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Captain Smith Harris

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Before you decide to become a celebrity, hear out the story of Daniel Smith Harris, a man who tried too hard to live up to his reputation.

Smith Harris was 15 in 1823 when he saw the Virginia on its way up the Mississippi from St. Louis to become the first steamboat to reach Rock Island.

That chance encounter gave him his calling. He would become a steamboat man, the best on the Mississippi. He mined lead at Galena to make enough money to buy a steamboat and soon had a reputation as the most audacious pilot on the river. Smith Harris took his boats further up the Mississippi tributaries than anyone had gone. Many springs, his boats were the first to break the ice and reach St. Paul. Always the first and the fastest, doing the impossible.

In 1857, Smith Harris built the Grey Eagle, the fastest boat on the Upper Mississippi. The Grey Eagle's time of 24 hours, 40 minutes from Dubuque to St. Paul has never been bested.

With a reputation to uphold, Capt. Smith Harris scorned the typical practice of hiring a rapids pilot to take the Grey Eagle through the Rock Island Rapids and the dangerous Rock Island Bridge. Not daring enough.

It all caught up with him at five o'clock, Thursday afternoon, May 9, 1861. Near the foot of the Rock Island Rapids, Captain Daniel Smith Harris made his first serious mistake in 32 year of steam boating. The odd currents at the Rock Island Bridge pushed the Grey Eagle into a pier. The boat sank to its small top Texas deck. The $65,000 cargo of grain and general merchandise was never recovered. Seven of the 124 passengers and crew drowned. One of the few items Harris recovered was a rooster carved out of a single piece of oak. That bird had roosted atop the jack staff of six champion Harris boats.

Smith Harris was only 53, but he retired to Galena and lived there until he died at the age of 85 in 1893. He never set foot on another steamboat; his spirit went down with his ship.

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