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River Encyclopedia

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

After Mark Twain had completed his study of currents and channels in enough detail to become a steamboat pilot, he claimed that there never was such a wonderful book ever written by the hand of man as the Mississippi River.

I wish he had told me that there was more than one volume before I started reading. I'm the kind of person who could stop with one potato chip—if he had to—but I have never been able to stop with just one entry in any encyclopedia. I have been late with every school paper I ever wrote because my eyes went on the next entry in the Britannica before I could stop them—and the next, too. Aardvarks led to Adam led to advertising.

The Mississippi is just such a water encyclopedia, hard to stop at one entry. The answer to one question only raises another. Take a simple, harmless question a child might ask: why are the bridges across the Mississippi so high? In order to let four decked, tall-stacked steamboats pass underneath. Why were the steamboats so tall? Because the engine was on the first deck, and not down in the hold, as on the ocean. Why put the engines on the deck? Because the river was so shallow there was no room down below. Why so shallow? Because the river bottom is filled with sand and gravel pushed into Minnesota by the great glaciers a hundred thousand years ago. And so on. All the entries are connected: the locks and dams, the catfish, the canoes and snags and eagles—the sloughs and shallows and willow islands, the Sauk and the Meskwaki, the immigrants, the barges. To open the book is to be swept downstream on a crest of information.

A history professor friend of mine used to claim that whatever question one asked, if it were pursued long enough, it would lead to Socrates.

I believe him. I have been reading the great encyclopedia of the Mississippi ever since I was born in a small Wisconsin river town sixty-two years ago, and I'm only up to about the second volume. It's sobering to realize that even with a great deal of skimming, I'll leave many volumes of this wonderful set unopened, let alone keeping up with the revised editions.

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