David B. Sears
This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
When Mother Nature hands out souls, she is generally careful to separate those who are hard-working, noses-to-the-grindstone types from those who are restless wanderers. It’s hard work. Who can blame her for occasionally mixing those qualities in a single soul, just for a little amusement?
It’s one way of explaining David Benton Sears, the founder of Moline. Sears was born to a restless New York family in 1804, a restlessness he himself exhibited early. Young Sears moved to Ohio, to Illinois, back to New York, and then, by the time he was 30, to Shawneetown on the Ohio River, where his hard work made him the youngest trader on the Ohio and lower Mississippi.
In 1836, when he was 32, he made a trip to Rock Island, was impressed with the countryside, and decided to farm some of it. From Shawneetown he drove 500 head of cattle across southern Illinois and up the Mississippi, bought land along the river east of Rock Island, and built a log cabin—all by himself.
Perhaps it was the effort of driving all those cattle, or perhaps it was the crowded conditions inside the 20 by 30-foot log cabin where Sears, his wife, and eight children lived in two rooms, but farming soon lost his interest.
Across the Mississippi channel known as Sylvan Slough, Sears noticed the Island of Rock Island—the only limestone island in the Mississippi. A living could be made easily, Sears thought, by damming that small channel for waterpower. He received permission from the Government who owned the island to build a crude brush dam, on which he erected a combination saw and flower mill. Within two years, Sears had erected a much larger mill.
Sears did not know it at the time, but the odd combination of hard work and restlessness in his soul had made him the first person ever to dam the Mississippi and use its water for power.
Still restless, David Sears took on partners for even larger projects, which, in 1843, included platting out a town around the site of the Sears dam—a town he and his partners named Rock Island Mills and then Moline, “mill town.” Today, that town’s new convention center, the Mark, sits at the site of that first Mississippi dam.
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.