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Ben Harper

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Until almost the 20th century, the city of Rock Island had no chamber of commerce, not even a booster's club. It didn't need them. It had Ben Harper, who parlayed a cellar full of cider into the "finest hotel between Chicago and the Pacific Coast."

Ben Harper inherited the cider from his father in Cincinnati when he was fourteen. He built a flatboat and floated the cider to St. Louis where he traded it for a stock of store goods. In 1838, he moved his store to Tully, Missouri, where he added pork packing to his activities.

In 1850, Harper decided that Rock Island would become the gateway to the west and moved to this community of 1,700 people with $75,000 to invest. By 1855 he was mayor of Rock Island. In one year, he enlarged the police force, added firefighting equipment, completed paving sidewalks and grading roads, paved the levee, built Rock Island's first hospital, and a city market.

In 1868, Harper bought the Island City Hotel at the corner of Second Avenue and Nineteenth Street and enlarged it into the Rodman House, named after his friend General Thomas Rodman. It burned to the ground just as it was completed in 1869.

Standing in the ashes, Harper vowed to build a new hotel that would be more than a business. "It will be a monument to Rock Island." It would also be the first hotel in the west with fire escapes. On February 21st, 1871, eight hundred guests sat down to a hundred-item menu in the new five-story Harper House. Reporters from Chicago and St. Louis covering the event remarked on the "brilliant assemblage of wealth, beauty and fashion."

For several decades, the Harper House became the hotel of choice for visitors who arrived on the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad. It turned out to be more than a monument to Rock Island that Ben Harper had promised. It put the rest of Rock Island to shame. Noting that the city was "twenty-five years behind the hotel," city fathers immediately began the complicated task of bringing downtown Rock Island up to code. Hoping, no doubt, that Ben Harper would not get even fancier ideas.

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