Water Power

Dec 24, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Remember that Weekly Reader joke: "what does a fifteen-hundred-pound gorilla eat? Answer: "Anything it wants." Substitute a 2,500-mile river for the gorilla, and you'll have some idea of the awe in which we valley dwellers hold the Mississippi.

The Mississippi is one of your no-nonsense rivers. The minute we get airs, the Mississippi generally pulls a trick or two out of its repertoire. As on that morning of June 17th, 1673, when Father Marquette and Louis Joliet led their expedition out the mouth of the Wisconsin River past the Wyalusing Bluffs and the future town of Prairie du Chien to claim the discovery of the Upper Mississippi River. Behind them lay the remote outpost of Green Bay, and a tangled line of intrigue that had destroyed positions and taken off heads all the way back to the French Court. The explorer LaSalle had personally lost two fortunes and only escaped with his life, all because of rumors during the 1660's of a great river to the west.

As befit the occasion, therefore, Marquette and Joliet tried to make their discovery with some dignity and elegance in accordance with the protocol specified in epic movies.

Unfortunately, the Mississippi produced a great catfish which rammed the lead boat and nearly upset it, ruining the glory of the moment. Even a whale would have had some dignity, but a catfish?

Ever since then, the Mississippi River has come up with a catfish—or a version of it—at just the wrong time: waves to break up a record log raft, snags to sink a brand new steamboat, a sandbar to ground a boat arrogant enough to think it can defy low water.

Try as we might to put this gorilla Mississippi in a cage—dredging channels, putting up dams and levees and seawalls and a crisscross of bridges—it had never quite worked. Just when we think we have won, the Mississippi stretches its muscles and sends water spilling over everything, and we're back to the Weekly Reader joke: Where does Mississippi flood water go? Wherever it wants.

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