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How Much Land Does a Man Need

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy wrote a story whose title asked, "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Let's ask William Dickson and his son.

The Dickson’s came to the Mississippi Valley in 1836 seeking land for a great new metropolis. They teamed up with Colonel George Davenport, who had the land, and laid out Rock Island City at the juncture of the Rock and Mississippi rivers, once the site of the Indian village of Saukenuk.

The prospectus which reached Eastern investors in 1836 described everything a city could possibly need. Its location gave it control of commerce on both rivers and assured its future. The prospectus described busy docks, spectacular riverfront lots, great public and commercial buildings, churches, schools. The famous orator, Daniel Webster was so impressed he paid $60,000 for a one-eighth interest in the site.

Unfortunately, Rock Island City existed only on paper. There were no riverfront lots, no docks, no courthouses. The Panic of 1837 ended the dream, and the investors lost their money.

What remains today of all those dreams? Only one thing. A city can do without a riverfront lot, courthouses, and parks, but every city must have a cemetery—a truth the main character in Tolstoy's story found out. Even in paper cities, people die, and eventually some fifty early pioneers came to rest in what came to be known as Dickson Cemetery: names like Wells, Vandruff, and Spencer.

But not even a cemetery, as it turned out, was essential. The title to the land was not clear. Dickson cemetery passed restlessly from hand to hand, and finally to Rock Island County, who used the small plot to bury paupers—graves on top of graves. The cemetery was abandoned in 1911. Weeds grew, stones tipped over, were taken by neighbors to make walkways. For a time, it became an overflow parking lot for adjacent Black Hawk State Park.

Several attempts to restore the cemetery have failed. Only an old cottonwood tree in the center has survived—so large it must have been growing when William Dickson arrived, watching the fate of Rock Island City. The cottonwood alone knows the answer to Tolstoy's question: how much land does a man need?

Rock Island Lines is underwritten by the Illinois Arts Council, a state agency, and Augustana College, Rock Island.