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Steamboat Deaths

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

With steamboats as with humans, there only are one or two ways of coming into this world, but an infinite number of ways of leaving it.

Steamboat lives were brief, at best. More than one boat wrecked on its first voyage. Those boats which reached their fourth birthdays were already beating the odds, and a fraction of those lasted twenty years. A very few are still alive, approaching a hundred.

So many enemies lay in wait for these fragile craft, whose health was always precarious. Snags lay waiting to punch holes, fingers of rock reached out to gash the hulls, odd currents came out of nowhere to dash boats against bridge piers, the Mississippi built sandbars to ground the lightest boats, loose logs tangled in the paddles and bent rudders, captains strained boilers past capacity until they blew both boat and passengers apart. Older boats were cannibalized in middle age in a frenzy of organ transplants, as engines, paddlewheels, and beams were moved into new boats.

Before you mourn those boats whose lives ended in violent death, however, consider the steamboats that survived all disasters. A few sit retired, high and dry as steamboat museums. Within sight of the water, they are only able to imagine themselves afloat and at work. They are boats in name only.

Others sit abandoned in old boat yards. Time and vandals have turned them to relics, bells and signs missing, paint flaked off, tilting precariously as beams rot. Once they were in their element, beautiful gingerbread, four-tiered wedding cakes appearing to float inches above the water, great paddles moved by silent engines, drawing crowds along the shores as they went.

There they sit in the weeds, skeletons slowly disjointing, their dying mercilessly exposed to gawkers, and even worse, to men with cameras who find death photogenic.

If I were a steamboat, I think I'd just as soon, at the age of three or four, plug the safety valve on my boiler, and disappear spectacularly in all directions just as I was passing Dubuque.

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.