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Lost Treasure

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

I'm going to tell you right up front that this story does not end well. You'd guess it anyway, halfway through.

In the spring of 1870, a farmer named Ancil Fortune began digging a shallow well on his farm along the Mississippi River just above Natchez. Eight feet down, he struck metal, which turned out to be the top of a steamboat smokestack.

That got Ancil thinking. Back in 1851, his father had been the captain of a salvage vessel sent out to locate the steamboat Drennan Whyte, which had sunk near this location in forty feet of water, carrying $100,000 in gold. Could this be the same boat, now silted in? The Mississippi does strange things.

Ancil Fortune did not have clear title to his land, so to keep the location a secret, he planted willows thickly for five hundred feet around the well. Five years later, when they were ten feet tall, Ancil began digging again, uncovering the smokestack, then the top deck. The work went slowly because he had to farm as well as dig. Down, down, down, for three years. Then, he found the brass plate on the hull. It was the Drennan Whyte.

He tunneled into a cabin, but it was not the captain's cabin where the gold would have been kept. Three more years of digging. Twice the excavation filled in and had to be emptied bucket by bucket. It was now the late winter of 1881. More digging. In May, Ancil Fortune uncovered a chest, broke it open, and there it was: $100,000 in gold.

He hurried back to his house to get sacks to put the gold in. On the way, he stumbled, and broke his leg. That evening, from his bed, he heard the rains begin, hard. It rained for a solid week. Creeks and streams rose, sending the Mississippi higher and higher. The current changed and began eating across the forest of willows.

When Ancil went out to check his gold, there was not a willow in sight, only a beautiful, wide expanse of Mississippi River. Ancil Fortune ran to the river's edge, jumped in, and was never seen again—the victim of a river that can hold its own with leprechauns, gnomes, elves, and other fabulous tricksters.

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.