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Robert E. Lee

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

George Washington never slept here. You can't visit Rock Island and sleep in the same bed for an extra nine dollars a night the way you can up and down the east coast. You'll just have to settle for Robert E. Lee.

Our Lee story begins early in 1837, in Washington, D.C. A brand-new lieutenant fresh out of West Point, Robert E. Lee has asked to be transferred to the West, where the action is. The Chief of Engineers must already have seen some hints of future greatness. With no previous experience, Lt. Lee was assigned to the Upper Mississippi River, where he was to map the two treacherous rapids at Keokuk, Iowa, and at Rock Island, and he was to devise plans for making them safely navigable.

Lee and his party arrived at St. Louis in August and headed north. When his own government boat grounded on the rapids at Keokuk, he walked along the river a hundred miles north to Rock Island. Here he took up residence on a wrecked steamboat, its bottom torn out by the rapids, but with the top two decks above water.

It was a handy office for river work. Lee wrote to friends about the delights of being able to fish out his window in the evenings for blue Mississippi catfish. He also told how easily he fell into the ways of the country, taking anything not tied down.

During October he mapped the rapids and wrote his report. The Panic of 1837 ended Congressional appropriations before work could begin, and Lee returned the following years only to visit West Point friends in Galena, where he enjoyed a new concoction, "soda and ice cream four times a day."

So, Robert E. Lee became one of our Rock Island stories before going on to fame and glory in another place and time. In his report to the Chief of Engineers, Lee estimated that blasting a safe channel through the Rock Island Rapids would take two years and cost $154,658: figures that turned out to be short by 96 years and almost $5 million—not the last time a government project has gone over estimate.

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