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Steam comes of age

By Evan Harris, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Mark Twain would have been very disappointed.

As much as the famed author loved the grand steamboats that he piloted up and down the Mississippi during the mid-1800s, the sight of the first paddlewheel steamboat sliding into the Rock Island wilderness in 1823 would have broken his heart. It was a far cry from the proud, regal boats that Twain idealized, and certainly nothing like the flashing, party-on-water riverboats of today.

"The Virginia" was dull and decidedly unimpressive. As the boat traveled up the Mississippi at a top speed of a little more than 3 mph, its small group of crew and passengers periodically rowed to shore and walked, just to fight their boredom.

The invention of the steamboat had occurred only 11 years earlier, and no one had yet piloted one into the wild, unsettled country of the upper Mississippi. At Rock Island, there was little to see, other than Fort Armstrong. This was unfortunate for the crew of The Virginia, for ahead lay the Rock Island Rapids: the biggest and most dangerous obstruction on the way to the final destination of St. Anthony's Falls (later St. Paul).

Luckily, the crew of The Virginia found Col. George Davenport, a settler who had left his post at Fort Armstrong to pursue trading with the Sauk, Fox, and Winnebago tribes of the area. The future founder of Rock Island and namesake of the city of Davenport helped pilot the ship successfully through the rapids before sending the crew on their way to Minnesota.

Though its debut on the upper Mississippi was less than impressive, the steamboat quickly became an essential component in the development of Rock Island and the Quad-Cities.

The beginning of this growth occurred shortly after 1823. In the years following the maiden voyage of The Virginia, Col. Davenport's trading post grew by leaps and bounds. As much as he had helped that first steamboat on the upper Mississippi, he was fully repaid by the business that steamboats brought him. The keel boats and flatbed boats which had traversed the river before were replaced with increasingly powerful steamboats, capable of transporting much greater loads.

By the mid-1830s, there was a small, but thriving community on the banks of the upper Mississippi, thanks in large part to steamboat traffic and commerce.

The number of steamboats landing at Rock Island continued to increase. Trade grew steadily as the area that would become the Quad-Cities was settled. In 1849, the opening of the Minnesota territory prompted a huge influx of settlers. Many were transported up the Mississippi by steamboat to farm the fertile land. This rush ushered in the `Golden Era of Steamboating,' which lasted for over a decade.

At this point, Rock Island, Davenport and Moline had been established. Settlers were arriving every day. Hundreds of paddlewheel steamers traversed the river, trading, transporting and entertaining. By 1854, Rock Island averaged 154 boats a month. Less than 20 years earlier, that number had been only three or four. Commerce on the river was booming. But just as quickly as it began, the `Golden Age' was threatened.

In 1856, in response to the growing need for east-west transportation to support the settling of the West, the first railroad bridge to span the Mississippi was erected. The steamboat industry was the bridge's greatest opponent. The captains knew that the faster and more efficient railroad would spell disaster for their livelihood.

On top of that, a bridge meant an additional hazard around which to steer.

The protest was to no avail, and the first train crossed the new bridge on Feb. 22, 1856.

Barely two weeks later, the Effie Afton, a commercial steamboat, collided with the new bridge, caught fire and sank. The fire from the sinking ship spread to the bridge, burning it as well.

The chaotic scene was said to have been filled with the whistles of other steamboats, both in warning and in celebration over the destruction of the new bridge. The excitement was short-lived, however, for it was not long before the bridge returned.

That same year The Banjo, the first showboat to visit the upper Mississippi, passed through the Quad-Cities, stopping to perform. Though it may not have been apparent at the time, The Banjo was the future of steamboating, for the railroad continued to expand all around.

With the start of the Civil War in 1861, the "Golden Age" of steamboating abruptly ended. Blockades went up and North-South commerce all but ceased. Other than an occasional boat carrying escaping Southerners, POW's, or supplies, regular river traffic was prevented.

When the war ended, steamboat transportation of goods resumed, but not at the level of the 1850s. The railroad, which had not been shut down by the war, was faster, more efficient, and always expanding.

The Rock Island Rapids continued to be a thorn in the side of steamboat shipping.

The problem would not be solved until the early 20th century with the installation of locks and dams, which forever put the rapids under nine feet of water. But during the late 1880s, the rapids were still a significant problem.

Steamboat traffic through the Quad-Cities was steadily declining. It was clear that only finding a new use for the grand boats could resurrect the paddlewheel steamer.

Rock Island native John Streckfus found the answer.

In 1901, Mr. Streckfus launched a steamboat excusion business. He began his small business with one steamboat bearing his initials. The "J.S." was soon joined by other ships, and in a few years a line of steamers were traveling up and down the Mississippi, each packed full of dancing and partying passengers. These were trips filled with Dixieland jazz, fox trots and one-steps.

The steamboat had once again found a place on the Mississippi.

The carefree party voyages of the Streckfus Line still live today. Floating casinos light up the Quad-Cities shores, and the steamboat still has a home on the Mississippi. Both for power and pleasure, the riverboat was and is essential to the Quad-Cities.

Many texts were of great assistance in researching this article, including `An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island' by Thomas J. Slattery; `The History of Rock Island County,' Vol. 1, edited by Newton Bateman, LL. D. & Paul Selby, A.M.; `The Magnificent Mississippi' by Jim Arpy/John Zielinski; and `Rock Island: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow,' edited by Bj Elsner. A special credit is also due to the Rock Island County Historical Society.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.