© 2023 WVIK
Listen at 90.3 FM and 98.3 FM in the Quad Cities, 95.9 FM in Dubuque, or on the WVIK app!
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Moving Day

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

My advice is, avoid Chicago in October. That's when most of the apartment leases are up, and everyone is on the move. At least these days, it's only the tenants clogging the streets. Back in 1870, both houses and occupants were on the move.

That's what most astonished David Macrae, the young Scotsman touring the Mississippi Valley that spring. When the Iowa prairie proved far less exciting than he had imagined, he took the Rocky Island Railroad (as he called it) straight for Chicago. He had read all about Chicago in books: its wicked ways, its unbelievably rapid growth spurt that gave it the nickname "The Lightning City," its tall buildings, some more than a hundred feet high, its vast cattle and hog industry, its immigrants that made it a Tower of Babel.

Unlike the prairie, Chicago lived up to his expectations. It proved deliciously evil and materialistic. Even sweet young women knew which stocks were up and which down at the market.

And then, there was an unexpected bonus, Chicago's mysterious, moving houses. Early on his first morning as he was riding from the Rock Island train station to his hotel, his trip was interrupted by a two-story house blocking the street ahead. "Did you never see a house moving before?" asked his driver. "There's always some of them on the move."

The driver was not exaggerating. Not a day passed without Macrae being stopped to let a house cross the street. One day there were nine. On some of them he could see people sitting in the windows watching life pass by. Not only houses, but businesses as well were on the move, rolling along on logs placed underneath and drawn by windlasses fixed up ahead.

As it turned out, Chicago had been built on land so low it often flooded, and the houses were escaping high water. Buildings that could not move were being raised. The five-story Briggs House Hotel was raised four feet and a new foundation put underneath, all the while carrying on business as usual, with guests coming and going.

Finally, David Macrae thought, here was something that really came up to his expectations of America. He returned to Scotland satisfied.

Let's hope those houses were, too. Let's hope they all moved safely away from Mrs. O'Leary and her cow, who were a year away from becoming famous.

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.