The Voyage of the Virginia

Oct 14, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

On May 10, 1823, at about noon, a small sternwheel steamboat drew within sight of Fort Armstrong at the western tip of Rock Island. She was greeted by a welcome salute cannon from the fort and musket fire from the Sauk and Meskwaki Indians along the shore.

The Virginia was little more than a flatboat with a paddle wheel in the stern and a steam engine sitting on deck, but she had just made history as the first steamboat ever to travel the Upper Mississippi above the Des Moines rapids. Granted that the trip was so slow that passengers could step ashore to hunt and catch the boat again upstream, but until then, boatmen had doubted it could be done at all. She still had the Rock Island Rapids to conquer on her way to Fort Snelling in present day Minnesota.

Aboard the boat were military supplies for that fort, and an odd assortment of passengers including a missionary lady, soldiers, a Sauk chief who made the trip without clothes, Laurence Talliaferro, Indian agent at Fort Snelling, and Count Beltrami, an Italian adventurer who was trying to discover the source of the Mississippi.

Beltrami was amazed by the Americans on board, especially by a Kentucky family heading for the lead mines at Galena "with their arms and baggage, cats and dogs, hens and turkeys and children," wrote Beltrami. How fast this new country was being settled.

But even Beltrami was not prepared for the pace of settlement. We complain about the rush of life today, but we forget that "fast" is as American as apple pie. Had Beltrami taken that same voyage just twenty years later, he could have chosen any one of 30 large steamboats, landed at thriving communities on either shore near Rock Island, found a good hotel room for the night, read from a selection of local newspapers, attended the church of his choice, or improved his mind by a lecture at the Davenport Lyceum on the topic "Is mind material—Or, can mind exist independent of matter."

Just think of the choices he would have along the river today, 172 years later: slot machines, poker, blackjack.

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