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John Strekfus

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

John Streckfus gave his parents early signs of trouble when he turned up missing one day from the family farm near Edgington, Illinois. He was found stowed away on a steamboat, intending to head south and make a living as a roustabout. At the time, he was nine years old.

An immediate whipping did not lessen the call of the Mississippi, and the family's move to Rock Island a few years later only brought the river closer. In 1884, after trying to operate a grocery store and feed mill in Rock Island, Streckfus bought a small steamboat, the Freddie, and began hauling goods between Rock Island and Andalusia. More and larger boats followed until the young man had built one of the most successful packet boat operations on the Upper River.

John Streckfus could have spent his career doing just that, but the restless kid inside would not let him alone. Besides, as any steamboatman could see, the railroads were taking more and more passengers and freight away from the boats. In 1901, he built the J.S., designed exclusively for pleasure excursions. The J.S. traveled between New Orleans and St. Paul, selling rides at each stop to as many as 2,000 passengers.

River excursions caught on. In 1911 Streckfus bought the last four remaining boats of the Diamond Jo Line, which became part of the largest excursion fleet in the world.

It was on the J.S. and other Streckfus boats that another stowaway of sorts came up the river from New Orleans. Groups such as The Original Dixieland Band, and musicians such as Fate Marable and Louis "Satchmo" Armstrong hired by Streckfus were the first to bring jazz upriver to Davenport and Rock Island, and from there to Chicago and the world.

The great Streckfus Excursion Line survived until 1981 before the creditors moved in, lasting decades longer than any other steamboat company. Even today, the two great flagships of the Streckfus fleet are alive and well. The four thousand passenger Admiral is docked at the St. Louis waterfront. The President, meanwhile, by coming to Davenport in 1991 to inaugurate riverboat gambling, has come home to where a young boy's dream began it all a hundred years ago.

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