The New Center of the Universe

Published:April 1, 2008 by Brendan Wolfe

This weekend I was chatting with a woman at a gathering of literary types and historians when she waved a friend over. “This young man,” she announced, “is explaining to me how Iowa is the center of the universe.”

“Not at all!” I insisted far too earnestly. It’s just that here I am living in Virginia, a place completely and justifiably obsessed with its own history, and sometimes I want to stick up for that spot on the Mississippi where I was born and where at least one Virginian made an important contribution to local and even national history.

You might have heard of him—Robert E. Lee.

Here’s the story: A fresh-faced West Point graduate, Lee was assigned to survey the rapids at Rock Island, Illinois, and directly across from Davenport, Iowa. The area he mapped became the site of the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi—a project that excited the southern sympathies of then–Secretary of War Jefferson Davis. Fearing the bridge might lead to a transcontinental railroad through the North, Davis tried but failed to have construction halted. The bridge opened in 1856, after which a steamship promptly crashed into it, setting the spans ablaze. This led to a lawsuit, of course, and who do you suppose defended the railroads?

You might have heard of him—Abraham Lincoln.

Rock Island was also where Dred Scott first set foot on free soil and Davenport where the great jazzman Bix Beiderbecke was born and where, as legend has it, he first met Louis Armstrong aboard a steamer up from New Orleans.

Travel hardly any distance at all and you’ll also find the Iowa birthplaces of Herbert Hoover, Glenn Miller, Grant Wood, Carl Van Vechten, and Henry Wallace.

Huh. Maybe Iowa was the center of the universe!

THE IRON HORSE CROSSES THE MISSISSIPPI! Read a contemporary news report of that first railroad crossing, complete with shameless references to Julius Caesar and the Rubicon.

IMAGE: A portion of Lt. Robert E. Lee’s original map of the Rock Island Rapids