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Chicago Hospitality

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

After the English gentlewoman, Isabella Lucy Bird, had satisfied her desire to see the American Wild West by visiting rough and tumble Davenport in September of 1854, she thought it best to acclimatize herself to civilization one step at a time. She would stop at Chicago, then Toronto, Canada, then Quebec, and finally, Liverpool, England. A more rapid adjustment might upset her delicate system.

Accordingly, she boarded the Chicago and Rock Island's "Lightning Express" at Rock Island and headed for Chicago at sixty-seven miles an hour.

At Chicago, she checked in to a large brick hotel, a dollar a night. Glad to be back from the wilds, she headed for the upstairs Ladies Parlor. Alas, the wooden stairs were filthy, and the parlor was a meanly furnished room garnished with six spittoons, none of which had prevented tobacco juice from covering the floor. On the table lay several rifles and pistols. A feverish woman was tossing and turning on the couch. Two others were nursing sick children, and two other women were trying hard to comb their tangled black hair.

Miss Bird demanded to be taken to her room. That was a mistake. The room was lit only by a pane of glass in the door. On the small bed was a dirty buffalo robe which rained swarms of bugs and spiders when she moved it. Empty medicine bottles from a recent cholera epidemic were everywhere.

Trying to work up an appetite, Miss Bird went down to dinner, which consisted of eight legs of half-cooked mutton, six antique chickens with legs like guitar strings, and greasy pork with onion fixings. In one corner, at a long trough, scullery boys were wiping plates and silverware clean with their aprons.

When the dessert turned out to be nothing but pies made out of pumpkins, Miss Bird decided to speed up her return to civilization. At seven that evening she was on the train for Toronto.

Miss Bird continued to travel all her life: to Persia, Korea, Malaysia, Tibet, and the interior of China. But I suspect the reason that in 1893, she was elected as the first woman fellow of the Royal Geographical Society was because of her daring travels to Chicago, deep in the interior of America.

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.