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Race Riot

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

The Rock Island Rapids was notorious for trapping steamboats between a rock and a hard place, but the phrase took on new meaning for the steamer Dubuque as she passed Rock Island in July of 1869, bound for St. Paul.

At St. Louis, the Dubuque had taken on four raft crews returning upriver. A hundred and twenty men. On the evening of July 23rd, the boat pulled up at Davenport, not wanting to run the Rock Island Rapids in the dark. By the time it pulled out next morning, the raftsmen were somewhat the worse for a night of drinking.

As the boat began to thread its way up the rapids, an inebriated raftsman climbed to the second deck and demanded to be served breakfast in the saloon—reserved for first class cabin passengers. A Black steward barred his way and pushed him down the stairs. The raftsmen swore revenge. They descended on the captain and demanded that the steward be punished, or they would set the boat on fire. With somewhat less wisdom than Solomon, the captain suggested that the steward and the raftsmen have a fist fight. The rafters refused and decided a riot would be more fun. They began to hunt out Black crewmen, who by now were hiding. One terrified Black turned and stabbed a raftsman who was pursuing him, then jumped overboard, where he became the victim of target practice.

Amazingly, all this while, the boat made its usual stops as if nothing was wrong. At the Hampton stop, the Black barber attempted to escape, but was caught and stoned to death. Four other Black crewmen were found and killed before the raftsmen decided to send all Blacks ashore at Camanche and take over the boat themselves.

When the Dubuque reached the Clinton bridge, the draw span was closed for a train. Suddenly from the train poured a company of soldiers from the Rock Island Arsenal who had heard of the riot. They took the raftsmen into custody, and the whole boat returned to Rock Island where the passengers witnessed against the raftsmen, sending eleven of them immediately to the penitentiary, and the rest to jail, and sending the Dubuque back up the Rock Island Rapids rocks and hard places.

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.