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The City that Could Not Turn Itself Around

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Fourteen miles upstream from Rock Island, Highway 67 becomes the main street of LeClaire, Iowa, a river town founded by the Indian interpreter, Antoine LeClaire, in 1837.

In the 19th century, every riverman on the Upper Mississippi would have known LeClaire. Several hundred steamboat men and rafts men wintered over here in the off season. It was the home of legendary river pilots such as Captain Walter Blair and the location of the famous Van Sant family boatyard which built the first steamboats to tow log rafts. Located at the head of the treacherous Rock Island Rapids, LeClaire was also home to forty or so rapids pilots whose sole occupation was taking steamboats safely through the rapids.

By 1850, LeClaire could boast, in addition to its pilots and boatyard, a sawmill, a plow factory, two flour mills, as well as eighteen dry goods stores, a bank, four hotels, five churches, and lyceums and a debating society.

Then, at the turn of the century, the huge rafts of Minnesota and Wisconsin white pine came to an end, and the few steamboats left made only short trips. Highways replaced the river.

When I first drove down LeClaire's main street some years ago, I remember feeling that something was not quite right—that I was missing something. Cars stood parked in non-existent parking spots, porches and posts leaned. Windows seemed not to fit their buildings. Main street seemed more like an alley than a highway.

As, of course, it was. I was missing something, and if you'll come across the river with me to Port Byron, I'll show you. Now, from Port Byron, look across the Mississippi to LeClaire. A ghost? No, it's the real LeClaire, its proud storefronts facing the river—as they naturally would have been in a town built for river traffic. From the river, LeClaire is still a grand town, framed by river and bluffs, not the back side LeClaire that faces Highway 67. Many of the columns and grand sweeps of porch are still there, as are the peaks and valleys of the roof lines.

A good example of what happens to a town that cannot turn itself around.

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