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The Green Tree Hotel

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It may have been the oldest hotel in North America. Unlike most hotels, it improved with age. For Upper Mississippi raftsmen and river pilots, the Green Tree Hotel at the head of the Rock Island Rapids in Le Claire, Iowa, was home away from home during the last half of the 19th century.

As its name plainly suggests, the Green Tree Hotel was an enormous elm with branches forming a dense canopy eighty feet across. Estimates put its age at close to two hundred years. It grew near the riverbank, a perfect waiting room and lobby for forty to fifty rapids pilots who made their entire living taking steamboats through the Rock Island Rapids—fourteen miles of twisting and treacherous channel from Le Claire down to Davenport. Steamboats stopped at the Green Tree to hire on these skilled pilots, and let them off at Davenport, where they waited to be hired by a boat bound upstream.

Crews of the great white pine rafts from Minnesota and Wisconsin floating down to sawmills near Rock Island also stopped off at the Green Tree Hotel for a night or two before heading back upriver.

Nineteenth century photographs show that cattle also found the shade of the Green Tree inviting, and often joined the pilots and the raftsmen in a siesta.

The casual nature of hotel regulations must have suited man and beast alike. There was no check in or check out time, no locks for the rooms, the rates were right, the view unobstructed. Running water was nearby and while there were no mints on the pillows (in fact there weren't any pillows), think of the stories, the tall tales, the bragging, the boatmen's songs that must have been swapped until long after the stars had come out before the guests one by one settled into sleep.

The Green Tree died slowly and was finally cut down a few years ago. It has just been memorialized by a new tree planted nearby. Unfortunately, construction on this new hotel is expected to be slow. The first rooms will not be ready for another fifty years or so.

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.