The End of the World

Feb 19, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Did you ever wonder as a kid what you would do if the world came to an end as you sat in the fifth row of the Crown Theater some Friday, midway through a Gene Autry movie? I mean, would it be okay to finish your Black Crows and popcorn?

Had you been on the Fanny Harris on a late June evening in 1859, heading down the Mississippi from Galena to St. Louis, you would have gotten a chance to find out. The Fanny Harris had been sold. Only Captain W. H. Gabbert and his pilot, William Fisher of Galena, were aboard.

The evening was clear and starlit between the changes of the moon. At about 11:30, as the boat passed Bellevue, Fisher reported that the stars had all disappeared and that the sky was a bright as day. At midnight, just opposite Savanna, Captain Gabbert woke up, saw broad daylight, saw by his watch that it was midnight, and ran out onto the roof crying out: "Mr. Fisher, land the boat, the world is coming to an end."

Pilot Fisher had other ideas. He told Captain Gabbert that if the world were coming to an end, "we might as well go in the middle of the river as on the bank," and he stayed on course.

"I was scared," Fisher later said, "but until the end really comes, I was responsible for the boat, and stood by her." He did admit to keeping an eye on the eastern sky to see what was coming next.

Exactly at midnight, after half an hour of growing brightness, the sky began to dim again. Over the next half hour, the stars came out again as they did at sunset, Fisher said, "first the bright ones, then the whole field of little ones. I looked for all the stars I knew by sight, and as they came back on, I grew more confident in the reality of things."

Would I have stayed on course at the end of the world, or would I have headed for the bank?

William Fisher lived to become the oldest pilot on the Mississippi, convinced at last that the episode on the Fanny Harris was one of a series of many portents that preceded the Civil War. The experience also convinced him that "it's a mighty sight easier to make upriver yarns than it is to live them."

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