teams of oxen. Everywhere men carried knives and guns. She ate Johnny cake, squirrel, and buffalo hump in a long shed crowded with lower classes, before returning to Rock Island, satisfied that now she had seen it all.

That little village in the Wild West? It was called 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.