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River ferries as old as Q-C history

By Jonathan Turner, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

ROCK ISLAND -- Ever get the urge to float across the Mississippi River without worrying about bridge traffic and parking? Well, the popularity of today's water taxi has roots 174 years old, with one of the founders of the Quad-Cities.

Click here for larger view.
Gary Karmbeck / staff
While the current Channel Cat, top, plies the Mississippi between Moline, Bettendorf and Davenport, the idea of ferries moving people across the river goes way back.
Col. George Davenport established the first commercial ferry service here in 1825, his earliest patrons being trappers bringing fur from the Iowa side to his trading post on the island of Rock Island, now Arsenal Island.

Rock Island County commissioners granted six ferry licenses in 1835, one of those going to another Quad-Cities settler, Antoine LeClaire.

Click here for larger view.
Photo courtesy Special Collections, Augustana College Library.
The ferry Quinlen disembarks passengers at Rock Island on Dec. 9, 1921. The The Rock Island-Davenport Ferry Co., tracing its roots to 1837, advertised 15-minute roundtrips between 6:30 a.m. and 10 p.m.
Mr. LeClaire did not stay in the ferry business long. In 1837, he sold out to Capt. John Wilson, who went on to found a ferry dynasty, eventually called the Rock Island-Davenport Ferry Co., which his heirs operated until 1925.

The best known of the old ferries was the W.J. Quinlan, a three-deck paddle-wheel steamer built at the famed Kahlke Boatyard in Rock Island in 1904 for the Rock Island-Davenport Ferry Co. The boat, first called The Davenport, was purchased by William J. Quinlan in 1925.

In its heyday of the 1930s and 1940s, the Quinlan ferried passengers between Rock Island and Davenport for a nickel a ride. Many riders stayed on for several trips because the boat featured live jazz music, dancing, slot machines, bingo and a bar.

The Quinlan lost money its last few years of operation and was judged unseaworthy in 1946. It was dry-docked at the Kahlke Boatyard on Mill Street and was a landmark of the Rock Island riverfront until it burned in a spectacular 1967 fire.

Though a gas-powered ferry prowled the river until 1962, it wasn't until 1995 that the Channel Cat water taxi made its debut. Owned and operated by the nonprofit group River Action, the service was taken over last year by Metro Link.

This summer, the transit district plans to have two new boats at its disposal, with two new docks, Metro Link general manager Jeff Nelson said.

In October, Metro Link received a $560,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation, which requires a 20 percent local match.

"We're experiencing a lot of weekend traffic," Mr. Nelson said, noting the Channel Cat had 12,000 passengers for the May-to-September service, $3.50 for adults and $1.50 for children ages 2 to 10.

The current boat has a 49-person capacity and Metro Link wants the Coast Guard to approve larger boats, Mr. Nelson said. Metro Link will build boats that can carry more people, but it must have the approval to increase capacity, he said.

The original boat was designed more as a pleasure craft than a heavy-duty vessel that can withstand river currents and debris over a 12-hour-a-day, six-day-per-week operation, Mr. Nelson said.

Therefore, the new boats, will be sturdier and more reliable, he said. Among the few changes passengers will notice are a public address system and a storage container for lifejackets.

A new dock in at the Celebration Cruiselines in Moline, near 26th Street, will be part of a new passenger area that is to include restrooms, food and souvenirs, Mr. Nelson said. Celebration operates the water taxi.

The second new dock will be for a future landing in East Moline, at The Quarter development, Mr. Nelson said.

There also is a plan for a new dock in Bettendorf, at the Lady Luck Casino, to replace one at Leach Park. Metro Link is unlikely to start service to East Moline next summer, so the second boat probably will be used as a backup or in simultaneous use, if the passenger numbers grow significantly, Mr. Nelson said.

The Davenport Levee Commission has asked Metro Link to consider offering the service closer to downtown. The other two existing docks are at the Village of East Davenport and at John Deere Commons in Moline.

"Kathy Wine needs to be credited for tremendous success in the demonstration project," Mr. Nelson said of the head of River Action. "She has shown that the community has a strong desire to see ancillary services across the river."

Mr. Nelson wants the water taxi, in addition to recreation and tourism, to be used for commuters needing to get across the river. Metro Link will try to coordinate the service with other available public transit, he said.

The recent grant was given from a federal program to develop alternate transportation methods, Mr. Nelson noted. The current Channel Cat will be sold, for about $50,000, to be used toward the local match, he said.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.