Captain Worden

May 4, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Captain Jones Worden became such an important Upper Mississippi riverman that he ended up in several biographical dictionaries. In each of these entries, however, several years of his life were erased, all because of a printer's error.

Jones Worden's story was the American Dream. He was born to a farm family in New York in 1817, the youngest of ten children. In 1845 he went west to seek his fortune in the boom town of Galena, Illinois, where lead mining and steam boating were making fortunes for many young dreamers.

His imagination fired by steamboat captains such as Daniel Smith Harris, Worden set his sights high. By 1854, he had worked his way up through the ranks of crew to become mate on the famous War Eagle, grandest steamboat on the Upper Mississippi.

A year later, Dubuque, Iowa, suffering from living in the shadow of Galena, decided to start a rival steamboat line, and hired Worden to become Captain of their boat, the Fanny Harris. Worden moved from Galena to Dubuque, made the Fanny Harris a boat to be reckoned with, and then became captain and part owner of a new boat, the Key City, the Dubuque’s nickname.

Captain Worden and the Key City made each other and Dubuque famous. He issued an open challenge to all other boats to race the Key City any place, any time. One by one, other steamboats large and small took him on and one by one, they lost. The Key City retired unbeaten.

And yet, in those biographical entries under Worden, there is not a single mention of his having lived in Dubuque or served as a steamboat captain there. Late in retirement, was the Captain's memory failing?

Hardly. In fact, the Captain remembered every detail. The problem was the 1857 Dubuque City Directory. Directories listed occupations at that time. A typesetter had apparently misread an abbreviation for captain, “cpt.” The entry reads: Worden, Jones, carpenter.

Unforgivable. Almost as bad as calling a professor a teacher.

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