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The Preacher Who Saved a Town

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Iowa was not always the corn-and-soybeans state. In the 1840s, when she was still a brand-new territory, her principle crop seemed to be sin. It was that crop that convinced so many young New England seminaries to head west as missionaries.

Among them was William Salter of Andover Theological Seminary. In 1846, he arrived in Burlington, Iowa to become pastor of the Burlington Congregational Church, a post he held until his death in 1910. Accustomed to New England villages, Salter was appalled by frontier Burlington, a jerry-built slatternly steamboat landing cynically labelled Catfish Bend by its equally uncivilized residents. Filth piled up in alleys and pigs wallowed in the streets. In Burlington, it was reported, men were more interested in commandeering neighbors’ property than in the 10 commandments, more interested in redeye than in religion and preferred prostitution to prayer.

They young missionary realized it would not work just to save a soul or two. He would have to save Burlington itself. And that is what he set out to do. He helped establish a YMCA; he supported literary and lyceum groups; he founded the Burlington public library and helped organize the first public school system. “The public school,” Salter wrote, “is the symbol of American civilization.”

Slowly, Burlington began to improve. By the 1850s, it had become a station on the underground railroad, with Salter hiding escaping slaves in a room beneath his church. In speech after speech to local groups such as the Old Settlers Association and in a stream of books and pamphlets on topics ranging from theology to local history, Missionary Salter called for self-improvement. His church grew, and so did Burlington, inspired by the tireless booster of Ben Franklin’s virtues.

By the year of his death, 1910, William Salter had become Burlington’s patron saint—the man who had taken a rough pioneer town and transformed it into one of Iowa’s jewels, a preacher who had saved a whole town by his belief that religion, education and civilization were one and the same thing.

If you visit Burlington today, you may notice a bit of backsliding, but you can still see the difference one person’s vision can make.

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.