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A Diamond Jo Excursion

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

To some residents of Clinton, Iowa, the ad in the local newspaper promising a seven-day excursion to the Falls of St. Anthony and back aboard the Diamond Jo at only $25 a couple seemed too good to be true. As it turned out, it was.

Excursions had always been a part of steamboat business, but it took on large proportions after the Civil War as the railroads increasingly took over transporting passengers and cargo. Steamboat lines were forced to turn their attentions more and more to the excursion business.

Unfortunately, Diamond Jo Reynolds of the successful Reynolds Line, found it easier to turn his attention to excursions than his boats. The Diamond Jo advertised at Clinton was a small towboat built in 1864 to haul grain on barges. She had only nineteen staterooms, with two berths each, and enough space for 50 other passengers to sleep on the deck. None of this seemed to bother the 88 prominent Clintonites who signed up for the grant excursion.

As the Diamond Jo cut loose from the levee at nine o’clock on the evening of July 5th, the partying commenced. Not until the excursionists attempted to retire for the evening at two in the morning did they discover the shortage of berths. Naturally, the gentlemen offered to sleep on thin mattresses laid on the main cabin floor, two men to a mattress. These same were awakened two hours later by cabin stewards who needed to clear the cabin for breakfast.

The next day, excursionists were appalled to find the Diamond Jo taking on two barges of grain, slowing its movement to four miles an hour—causing the boat to reach the Falls of St. Anthony days late. Only the pleasant demeaner of Captain Reynolds prevented what might have been the only mutiny on the Mississippi as the endless shoreline eased by.

By the end of the trip, however, the mood had changed. The excursionists realized they had been on an adventure the likes of which they were not apt to see again. As they left the boat, they subscribed to the usual commendation of the Captain. There was left only one unhappy participant—Diamond Jo Reynolds, who realized he still had a few things left to learn when it came to the excursion business. It was years before any of his boats attempted a repeat performance.

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Humanities Council and Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, with additional funding from Humanities Iowa, the Iowa Arts Council, and 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.