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Thursday, June 18, 2015

Introduction to the Rock Island Arsenal

Rock Island, Illinois is an area with a fascinating history.  Its location on the banks of the mighty Mississippi River made it an early hub in the state, providing it with a lengthy and faceted history filled with Native Americans, riverboats, railroads, gangsters, military production, farm implement manufacture, and more.

The earliest history of Rock Island is centered around a geological feature known today as Arsenal Island.  Its role in forming the city is traceable back to 1809 and its history among the Native Americans extends even further.  As its name would imply, Arsenal Island is the location of the Rock Island Arsenal, a 946-acre campus with more history per square foot than most museums.  Its buildings have served many roles throughout the decades and their products are likely familiar to any collector of U.S. military arms.  To leave such a trove of local and military history left unexplored seems a grave disservice to a chunk of land that has done so much for the people of this community and nation.  That said, Rock Island Auction Company will be hosting a series of articles about the island, its buildings, its history, and its people.  It won't be easy.  An island with such a long history, often involving significant military actions of the 19th and 20th centuries, is going to have as much depth as it does breadth.  Many aspects of this parcel are well-known, but within its banks lies a wealth of historical stories, devices, and communications that shaped an area tens of thousands of people now call home.  Hopefully, some of this narrative will be new even for those intimately familiar with Arsenal Island.  However, today's article is more of a general introduction to the island and all it has to offer.  Feast your eyes on the following historical highlights from the largest government-owned weapons manufacturing arsenal in the western world.

Fort Armstrong

Ft. Armstrong located at the northwest corner of what was then called Rock Island, in order to control both paths
of the Mississippi that flowed around it.
The earliest of buildings on the island was built in the spring of 1816 to both impress the Native Americans as well as thwart potential British trade.  Located on the west-most corner of the island, Fort Armstrong was placed atop a sheet limestone drop-off of nearly 30 feet that was naturally shaped at a right angle.  No walls were needed on that side, but two perpendicular 20-foot walls were constructed on the east side of the fort to complete a square and enclose the fort.  Inside were barracks, blockhouses, and mounted six-pound cannons.  The fort was a bane for the nearly 40,000 Native Americans living in the surrounding area, marking one of many tensions that would eventually lead to the Blackhawk War.  Many famous American names serving in that war likely walked its grounds, such as Abraham Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, Zachary Taylor, Winfield Scott, and Joseph E. Johnston.

Quarters One

Photo from

Quarters One served for over 130 years as the home of the highest-ranking officer on the island.  Construction began under BG Thomas J. Rodman (for whom the primary road on the island is named) in 1870, not only for housing the most senior officer, but also as an important building for distinguished visitors, public business, and notable occasions.  The design, an Italian-style villa, was his own, though he would never live to see it completed.  On June 7, 1871 Rodman passed away and the first public event held in the house would be his funeral.  The home would provide temporary housing for soldiers transferred to the island and their families, leaving a lasting legacy. It would host 38 different senior officers before the Army decided in 2006 that Quarters One would no longer serve as family housing.  For decades it was the second-largest single-family residence owned by the government, ranking only behind the White House.

Rock Island Arsenal Museum

Photo taken from
Usually what most firearms collectors want to see at the Arsenal is the museum.  The photos of their firearms exhibits are most impressive, and the small arms/ordnance collection in particular is both outstanding and nationally recognized.  This bastion of freedom was appropriately established on the Fourth of July, 1905, making it the second-oldest U.S. Army Museum, younger only than West Point's.  In addition to its renowned small arms collection, the museum also contains artifacts of the island's military production, its people, and the history of the island itself.  The museum has been closed only twice, during The Great War and WWII, to make room for additional production needs.  Some of its most notable artifacts are: M1903 serial number 1, M1 Garand serial number 2, and five weapons positively proven to have been used at the Battle of Little Bighorn.  The exterior exhibits are also not to be ignored, containing dozens of artillery pieces from the U.S. and abroad, such as a Nebelwerfer rocket launcher and a M65 Atomic Cannon.  Admission is free.

U.S. Harpers Ferry M1842.  Photo by Kevin E. Schmidt/QUAD-CITY TIMES

Military Cemeteries & Confederate Ties

There are actually two cemeteries located on Arsenal Island.  The larger of the two is the Rock Island National Cemetery, which currently houses over 37,000 interments in its 66 acres, including two Medal of Honor Recipients.  It was originally established in 1863 to bury Union soldiers, but is now the final resting place for soldiers of the Civil War, Mexican War, Indian Wars, Spanish-American War, the Great War, and World War II.

Throughout the Civil War, more than 12,000 Confederate prisoners would be interred at Rock Island Prison Camp, also located on the island.  Often referred to as the "Andersonville of the North," it saw nearly 2,000 Confederate soldiers die from disease, malnutrition, and exposure.  The three acre parcel that contains the Rock Island Confederate Cemetery is the only remaining feature of the camp.  There are 1,952 graves in total.

Production Facilities

Image from

Obviously a very large part of Arsenal Island's history is its wartime production, a job it has performed since the 1880s.  Most collectors are familiar with their production of M1903 bolt action rifles and M1 Garand rifles, but the list of items that the island has produced is shockingly lengthy.  Everything from saddles, canteens, howitzers, holsters, rifles, artillery, artillery carriages, tool sets, recoil mechanisms, gun mounts, aircraft weapons, grenade launchers, barrels, tank parts, armor, and more.  Today, they perform a myriad of other manufacturing duties (foundry, castings, prototype creation and testing, machining, laser work, chemical analysis, calibration, Humvee armor, etc), as well as logistics for the Army, and support to the island's tenants and their 4,000 employees.  Hopefully, even this minuscule glimpse of what they do is a bit staggering.

These small paragraphs are only the beginning not only of each individual subject, but they also barely scratch the surface of the island itself.  Other historic points of interest are the original 19th century workshops, Colonel Davenport's House (for whom Davenport, IA is named), the site of the first bridge built across the Mississippi, the Clocktower, and the current functioning Government Bridge with its swing section built in 1896 (shown below).  We can't wait to share with you some of the rich history of Arsenal Island and the towns that grew up around it.  Even if you're not local to it, there are enough adventures, famous names from  history, battles, and firearms to keep you reading one story and looking forward to the next.

"Govt bridge anim2" by Kbh3rd - Own work using pd images from the Corps of Engineers' webcam[1]. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons

-Written by Joel Kolander



  1. When will future article be available. I did a report in grade school on this, but no one in class had heard of it including my teacher

    1. We're actually planning a whole series of articles. Each of these topics (plus some not even mentioned above) will get their own in-depth article instead of a brief summary. There is no definite timetable, but I'm excited to be writing them on the many interesting things that happened there.

  2. Very cool. The island has a long history. My understanding is the arsenal as a production center was envisioned to be a strategic site at the center of the continent and also on the country's most important water way. The idea was that Rock Island would produce everything a soldier would need from his clothes, eating utensils, leather goods, and other basics to firearms. The history of the site during the so called "Black Hawk War" is also very interesting though it is pretty clear Black Hawk and his followers did not intend to make war against the U.S. given the large number of women, children, and elderly that accompanied the relatively small band of warriors as they attempted to travel to the village of Prophetstown whose leader discouraged armed conflict..