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This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

For ten extra points, tell me what year the interstate highway network began in the United States. If you said 1957, you would be off by about a hundred thousand years, give or take a millennium.

When the first Americans crossed the land bridge from Asia some 20,000 years ago and spread out across the North American continent, they soon discovered a vast network of rivers and lakes that permitted extensive travel. Excavations of prehistoric Indian mounds along the Upper Mississippi reveal the extent of that travel. There are grizzly bear teeth from Canada, iron from the shores of Lake Superior, copper from Lake Michigan, and shells from the Pacific, Atlantic, and Gulf Coasts.

It was this same interstate water highway that allowed the English and French to send missionaries, explorers, and fur traders across the country to the Rocky Mountains. Long before there were any roads, or even paths, west of the Appalachian Mountains, the great drainage basin of the Mississippi River, including the Ohio, the Missouri, and a hundred other rivers, permitted the United States to be settled in a few generations.

If you decided to launch a small boat tomorrow, from Rock Island, you could still travel this water highway almost to your heart's content. From Rock Island, you could travel into thirty-two of our United States, and visit most of its major cities. The Mississippi Basin extends from the headwaters of the Milk River in Glacier National Park to the Allegheny River in upstate New York.

You will feel right at home, for like the more familiar interstates, you will find one-way traffic, curves, construction zones, and speed limits. The rivers thought of everything first.

The next time you cross the Mississippi, look down at the channel. Chances are good you will see sailboats, houseboats on their way up or down the river, jon boats quietly fishing, and at least one tow boat and its barges, and indication that this first highway is still busy. We still live in states united not only by the Constitution, but by water.

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.