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Locomotives and Automobiles

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you are the kind of person who gives your car a name—like Alice or Jonathan—I’m afraid I have bad news. I’m almost certain that your car is a clone—one of two hundred thousand or so cranked out at the same Detroit factory. It has no more personality than a McDonald’s coffee cup. At best, it may have quirks.

If you want personality, you’re going to have to sell that car and check the want ads for an old steam locomotive of the kind that hauled passengers and goods across the United States long before Henry Ford got his clone factory going producing cookie cutter cars. A steam locomotive will give you call the personality you want, provided you can find some unused track to run it on.

No steam locomotive was ever a clone. Each was built, often by trial and error, trying to improve on earlier designs, for a specific rail line and a specific purpose: for mountains or plains, for passengers or freight. Engines varied in size and shape, even in the number of wheels. A 2-6-2 engine had two wheels in front, six drive wheels and two trailing whiles, while a 4-8-4 had eight drive wheels, and so on.

And a result, each engine had its own personality—a personality each crew came to know as well as they knew the eccentricities of their friends. They learned to coax a slow steamer, or to treat a fast but nervous engine the way they might handle a racehorse. People who lived in small towns along railroad rights-of-way learned to recognize an engine by its own peculiar voice.

And as befits an individual, each engine had its own name. Among those working in Iowa were the American, the Mogul, the Mountain, the Hudson and the Mikado (renamed the MacArthur during World War II).

Don’t sell your car just yet. You may have trouble finding one of those old personalities. The last standard-gauge steam locomotive passed through Iowa in 1975 hauling the American Freedom Trail as part of the Centennial celebration. You’ll have to do with makeup—say a bumper sticker or two—to give your clone car a hint of personality.

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.