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Arsenal Island in the Mississippi River offers a visit with history, weaponry and more

Arsenal Island in the Mississippi River offers a visit with history, weaponry and more

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An arsenal might seem like an unusual place to spend an entire day of vacation. Not to mention a day as scorching hot as on our visit. But there we were recently on 946-acre Arsenal Island — which occupies a three-mile stretch of the Mississippi River at the Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa — wishing we’d allowed at least two days.

Originally called “Rock Island” for the Rock River that flows through Illinois and into the Mississippi here, it’s best known as home, since 1862, to Rock Island Arsenal, the country’s largest government-owned and -operated arsenal. It has produced materiel for every U.S.-involved conflict from the Civil War on, and today is one of the largest and most important employers in the Quad Cities.

Though still active, the arsenal was named to the National Register of Historic Places in 1966, and designated a National Historic Landmark 23 years later.

Arsenal Island: Warehouses

Guarded by an old Portuguese cannon is a row of incredible stone warehouses where arms used to be made. Most are now remodeled into offices.

Photo by Guy Selbert

There’s a lot to see here in addition to the numerous buildings, many of dressed stone, that make up the arsenal. There’s also the oldest house in the area, a mansion that was home to Col. George Davenport, the island’s first permanent white settler and founder of the Iowa town named for him; the Mississippi River Visitor Center with an observation deck overlooking Locks and Dam 15; Memorial Park’s impressive display of artillery; a museum (currently under renovation) located in one of the arsenal buildings; and the remaining pier of the first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi.

There also are dozens of acres of immaculate green lawns statued with row on row of white marble slabs identifying the remains of tens of thousands of Americans — from both North and South — who are buried here. More than 35,000 lie in the National Cemetery, and more than 1,900 in the Confederate Cemetery.

To reach the island, take the Moline entrance. Visitors must stop at the Visitor Control Center (open daily 7 a.m. to 3 p.m.) to obtain a free pass. Driving tour maps are available there, and all sites open to the public are on the map.

Arsenal Island: Davenport House

Col. George Davenport and his wife moved into this fine "mansion" in 1833 after spending 17 years in a log cabin. Davenport was the island’s first permanent white settler and founder of the Iowa town named for him.

Photo by Guy Selbert

Our first stop was at the Davenport House, which offers guided tours for $6. Genial and knowledgeable Bill Hampes, who said he’s been leading tours here for 31 years, was our guide. He’s eager to share his wealth of history of the island, the colonel and the mansion. We were the only visitors on this occasion, and our tour lasted more than two hours.

He explained that the government had acquired the island through a treaty with the Sauk and Mesquakie (the French called them Fox) Indians in 1804. In 1816, following the War of 1812, the U.S. Army built a series of western frontier peacekeeping forts, with Fort Armstrong, at the foot of the island, among them.

Davenport, born George King in England in 1783, had come to New York as a sailor aboard a merchant ship in 1804. While in port, he suffered a serious leg injury while rescuing another sailor who had fallen overboard. And as there was no doctor on board the ship, Davenport stayed behind when his ship sailed.

A few years later he joined the regular U.S. Army, changed his name to George Davenport, and fought against the British in the War of 1812. When the war ended, he married and came to Rock Island as a fur trader and merchant, running two lucrative trading posts and supplying the fort, Hampes said.

Arsenal Island: Italianate Quarters One

The magnificent Italianate Quarters One, the house for the commanding officer of the arsenal, no longer serves that use. It is now just used for special occasions. It is the second-largest house in the federal government inventory. Only the White House is bigger. 

Photo by Guy Selbert

Within a decade other white settlers began arriving, and eventually hostilities with local Indians broke out, culminating, in 1832, in the short-lived Black Hawk War, he said. As hostilities intensified, the settlers were moved into one of Davenport’s fortified posts, where he volunteered as quartermaster for the Illinois militia and U.S. troops. For his service he was given the honorary rank of colonel.

After Black Hawk and his followers were defeated, the Purchase Treaty of 1832 was signed by representatives of the tribe and the United States, ceding all Indian lands east of the Mississippi to the government.

Within four years Fort Armstrong was abandoned, though it was used as an ordnance depot until 1845, Hampes said. Nothing of the original fort remains, but on its centennial, in 1916, a replica of one of the blockhouses was built on the site.

In 1833 Davenport and his wife, Margaret, moved from their log cabin to the Federal-style yellow clapboard home you see today. Though it has just four main rooms, at the time it was considered a “mansion,” said Hampes. Three of the rooms are furnished as they were when the Davenports lived here; the fourth is a replica of a trading post.

Hampes said the colonel often entertained local businessmen in his home to discuss the possibility of building a rail line between Chicago and the Mississippi at Rock Island, and several “had come on board,” promising $20,000 toward the venture.

Arsenal Island: Memorial Park

A row of guns line Memorial Park. Many of the weapons on display were made here at the arsenal. 

Unfortunately for Davenport, a pair of bandits got wind of the arrangement, and mistakenly thinking money had changed hands, came looking for it on July 4, 1845, when the colonel happened to be home alone. They tied him up, tortured him and left him to bleed to death after finding no money.

Family members stayed on in the house until the 1870s. Then the once-fine residence stood empty for nearly 40 years. It was first renovated in 1906, again in the 1960s and ’80s, and more recently the east and west sides were rebuilt.

The railroad Davenport had helped orchestrate, the Rock Island Line, included the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi. Begun in 1853, it was completed three years later. The remaining pier is on the driving tour.

Our next stop was at Memorial Park, where you can walk among a formidable array of weaponry: more than two dozen howitzers and tanks, each identified with a plaque.

Among them is an M55 U.S. Army 155 mm motorized howitzer, which required a crew of six to operate and was used in the 1950s and early ’60s to provide artillery support to ground troops and armored columns, according to the plaque. It was deployed extensively in NATO areas and in Vietnam.

Arsenal Island: Memorial Park

The huge M55 motorized howitzer is a 155mm howitzer mounted on the frame of a tank in Memorial Park on Arsenal Island. Made in the 1950s it required a six-man crew and was used in infantry support. 

Others include a USAT131, a 280 mm heavy motorized gun, an “experimental model” of the M65 atomic cannon, adopted in 1956. This gun could fire both nuclear and conventional shells up to 18 miles.

There’s also a British L119, a 105 mm light gun, one of 14 leased to the U.S. Army in 1985 for “evaluation.” More than 500 (U.S. designations) M119 and M119A1 howitzers were manufactured at the arsenal between 1991 and 1997.

Another popular stop on the island is the Mississippi River Visitor Center at Locks and Dam 15. There are numerous river-related exhibits, a small aquarium, theater, and in the summer months tours of the locks and dam are offered. April through mid-December, an observation deck draws some 30,000 visitors who come to watch boats passing through the locks (park ranger Mike McKean says it offers the best vantage of a locking through anywhere). Mid-December to March, eagles are the draw, as dozens of the birds are in the trees or feeding on the river.

Arsenal Island (IL)

A brass canon stands guard over the dead at the Confederate Cemetery. The only remnant of the Civil War Prison camp left, nearly 2,000 men died here of disease and hunger. 

Our last stop was at the Confederate Cemetery. Twenty immaculate rows of marble headstones, each of them numbered, mark the graves of soldiers who died at the POW camp here. A placard explains that in the summer of 1863, two years into the war, the Union and Confederate armies stopped exchanging prisoners. After the South was defeated at Gettysburg, the northern prison system could no longer handle the influx of prisoners, so the War Department authorized the camp. It opened Dec. 9, 1863.

The 12-acre compound held 84 barracks and 10,080 prisoners. Sanitation was poor, disease rampant, there was no hospital, and within the first three months, 995 men had died. By the time the war ended, and the camp was closed on June 11, 1865, nearly 2,000 had died.

We walked among the unshaded pristine rows, where soldiers from Tennessee, Alabama, Arkansas, Missouri and elsewhere in the South lie buried.

A bronze plaque here is engraved with the last words of T.J. “Stonewall” Jackson, one of the Confederate generals. He had died just months before the POW camp opened, after being accidentally shot in the arm by his own men in Virginia. Jackson’s arm was amputated and he lived another eight days, but by then he had developed pneumonia and became delirious. Just before he died he said, “Let us cross the river and rest in the shade of the trees.”

For information about Arsenal Island, and dining, lodging, shopping and more in the area go to visitquadcities.com.

Amy Bertrand • 314-340-8284

@abertrand on Twitter

abertrand@post-dispatch.com

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