From frontier to the front lines, Rock Island has served its country
Editor’s note: The weekly Illinois Bicentennial series is brought to you by the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors and Illinois Press Association. More than 20 newspapers are creating stories about the state’s history, places and key moments in advance of the Bicentennial on Dec. 3. Stories published up to this date can be found at 200illinois.com.
ROCK ISLAND – Before it was one of the four corners of a foundation on which the Quad Cities was built, Rock Island served a still growing nation as a key military outpost.
The U.S. had owned both banks of the Mississippi River since 1803. Two years later, Army Lt. Zebulon Pike reached Rock Island and immediately recognized its strategic and tactical importance. With the Rock Island Rapids only 12 miles upriver, the Army could control the entire Upper Mississippi River Valley by controlling the rapids, and keep an eye on American Indians whose growing resentment toward Americans would erupt into bloody battles.
Tensions between American Indians and the U.S. were growing in the summer of 1814. Americans were pushing westward, and pushing the native people off their land. While an Army post on Rock Island kept an eye on Black Hawk and his followers in the summer of 1814, skirmishes between the U.S. and British-backed warriors under the leadership of Black Hawk flared up and down river from Rock Island.
The Sauk and Meskwaki tribes, led by Black Hawk, opposed a disputed 1804 treaty that transferred more than 50 million acres of land to the U.S.
The battles of 1814 reinforced the Army’s belief that it needed a presence on Rock Island. In May 1816, Fort Armstrong was built on the downriver end of the island. The small Army contingent there was tasked with controlling the Upper Mississippi River Valley by monitoring the Rock Island Rapids; observing assumed anti-American Sauk Indians in the area; maintaining peaceful relations between the local native tribes; and providing security as settlers moved into the area.
Resistance from the Sauk culminated in the Black Hawk War of 1832. Fort Armstrong served as an administrative and logistic center for the war. Treaties after the Black Hawk War pushed Native Americans west of the Mississippi and, as a result, Fort Armstrong’s security role was transformed into a logistics mission as a supply depot. That role ended in 1845 after supplies were issued for the Mexican War.
Important meetings were held in George Davenport’s home in 1845. Not a single bridge crossed the Mississippi River and Rock Island was the only location where engineering of the day could build a commercially viable railroad bridge.
The bridge could jump from the Illinois mainland to the island and then over the shallow rapids to Iowa. After 11 years of wrangling and overcoming resistance from the federal government, the first rail bridge over the Mississippi River opened in April 1856 spurring industrial and settlement growth in the area. Rock Island, using water and rail, became the transportation hub of the United States. Eventually, the Transcontinental Railroad crossed the island.
In the late 1850s the Army was looking for a depot to supply the Army on America’s frontier. The bridge and rail distribution network, coupled with steamboat traffic and federal ownership of the Rock Island, influenced the decision to create the Rock Island Arsenal.
President Abraham Lincoln signed legislation creating the Arsenal as a maintenance and storage facility on July 11, 1862. In 1863, construction started on a warehouse that is now called the Clock Tower.
That building was not completed until 1867 and by then the mission had changed to manufacturing. With the end of the Civil War, plans were drawn up by Brevet Brig. Gen. Thomas Rodman for a much larger complex. Construction began in 1866.
That construction was an economic driver as Rock Island Arsenal became the largest federal public works project of the 19th century. The Arsenal produced artillery carriages and caissons, saddles, eating utensils, canvas products, bayonets, and, after 1903, rifles.
It also manufactured, repaired and stored everything a soldier needed.
The Arsenal’s first major support to an American war was in 1898 during the Spanish-American War. The Rock Island Arsenal became known for both speed and quality. As a result, it became the artillery development center for the Army.
During World War I, the Arsenal’s employment mushroomed from 2,000 to almost 15,000. After World War I, the Arsenal became the Army’s tank development center as well.
During World War II, the Arsenal saw its greatest employment with almost 19,000 people on the island. A huge repair parts operation utilized the rail links east and west to the coasts. In addition, machine guns, artillery, tanks, aircraft engines and other goods were produced and sent to the fighting fronts.
The Arsenal was also critical to support in the Korean and Vietnam wars. As the size of the Army and the requirement for manufacturing declined, other higher commands were located on the island. Today, 1st Army, Army Sustainment Command, Joint Munitions Command and the Arsenal itself operate on the island.
The Arsenal quietly continues to support the Army. From 1990-91 critical parts were made and shipped to support Operation Desert Storm. In 2003, when opposing forces began to ambush U.S. vehicles with roadside bombs, the Arsenal produced the first professional armor kits for Humvees in just weeks. The Rock Island Arsenal has one of only two foundries in the Department of Defense and with modern technology can make one or 1 million of any item needed by the armed forces.
While known and respected across the armed forces for its products, in the neighboring community the Rock Island Arsenal remains an economic engine and premier employer.
The island is also home to a national cemetery and a Confederate Cemetery holding the remains of Confederate prisoners held on island between 1863-1865.
A monument to the First Bridge is on the island, along with George Davenport’s house which hosted the meetings that planned that bridge. In addition to that modest home, the island is also home to Quarters One, the largest house in the Army and second in size only to the White House in the federal inventory.
The Rock Island Arsenal Museum, the second oldest museum in the Army system, tells the history of the Arsenal and has more than 1,200 weapons on display. The Lock and Dam Visitor Center tells the story of the first completed Mississippi River navigation lock and dam that, when completed in 1933, removed the obstacle of the Rock Island Rapids noted by Zebulon Pike in 125 years earlier.
George Eaton is Interim Director of Strategic Communications and Army Sustainment Command Historian, U.S. Army.