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Gaudy Steamboats

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

As David Macrae boarded the steamboat for a trip up the Mississippi River to St. Louis in the spring of 1870, he wondered why these simple riverboats had to make themselves into gaudy floating palaces. Gaudy and dangerous. By the time his steamboat reached Memphis, he had his answer.

He already knew about the dangers. An eastern friend had warned him to get the most aft cabin he could avoid the high-pressure boilers. At New Orleans, David had been given the most aft cabin still available—right over the boiler pipes. A room whose only wall decoration was a large sign notifying passengers that the door could be easily lifted off its hinges and that the mattresses would make good life preservers.

But a tour of the boat took his mind temporarily off the possibility of blowing up. Three gaudy decks full of richly appointed salons in white and gold, writing desks, chandeliers, polished woodwork, rich carpeting. Even the spittoons, he noted, were richly silvered.

Even the steamboat food went far beyond necessities—course after course of rich meats and pastries with hundreds of choices, as if even breakfast were a state dinner.

There was always something new to eat, something new to look at, and be amazed. Why would a steamboat go to such efforts? Three hundred miles later, David Macrae knew. If the United States was one huge landscape of flat plains interrupted by flat woods, where even the mountains rose so gradually as to not appear as mountains, the Mississippi River had to be the most monotonous landscape of anywhere on earth. Standing on the top deck to get the widest vista, David watched mile after mile of river pass by, both banks choked with cottonwood and willow trees, broken only by a small log cabin every thirty miles or so where the boat stopped to take on wood.

Wooded shoreline was the last thing David saw as darkness fell. It was the first thing he noticed after waking up. The steamboat rounds a bend, and there it is: wooded shoreline. Another bend, more shoreline.

And there was your answer, simple as could be. The gaudiness and the thrill of a possible boiler explosion kept passengers' minds alert. Without such diversions on a Mississippi trip, the casualties from boredom might well have exceeded those from actual explosions.

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.