Illinois 200: Fort Armstrong, Rock Island Arsenal have defended nation since 1816

In summer 1814, skirmishes between the U.S. Army and British-backed warriors under the leadership of Black Hawk flared up and down the Mississippi River.

Since 1803 the U.S. had owned both banks of the river. Lt. Zebulon Pike had reached the Rock Island in 1805 and immediately recognized its strategic and tactical importance. The Rock Island Rapids raced for 12 miles upriver. From Rock Island, the Army could control the entire Upper Mississippi River Valley by controlling the rapids.

The Sauk and Meskwaki, led by Black Hawk, opposed a disputed 1804 treaty that transferred over 50 million acres of land to the U.S. An Army post on the island could keep an eye on Black Hawk and his followers.

The battles of 1814 confirmed to the Army that it needed a presence on Rock Island. In May 1816, Fort Armstrong was built. The small Army contingent there was tasked to control the Upper Mississippi River Valley by monitoring the Rock Island Rapids; maintaining observation of assumed anti-American Sauk Indians in the area; maintaining peaceful relations between the local Native American tribes; and, later, 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 was transformed into a supply depot. That role ended in 1845 after supplies were sent for the Mexican War.

That same year, important meetings were held in Col. George Davenport's home. 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, the first rail bridge over the Mississippi River opened in April 1856. Rock Island, using water and rail, became a transportation hub. Eventually, the Transcontinental Railroad crossed the island.

In the late 1850s, the Army was looking for a depot to supply the Army on the 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 on July 11, 1862.

In 1863, construction started on a warehouse that is now called the Clock Tower. It was completed in 1867, but by then the mission had changed to manufacturing. Construction on a much larger complex began in 1866, making the Arsenal 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 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. 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.

During World War II, the Arsenal saw its greatest employment with almost 19,000 people. A huge repair parts operation used 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 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.

Today, the Arsenal quietly continues to support the Army, providing critical parts to support Operation Desert Storm, and in 2003, producing in just weeks the first professional armor kits needed to defend Humvees against roadside bombs. Rock Island Arsenal has one of only two foundries in the Department of Defense and can make one or 1 million of any item needed by the armed forces.

The Rock Island Arsenal remains an economic engine and premier employer. Also on the island are a national cemetery and a cemetery holding the remains of Confederate prisoners held on the island between 1863-1865.

A monument to the First Bridge is on the island, along with Col. George Davenport's house. 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 125 years earlier.

• George Eaton is Interim Director of Strategic Communications and Army Sustainment Command Historian, U.S. Army. Illinois 200 is a project of the Illinois Press Association and the Illinois Associated Press Media Editors. Find previous stories at

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A bird's-eye view of the Confederate prisoner of war camp on Arsenal Island during the Civil War. Photo courtesy of Rock Island Arsenal Museum
Fort Armstrong on the south end of the island as it looked from Rock Island around 1850. Photo courtesy of Rock Island Arsenal Museum
This image circa 1910 shows a craftsman in the tin shop making handles for mess kits. Rock Island Arsenal made everything a soldier needed from a knife, fork and mess kit to artillery. Photo courtesy of Rock Island Arsenal Museum
Brigadier Gen. Thomas J. Rodman, the "Father of Rock Island Arsenal," commanded the base from 1865 until his death in 1871. Photo courtesy of Rock Island Arsenal Museum

A yearlong birthday celebration for Illinois

Most people know about the Great Chicago Fire, but there's a lot more to Illinois history than that.

Native American settlements thousands of years old, the battle over slavery, the transfer of influence from southern to northern Illinois, wars and riots, the gangsters and politicians and artists and athletes that shaped our state - all are part of a yearlong series of articles to mark Illinois' bicentennial.

The Daily Herald and dozens of publications across the state are joining forces on the series, which will continue until Illinois' 200th birthday on Dec. 3. Find previous stories at <a href=""></a>.

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