YMCA

Dec 25, 2020

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

By 1850, fifteen years after their founding, the three small villages around Rock Island were on their way to becoming frontier Edens—if not spiritually in the Genesis sense, then certainly within the framework of the American Dream. For Davenport, Rock Island, and Moline, waterpower was plentiful to make goods, and the Mississippi was there to ship the goods via the Ohio to eastern markets. The supply of labor exactly matched the demand, due to the stream of families moving west toward the farmlands of Iowa and Minnesota. If there was work, some of the westward movers stayed; if there was none, they kept moving west.

Into these Edens, as into that first one, however, the Tempter came in his American guise, the railroad, reaching the Mississippi for the first time at Rock Island in 1854.

If the railroad brought Ralph Waldo Emerson, Sarah Bernhart, and other amenities of Eastern culture, it also brought an itinerant work force laying rails as they went, restless young men socially adrift with membership in no settled churches.

It was no accident, then, that on September 20, 1856, four months after the railroad first crossed the Mississippi between Rock Island and Davenport, several prominent Rock Island businessmen drew up the constitution for a Rock Island Young Men's Christian Association—the earliest by far along the Mississippi. The YMCA movement founded out east was itself less than twelve years old, but there was no time to waste. Moral rails needed to be laid alongside the iron ones. Restless young men roamed Rock Island; they needed to be settled in proper housing, mentally stimulated with moral lectures, and steered toward membership in established churches.

Membership in the YMCA was open to any man under 40, provided he attended an evangelical church—excluding, of course, the Missouri Synod Lutherans who were known to have a beer or two.

Rock Island's first Y did not last long. The supply of young men was depleted by an even larger serpent in the garden: The Civil War, with new lessons to teach from its own stern catechism.

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