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Bootlegging

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Back about the middle of the 19th century, Sam Nissly of Camanche, Iowa, was making six dollars a bushel off his corn—better than today's price. Of course, to do it, Sam had to put the corn through a number of steps, and he had to bypass several middlemen in the process.

Sam was a distiller who came from Pennsylvania to settle in Camanche. He did not drink himself, but he took one look at rafters, steamboats, packet boats, and other assorted craft busy going up and down the river, and he figured they might have a taste for good bourbon.

Many of the rafts and boats stopped out in the channel near Camanche to stock up on supplies. Sam opened up a distillery in the Mississippi just off Second Street. A bushel of corn produced four gallons of bourbon. Sam transported his via copper pipeline across a slough to Swan Island, and then directly from there to the thirsty crews passing by.

The convenience of Sam Nissly's operation—providing practically mash to mouth service—brought him not only wealth but publicity. In due time, the revenuers arrived. Sam Nissly had disappeared, but, on a hunch, the agents followed the trail of a little old lady who had boarded the train at Camanche. When they caught up with her on the way to Canada, the lady turned out to be Sam Nissly. Sam talked his way out of a jail term, but the distilling days were over—temporarily.

A few years later, at the turn of the century, a corn processing plant moved just next door in Clinton. Today corn still arrives to be processed into syrup—and into alcohol to make gin and bourbon, by a workforce of some fifteen hundred. Given the marvels of modern technology, however, and the use of middlemen, the Clinton Corn Processing Plant makes significantly less than six dollars a bushel, and the resulting bourbon takes a lot longer to reach the thirsty crews of boats on the Mississippi than via Sam Nissly's pipeline.

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