This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.
Between St. Paul, Minnesota, and St. Louis, Missouri, the Upper Mississippi River once planted a hundred towns beneath the bluffs to do its bidding: to cut wood for steamboats, to assemble log rafts of white pine going downstream to mills, to receive immigrants the river sent up stream to the farmlands of Iowa and Minnesota, to build and repair boats.
The Mississippi is a stern taskmaster. As long the towns in this long orchard were productive, the river nurtured and pruned them. But if, like that fig tree that grew barren, they ceased to serve the river, watch out. River towns that believe they control their own destiny need only go back and look at the history of Brownsville, Minnesota, a river town near the Iowa border.
In the last half of the nineteenth century, Brownsville grew to importance as the home of river men, especially the rafts men who assembled the immense log rafts and steered them down stream to mills. By the turn of the century, Brownsville had forty stores, two banks, two hotels, several boarding houses, three breweries, in addition to granaries, saloons, livery stables, a school and post office.
Then the logs gave out. Smaller and smaller logs came down the river until, in 1915, the last white pine from the northern woods floated past Brownsville in the very last raft to come down the Mississippi. Charlie Brown, Brownsville's founder, was on that last raft.
The Mississippi turned to other business which did not include Brownsville. Today, Brownsville has a population of about sixty, one store, two churches, two marinas, and a root beer stand. Some evenings, people from Wisconsin motorboat over for a beer. Tourists drive through for two weeks each fall, following the coloring of leaves along the bluffs.
Tourists curious about Brownsville's inflated past, can stop at the store or the marina and pick up a small promotional newspaper, The Brownsville Bugle, dedicated, the masthead says, "to giving our horn a toot or two."
It's a toot that pales against the eager steamboat whistle of a hundred years ago, when the Mississippi River was hard at work here.
Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.