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Steamboat/Horse Race

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Have you ever noticed how we always measure the speed of an animal against a horse? A horse can outrun a human, but a cheetah can outrun a horse, and so on. In 1836, a steamboat making a run from Rock Island upriver to Galena found out where it belonged on this scale.

That year, two recent settlers in Rock Island had their eye on the same tract of farmland along the Mississippi just east of the City of Rock Island. One of the settlers, William Brooks, was planning to take the next steamboat to Galena to register his claim, when he discovered that John M. Sullivan had the same idea. Brooks realized that the younger, more athletic Sullivan would easily win a race up the steep Galena levee to the land office and get the farm.

Brooks then hatched a plan with his brother-in-law, Charles Ames. Brooks would ride the steamboat with the money to pay for the claim, while Ames rode Buck, the dependable horse that had brought Brooks all the way from New Hampshire, in order to beat the boat and register the claim first.

Neither boat nor horse had a clear shot. The steamboat had the treacherous Rock Island Rapids to cross and a none-too-good channel the rest of the hundred miles. The route a horse would have to take across prairie and through woods was little better. For both boat and horse, much of the trip would be at might.

While Sullivan, confident he would beat Brooks to the office in Galena, conversed pleasantly with his rival on the deck of the steamboat, Ames raced along the shore to Cordova, changed for a fresh horse, wound through the narrow, rocky and hilly river road through Jo Daviess County, and came within sight of Galena two miles ahead of the boat. Ames rushed to the land office, found the tract unentered, filed his application, and headed down to meet the boat. On the way, he met Sullivan coming up the road far ahead of Brooks. He merely smiled.

That is why today, citizens on the eastern edge of Rock Island live in Brooks subdivision. One can only hope that the faithful horse was eventually rewarded. Perhaps with one of the first of those newfangled self-scouring steel plows John Deere was tinkering with.

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

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.