By Gale Smith
ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, IL. (The Rock, April 2006) — What do you think of when you think of Rock Island Arsenal? There are certainly a wide variety of opinions both here on the installation and throughout the Quad Cities.
Many folks, both on and off island, think of the manufacturing complex, now known as the Rock Island Arsenal Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center. Yes, this massive complex of industrial buildings and more than 1000 employees certainly comes to mind. It produces a myriad of critical products for all of our armed services, including the add on armor kits for a variety of military vehicles, vital maintenance systems, recoil mechanisms for artillery systems, and small arms field service gages. However, the RIA JMTC employees are only one-sixth of the total island population.
Over the years the installation has diversified, and now more than 63 organizations call the Rock Island Arsenal home. The terms Arsenal, Rock Island Arsenal, and Arsenal Island refer to the
entire installation and the entire island. There is no one organization that is titled just the “Rock Island Arsenal” today. This island has a rich and varied history. The Sauk and Mesquakie tribes called this home until 1804 when the United States government acquired it through a treaty.
Congress acknowledged its importance early and set it aside as a federal military reservation in 1809.
The Army built Fort Armstrong in 1816 as part of a system of forts in the Upper Mississippi Valley. Fort Armstrong’s most important role in keeping the peace was when it served as military headquarters during the Black Hawk War of 1832. It was abandoned in 1836, but remained an ordnance depot until 1845. Famous visitors in the early days included Robert E Lee, Zebulon Pike, Zachary Taylor and Winfield Scott. Col. Davenport provided supplies to Fort Armstrong and was deeded land on the island by the federal government. The first bridge across the Mississippi River crossed Arsenal Island and opened in April 1856. It created rail communications from coast to coast.
An Act of Congress established Rock Island Arsenal in 1862. Major Charles P. Kingsbury, the first commanding officer of Rock Island Arsenal, located and designed three buildings for the arsenal. In 1867, the Clock Tower Building was the only one completed. Today, it is the home of the of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District headquarters.
Brevet Brigadier General Thomas J. Rodman, the second Commanding Officer of Rock Island Arsenal, redesigned the arsenal on a much grander scale. For his contributions from 1865 to 1871, he is known as the “Father of Rock Island Arsenal.”
Rodman designed the ten stone shops at the center of the island. The five buildings in the south row were designated “arsenal row,” and were designed for the manufacture and overhaul of general ordnance material. The five buildings in the north row were designated “armory row,” and were designed for the manufacture and overhaul of small arms. He also designed Quarters One, the second largest single family dwelling in the federal inventory. After Rodman’s death, Lt. Col. Daniel
W. Flagler oversaw the construction of the arsenal buildings. When you walk or drive down Rodman Avenue today you will see the building dates on the front of each of the original stone buildings.
Today the original stone shop buildings house many of the island’s predominately white collar tenant organizations, including the Defense Finance and Accounting Service Rock Island Field Site, the Army’s TACOM Life Cycle Management Command Rock Island, the Installation Management Agency Northwest Region, the Edgewood Chemical and Biological Center Rock Island Site, the Armament Research Development and Engineering Center Rock Island, and most of the Civilian Human Resources Agency North Central Region.
The Arsenal, while always important to the Army, grew significantly in World War I and again in World War II. Both wars saw massive building projects. The Army Joint Munitions Command, another major tenant, occupies building 350, which was built as a warehouse in World War I. The last major tenant, the Army Field Support Command, occupies Building 390, which was built as an office center during World War II.
The diversification and transformation of this installation from primarily a blue collar manufacturing complex to the complex mixture of organizations it is today began in the mid 1950s when the Army’s Ordnance Weapons Command was established here.
The second half of the twentieth century saw periodic additions of other Army and then Department of Defense organizations. Today the installation is a major military complex with a wide variety of organizations, each one having its own unique and critical missions that support our warfighters.
In addition to the critical research, manufacturing, logistics, and sustainment missions done here, the island is also home to the Department of Veterans Affairs, Rock Island National Cemetery and Confederate Cemetery, each with their own fascinating histories.
So when people ask where you work, it is accurate to say in or on the Rock Island Arsenal, no matter what organization you work for. However, what binds us all is that we are all on this Arsenal, this island, and that we are all in service to our men and women in uniform and our nation.
For more information on the history of the Arsenal, visit the Arsenal Museum, Memorial Park, the Garrison website at www.ria.army.mil or the Corps of Engineers Website at: http://www.mvr.usace.army.mil/rockislandhistory.