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Train on Ice

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Charlie Slack was a railroad engineer with a major problem. He had laid nearly fifty miles of brand-new track from davenport to Iowa City in 1853, the first tracks west of the Mississippi River. But he had no train.

It was a detail easily overlooked in those heady days of empire builders dreaming of railroads taming the whole country, coast to coast. Charlie had brought 2,000 workers from Davenport to build his small piece of this great vision. The money had given out before the tracks were complete, forcing Charlie to pay the men in food and dry goods. From the bolts of the cloth they received, the workers called Charlie's road "The Calico Line."

Alas, the Calico Line had no train. The tracks of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad had reached the Mississippi across from Davenport in 1854, and there were complicated plans for a bridge in the works. But until the bridge was done, there was no way of hauling a locomotive across the river to Iowa, a problem that caused Charlie Slack sleepless nights.

Until his nightmare. One winter night Charlie did fall asleep. He dreamed a fantastic and frightening dream. An evil, smoke belching locomotive was closing in on him as he tried to escape across the Mississippi River on the ice, jumping from flow to flow like Eliza crossing the ice in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

Charlie Slack woke up terrified—and happy. He knew how to get his locomotive to Davenport. In the dead of winter, when the ice in the river was safe enough to support almost any weight, he slid his engine across the Mississippi on the ice.

It may not have been dignified, but that is how the first train reached Davenport. Charlie soon finished the tracks all the way to Iowa City, and when the first Iowa train reached there in 1855, the whole town turned out to celebrate with an immense four-layer cake that used up every fresh egg in the county.

When the bridge was completed in 1856, the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad crossed the Mississippi, met Charlie Slack's tracks to become the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad, and eventually the Rock Island Lines, already heading west.

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