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Boat Stores

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

It's late April 1816. Troops from St. Louis are preparing to come upriver to build Fort Armstrong at the tip of Rock Island. Illinois is still two years away from becoming a state.

The new-fangled steamboat has reached the Mississippi only five years before. No wonder the Reverend Timothy Flint has chosen this pristine, undeveloped Mississippi Valley to get away from all that civilization back east.

By the time he reached New Madrid, Missouri, just south of St. Louis, he had already discovered that he was too late. American entrepreneurs had already clogged the river channel. In fact, merchandizing on the river surpassed that in the East. On the river, the stores came to the customer. In the bay at New Madrid, a hundred flatboats and keelboats were docked. They had come from all over the United States, down the Ohio, Missouri, Illinois and Mississippi rivers to barter and sell. Flint found several acres of boats selling planks from the pine forests of New York, pork, flour, and whiskey from Kentucky, cotton and hemp from Tennessee, cattle and horses from Illinois, apples, potatoes, and hard cider from Ohio.

While he was at New Madrid, a large tin shop on a barge stopped by for a sale. All sorts of tin ware was manufactured on the boat, and sold wholesale and retail. In another section, old tin ware was mended. A blacksmith shop stopped by, too. Here, horses were shod, axes, scythes, and other iron tools were forged.

Just upstream from New Madrid, on his way to St. Louis, Flint discovered an even more ingenious arrangement. Out in the channel, he came across eight or nine boats lashed together so that one could go from roof to roof, shopping. One boat was busy slaughtering hogs for sale, another sold nuts and dried fruits, while another had been turned into a saloon where visitors could relax after shopping.

Timothy Flint was impressed with this new merchandizing gimmick, but he had no name for it. We do. A hundred and eighty years later, with five hundred additional stores, it is the Mall of America.

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