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Big Brothers

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Frequent visitors to Rock Island have noticed a peculiarity along the Upper Mississippi Valley: the towns on the west bank are grander than those across the river on the east.

East St. Louis lives in the shadow of St. Louis and its grand arch. Upriver, Iowa on the west has Keokuk, Fort Madison, Burlington, while Illinois on the east has Warsaw, New Boston, and four crossroads with gas stations. Here at Rock Island, Davenport, Iowa, is larger than the Illinois towns of Rock Island and Moline put together.

It's the same all the way. East Dubuque is no match for Dubuque. And Minnesota's Twin Cities are not twins at all. St. Paul is elegant and filled with grand old homes, but it's sleepy, while Minneapolis to the west is the get up and go town that banked the money, milled the Midwest's wheat, and sent the railroads across the landscape.

Why is this so? Perhaps it's because the west has always been larger than life in America, not just another direction. "Westward the course of empire takes its way," wrote Bishop Berkeley. At least in the Mississippi Valley, people seem to have followed Horace Greeley's advice to "Go west, young man, go west."

Here's one interesting theory proposed by early critics of Mark Twain. They were trying to prove that growing up along the river deprived Twain, like Huck Finn, of civilization. These critics suggested that two kinds of people left the civilized and cultured comforts of New York, Boston, and Philadelphia: the entrepreneurs with big dreams who went to follow their stars, and the sorry riffraff who couldn’t handle the protestant work ethic or were running from the law.

When these groups reached the Mississippi, so this theory goes, the hard-working dreamers accepted the challenge and crossed the Great River to the other side—founding its towns—while the lazy riffraff just plain gave up, sighed, and settled along the east bank.

This is not a popular theory in Illinois.

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.