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From sea to shining sea: devoted to the 'Rivers of America'

An unexpected literary find kindled a passion for the series on America's great waterways.

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Charlie, an avid collector of illustrated children's literature, is rarely happier than when he's allowed to root through the books stored in some nether area of an antique shop far from the madding crowds.

After he asked a proprietor in Shelbyville Ind., whether he had anything "in the back" and not yet priced, the fellow ushered him to an unopened cardboard box – castoffs, he said, from the historical society across the street. If anything caught his eye, $5 would be fine. Moments later, Charlie pulled "The Wabash" out from the jumble, unaware at that point that it would awaken a new passion in book collecting.

Appropriately enough, his devotion to the "Rivers of America" series would gather strength like its individual subjects, flooding our shelves with evocative titles such as "The Cape Fear," "The Yazoo," "The Winooski: Heartway of Vermont," "The Cuyahoga," "The Housatonic: Puritan River," "The Chagres: River of Westward Passage," and "The Humboldt: Highroad of the West."

Conceptualized by poet-historian Constance Lindsay Skinner and launched in 1937, the series presents the history of the US with a focus on its remarkable system of waterways, an enterprise considered unique in the history of American publishing.

Ms. Skinner succinctly explained her idea to profile the nation through its rivers: "We began to be Americans on the rivers." The 65 books were written by various authors and published by Farrar & Rinehart and two corporate successors.

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