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Lt. Ely

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

If you dream of the perfect honeymoon somewhere in your future, avoid entangling alliances with newspaper editors. There is an ingredient in newspaper ink that immunizes on contact against all but the mildest cases of romance.

As Eugene F. Ely found out during 1910 appearance at the county fair at Rock Island Exposition Park. Young Ely was an aviator working for the Curtis Wright Aeroplane Company. He was in Rock Island to perform the first airplane flights ever between St. Paul and St. Louis—two each afternoon for four days, weather permitting.

The Rock Island Argus professed interest in the airplane but devoted much more pre-fair attention to the other acts, including Ewing's Juvenile Band in Drill and Concert, Herr Albers’s Polar Bears, Araki's Marvelous Japanese Troupe, and Ranza and Arno, Burlesquers.

Ely's first flight on September 13th rose only thirty feet before hitting a crosswind and breaking a propeller on the way down, scrubbing the second flight. The Argus speculated that the fragile pusher biplane would never get off the ground.

But after Ely and his flying machine disappeared into the sky before five thousand spectators on Wednesday afternoon, and remained in the air for eight minutes, even the Argus was bitten by romance. "Hero of the Hour in Rock Island," the headlines said. "Crowd Goes Wild When He Returns With a Spectacular Dash to Earth."

“Each spectator became an aviator," wrote the Argus, "rising as he rose, soaring as he soared." When Ely landed, he was mobbed by well-wishers and carried off the field in triumph. Fair officials presented him a silver cup from McCabe's Department Store.

By day four, the Argus had recovered. Flight was old stuff now, and there were hard questions. Why did Ely make only four flights instead of the promised eight? Why did it cost the fair five thousand dollars to bring him here? Why were some flights failures?

Eugene Ely explained as best he could and went on the next fair. A year later, he became the first aviator to land an airplane on a ship at sea. Shortly thereafter, he was killed on a subsequent attempt.

Being a hero can offer brief moments of fame, but heroism remains a very risky business.

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.