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The Chicago and Rock Island Railroad

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

At five in the afternoon on Washington's Birthday in 1854, a small locomotive gaily decorated in streamers and bunting pulled six bright yellow coaches into the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad passenger house in Rock Island where it was met with cheers and celebrations. Newspaper accounts made it seem like early versions of the Little Engine that Could, or even Walt Disney World.

That would be an understatement for this engine represented a change in the history of American transportation. It was the first train ever to reach the banks of the Mississippi River. New York and Rock Island were now only forty-two hours apart. The previous month, a trip to Chicago alone, just across the state, would have taken two weeks by wagon.

For the railroad, however, the Mississippi was not a goal but an obstacle. Already investors were building a bridge across the river from the island to Davenport, Iowa. Two years later, the first train crossed this bridge, to become the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad, and headed west to help tame a continent. Completion of this bridge in 1856 insured that a northern railroad from Chicago to San Francisco would control shipping rather than a competitive southern route from New Orleans to San Diego. This little train helped determine the shape of the west.

For the steamboat, it was the beginning of the end, not only because the train was faster, but because boats could not compete with the wealthy investors who incorporated America's train companies. Even the short line from Chicago to Rock Island was backed by many investors, including some of Rock Island and Davenport's most influential citizens. The corporate structure of the railroad companies also gave them political clout unavailable to the small entrepreneurs who owned their own steamboat or two.

By the end of the Civil War, the passenger steamboats had all but disappeared. A few boats still hauled bulk goods. And no watery version of Amtrak has yet appeared to bring them back.

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