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Jimmy, The Lamp

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Few Rock Islanders can so clearly see the results of the good they do in this world as Jimmy, the Lamp.

Jimmy worked for the United States Lighthouse Service at the turn of the century, tending the lights on the Rock Island Rapids. Guided by these lights, steamboat pilots safely threaded the twisted, treacherous channel through the rapids.

Each day during the season, Jimmy rowed seventeen miles in a small boat, trimming the wicks and refilling the oil in the lamps. For him, there were no forty-hour work weeks, no overtime, no coffee breaks, only the satisfaction of knowing that his hard and faithful service saved boats.

Jimmy, the Lamp came to love the Mississippi, not in the way tourists do, as pretty passing pictures, but in the way we come to know anything well: by close attention. He absorbed the river through callouses and sinews, leaning into his work.

In 1910, the Lighthouse Service transferred its rapids duties to the Rock Island District Corps of Engineers. The need for lamp tending gave way to locks and dams. That is why Jimmy, the Lamp found himself in the pilot house of the Engineer flagship, the Ellen, as its captain. No one else knew the river as well.

Captain James Maxwell must have been proud of his new command. The Ellen was an oak-hulled launch, 144 feet long with a 26-foot beam. She drew only three feet of water, and her 18-foot stern wheel could propel her at ten miles an hour. But even in his fancy uniform, at the wheel, in a quiet moment of reverie, Jimmy must have bent his back again, imagined his hands grasping oars.

Captain Maxwell's daughter married a local doctor. As often happens, traits skip a generation. It was James Weissman, his grandson, who caught the grandfather's vision. Young James went to college in Rock Island--his parents insisted--but he graduated and returned to his grandfather's Mississippi as a commercial fisherman.

He lives down by the river near his smokehouse where the grandfather must now and then smile down on grandson--that is, if he has time. In Jimmy, the Lamp's heaven, there must be work to do, there must be lights to tend.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.

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.