Henry Kahl

Apr 16, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Henry C. Kahl was born poor in a cottage in northwest Davenport, Iowa. He was never a Boy Scout, he was not in school long enough for the deportment side of the report card to instill in him the Protestant work ethic, and there's no indication that he ever read Ben Franklin. It's almost as if Henry knew instinctively that the American dream of "rags to riches" required something more than dreaming.

Henry—his nickname was "Hummer"—began to work for a living at the age of twelve, running a mule team to haul dirt in the summer and coal from Coal Valley in the winter. A Davenport contractor, P. T. Walsh, noticed his work habits and promoted him to barn boss of all the mule teams, at the age of sixteen, and then to foreman for crews constructing railroad beds and bridges around the country.

On these jobs, dirt was hauled to the work site around the clock. Kahl slept in fifteen-minute segments during the night in order to inspect each load as it arrived, a work habit which led to more promotions until Kahl had become vice president of the Walsh Co. supervising most of the work on the New York Central railroad. The president of that railroad said, "We regard Walsh Company and their Hummer Kahl as the most reliable railroad builders in the country."

All the while, Kahl was buying up real estate in Davenport and investing in banks, hotels, insurance companies, a candy maker, and piano manufacturer.

A self-made millionaire by forty-five, Kahl returned to Davenport to build the Kahl Office building at Third and Ripley, tallest in Davenport, and a grand brick mansion, now the Kahl Home for the Aged.

Kahl died at the age of fifty-six, proud of the fact that nearly every dollar he had made around the country had come back to be invested in Davenport.

If you find this rags-to-riches story inspiring, go for it. On the other hand, if just listening to Henry Hummer Kahl's accomplishments tires you out, perhaps you should not give up your day job just yet.

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