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Issy, The Cabin Boy

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It’s customary, they say, for the captain to go down with his ship. But for loyalty, here's a Rock Island story that could teach even captains a lesson.

Last December, the President Riverboat along the Davenport levee celebrated its 70th birthday.  Launched on December 15, 1924, as the S. S. Cincinnati, the boat was rebuilt into a 1,500-passenger excursion steamer by the Streckfus Steamboat Line in 1933 and renamed The President.

Six years later, a black steamboat roustabout in the New Orleans area looking for a secure place in this world for his son, placed that son in the care of Captain Roy Streckfus. "Adopted out" was the language used.

That is how Israel "Issy" Gorman came to be the cabin boy on The President at the age of 11. A big job for a small boy. 

Over the years, the boat changed hands, changed locations, and changed jobs, until it is now a riverboat casino in Iowa. But the cabin boy has remained steadfast and true. For 56 years, aside from service in the Korean War, and six-week visits to New Orleans each year where he has a wife, seven children, and 20 grandchildren, Issy Gorman has lived on the boat that adopted him, in a room of his own down in the hold.

During those years Issy has been cabin boy, ships carpenter, oiler, engine wiper, painter, maintenance man, and firefighter. Today he stands the night watch on his boat.

Does it bother Issy that he is more steadfast than the boat, which is a boat now in name only? The President sits tied to its dock, never venturing out in the water, never turning its great side wheels, taking in quarters and dollar bills from rows of slot machines and blackjack tables.

No matter to Issy. Whether it's passengers boarding to watch the panorama of the great river slide by or coming to dream of hitting jackpots, the boat must be kept shipshape. "The main thing," Issy says, "is to satisfy the people so they come back." It would only be fitting if, when Issy's time comes, the boat remained as loyal as he, and went down with him.

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.