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Campbell's Rock

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Do you cringe when you see the words "new and improved," because experience has shown you that it often means "costs more and works half as well as the way your grandmother did it"? This story of the Corps of Engineers versus one of the largest obstructions in the Rock Island Rapids is for you.

Campbell's Rock stood in the main channel of the Mississippi just off Campbell's Island. A keelboat of United States Infantry led by Lieutenant John Campbell had grounded on this rock in 1814 during the War of 1812, leading to his defeat by a party of pro-British Sauk Indians. Later in the 19th century, it had become a menace to steamboat traffic, which had to make a semi-circle around the rock, with a margin of error of only twenty feet. Many boats did not make it and met their end.

When the Corps of Engineers arrived after the Civil War to improve the Upper Mississippi, Campbell's Rock became public enemy number one. The Corps attacked the rock with the very latest new and improved equipment, but as the Argus reported, innumerable drills of the finest tempered steel failed against the hard stone.

Campbell's Rock became mythic. "A huge protruding tooth of original earth,” The Argus called it, and speculated that "it must have been part of the earth's surface at creation and been trod over by monstrous antediluvian creatures."

Time for some old and unimproved techniques. Engineers built a coffer dam around the rock, removed the water, and piled cordwood all over the exposed surface. On January 1, 1870, the cordwood was set on fire and burned until Campbell's Rock was white hot. Then a crowd of men with buckets of cold water ringed the rock, deluged it. The sudden change in temperature cracked the rock from one end to the other. Blasting charges were placed in the cracks, and in a matter of moments, one of the great obstacles to navigation lay scatted in pieces the size of eggs over the river bottom.

The engineers had discovered that sometimes it's okay to be simple and old fashioned, the same lesson David and Goliath both learned a long time ago.

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.