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A Site for Iowa City

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

May 1st, 1839 was a normal spring day on the prairie above the Iowa River. That is to say, it was haunting, lush with expectations. The prairie had turned green and new leaves crowned the stands of oak. At the small river community of Napoleon, several commissioners were already gathering, as per the request of the Iowa Territorial Legislature, to determine the site for a permanent state capitol on un-surveyed public lands.

The following day, after the formal business of organizing their group, the commissioners headed up the Iowa River in search of a site, looking for a place that would strike them as just perfect.

They did not have to travel far. Two miles upriver from Napoleon, they stopped to take in an incredible vista. It was mid-afternoon. They found themselves on a high plateau. Below them, they could see the Iowa River, a “clear limpid stream, with sand and gravel bottom, in a channel about 240 feet wide” one of them wrote. In between stands of large burr oak were open places through which the men could see the opposite banks rising abruptly for 50 feet above the river and beyond that a prairie of low, rolling hills sweeping off toward the west. On the east bank, below where they were standing, the commissioners could see a 600-acre natural amphitheater along the river.

But it was the marble quarry along the river that told the men they had found the place for Iowa’s capitol. Marble. Here would rise a new Athens on the prairie. Here, the Parthenon, over there the Erechtheion. Here would rise a great seat of government, a site that would demand a search through Dubuque and Burlington and Davenport for a modern Socrates, a Plato, an Aristotle. The men erected a wooden slab at the spot they were standing, identifying the site as the seat of government. It was, in fact, the exact spot where the capitol building would be built.

But alas, when the government surveyors came to lay out the site, they discovered that the quarry was mere limestone rather than marble. There would be no Athens, no Parthenon. That was the bad news.  The good news was Iowa could stop searching Dubuque for a hard-to-find Socrates. A readily available politician would do just fine.

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.