Tinkerers

Jan 5, 2021

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

One of the most enduring of American characters is the tinkerer, that small-time amateur inventor who turns bits of junk into strange but often workable machines that fly or kill mice or slice bread. Most remain unknown except to very patient spouses, but a few, like the Wright brothers, tinker their way into history.

It should come as no surprise that our Mississippi River Valley has had more than its share of tinkerers. River rats watching the Corps of Engineers removing dangerous snags from the river and deepening the channel to make steamboat travel safe, realized that Congress would actually appropriate thousands of dollars for these improvements. Many became instant inventors.

Throughout the 19th century, Congress was besieged with plans and proposals from river tinkerers offering to clear the river at a fraction of the cost of the Corps of Engineers. Mr. T. W. Parker, for example, proposed to send two men to the river bottom with two-man saws to saw up the sunken tree snags. They would breath through bells covering their heads with long pipes extending above the water surface. A Mr. E. Blunt sent in plans for what he called a "parachute," a large cloth umbrella which could be tied to snags, and then opened downstream to let the currents haul the snag away. His problem was timing. Think if he had only waited until the invention of the airplane.

One of the most ambitious of these tinkering schemes came from a man named Adams, who proposed to clear the entire channel of the Mississippi from its head to the Gulf of Mexico with a five-horsepower steam pump per every hundred miles of river. Congress actually appropriated $20,000 in 1879 and ordered the Rock Island District Corps of Engineers to supervise the experiment. The Adams Flume consisted of a triangular pipe laid down the middle of the channel. The pipe had rows of small L-shaped jets through which Adams proposed to pump water, which would stir up the silt and sand along the bottom. The current would then wash it all away. Unfortunately, Adams had never even bothered to make a small test of his invention. Engineers were unable to make it work.

There are still some projects left to be done on the Mississippi. Floods need to be better controlled; there are still shallow spots which hang up barges in low water.

Got any good ideas?

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