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10 things to do at the Rock Island Arsenal and Museum

The Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island have witnessed more than 160 years of recorded American history. Most famously, Abraham Lincoln chased Black Hawk around Illinois in 1832. Since Lincoln was involved, I always thought Black Hawk was from central Illinois. And then I visited the Quad Cities. Black Hawk’s village, Saukenuk, stood on Illinois’ western edge. Fort Armstrong, where the arsenal currently stands, guarded the island during the Black Hawk War.

Visit Quad Cities sponsored my visit, but all opinions are mine.

Lincoln never saw action during the Black Hawk War, which ended after Black Hawk surrendered in Wisconsin. Learn more fascinating history at the Rock Island Arsenal, a paradise for history buffs. We’ll examine stories in the army’s second-oldest museum, the historic Colonel Davenport House, Fort Armstrong, Mississippi River locks, and a pair of military cemeteries. 

Related: Lincoln visited Kansas in 1859 to test his Presidential campaign themes.

The Army is still creating the arsenal’s military history because the Rock Island Arsenal Garrison remains an active military base. It’s the nation’s largest government-owned and operated arsenal with a $1.2 billion impact on the Quad Cities economy. Several other commands inhabit the small base, including the First Army, the Joint Munitions Command, Navy, Coast Guard, and Marine Corps detachments, The arsenal serves the entire military establishment, including the National Guard and Army Reserve.

The arsenal is between the cities of Davenport, Iowa; Moline and Rock Island, Illinois. It’s an hour and a half from Des Moines and two hours from Chicago. Illinois tourism places Rock Island in its Great Rivers Country.

Roxie’s reliable report: The Black Hawk State Historic Site stands on the former site of Saukenuk, Black Hawk’s village.

Table of contents: The arsenal’s roots | Rock Island Arsenal Museum | Longest-serving employee | Col. Davenport House | Quarters One | Fort Armstrong | Government (Arsenal) Bridge | National Cemetery | Confederate Cemetery | Mississippi River Visitor Center | How to enter the arsenal

Two Rock Island Arsenal cannons on a grass-covered cliff above the Mississippi River with the sun shining down upon them in partly cloudy skies
Fort Armstrong dominated the Rock Island Rapids during its brief existence.

Rock Island Arsenal’s roots

“We did not, however, object to [the Army’s] building the fort on [Rock] Island, but we were very sorry as this was the best island on the Mississippi….”

“The Life of Black Hawk”

Lieutenant Zebulon Pike and his men identified the 946-acre island’s strategic significance on their 1805-1806 expedition up the Mississippi River. He noted that the Rock Island Rapids caused a chokepoint on the river. They visited Saukenuk, the Sauk and Fox Nation’s prosperous 6,000-population village at present-day Rock Island.

The Sauk and Fox tribal representatives ceded land between the Mississippi and Illinois rivers from the Missouri to the Wisconsin rivers in the 1804 Treaty of St. Louis. Despite the representatives’ action, most of the Sauk and Fox did not agree. They argued that the signatories were drunk and incapable of signing. Their incapacity rendered the treaty invalid. Their protests went unheeded.

Congress established Rock Island as a federal military reservation in 1809. It’s an integral part of the history of Rock Island. The arsenal joined the National Register of Historic Places in 1969. Twenty years later, the Secretary of the Interior designated the original buildings as a National Historic Landmark.

Arched stone front door of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum
The Rock Island Arsenal Museum opened in 1905 and is the second oldest U.S. Army museum. (Patrick Allie/US Army)

1. Rock Island Arsenal Museum

The Rock Island Arsenal Museum traces the post’s history from the Louisiana Purchase to the present. Its collection contains impressive firearms, cannons, and other military artifacts. The human stories are the best part.

The Rock Island Arsenal stone Clock Tower Building features a tower in the center of its façade.
The Clock Tower Building was the Rock Island Arsenal’s first structure.

Congress established the arsenal on July 11, 1862. Major Charles Kingsbury built the original Clock Tower Building, now home to the Army’s Corps of Engineers. Lt. Col. Thomas Rodman, the Rodman Gun inventor, assumed command in 1865. He oversaw the arsenal’s development until his 1871 death.

A pair of black cast iron heating stoves at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum. One is a pot-bellied stove, and the other is rectangular.
Two models of Army heating stoves.

Besides producing ordnance, the arsenal’s shops produced infantry and artillery equipment, saddles, and tack. It also produced heating stoves for Army posts. 

While the arsenal produced items for every American conflict after its inception, the World Wars expanded its role. Women moved from clerical workers to manufacturing jobs and Black workers’ employment also increased. Unfortunately, they were limited to manual labor and custodial roles.

The Army developed and updated weaponry like tanks and howitzers between the World Wars.

A female mannequin filling ammunition boxes at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum
The Army called its female workforce WOWs, as in Women Ordnance Workers.

Its workload exploded during World War II, and again, the military called on women and Black people to staff its needs. After Italy’s surrender, two Italian quartermaster service companies joined the arsenal in 1944. Over-optimistically, the military closed ordnance plants after the war. They soon reopened for the Korean and Vietnam conflicts.

Arsenal designers and engineers continue to develop new and improved weapons today.

Black and white photo of Milton Howard standing on a sidewalk
Milton Howard was one of the first black workers employed at the arsenal. (Rock Island Arsenal Archives)

The longest Rock Island Arsenal employee

Shortly after Milton Howard‘s birth in Muscatine, Iowa, slave hunters sold his family into slavery in Alabama. He escaped and enlisted in Company F, 60th U.S. Colored Troops, in 1864, where he suffered several injuries. He started working at Rock Island Arsenal in 1866, one of the first Black workers employed there. He remained for 56 years, inspiring his family to also serve. His 1928 death was front-page news in the Quad Cities.

Green and white Howard St. sign in the Rock Island Arsenal Museum
The museum preserves Howard’s namesake street sign within his exhibit.

The arsenal named a street for him in 2018.

The tan two-story Federal Col. Davenport House from the tree-shaded lawn at Rock Island Arsenal.
River view of the Col. Davenport House

2. Colonel Davenport House on Rock Island Arsenal

The Colonel Davenport House faces Col. George Davenport’s namesake city, Davenport, Iowa. He built the house in 1833 after the Black Hawk War ended. The Federal-style house’s main section is a two-story log cabin covered with siding.

Davenport moved to Rock Island before 1816. He was the first postmaster in Rock Island Village and then became Fort Armstrong’s commissary head. He resigned to become an Indian trader in present-day Illinois and Iowa. Later, he helped plan the railroad that crossed the Mississippi River from the arsenal.

Unfortunately, Davenport only enjoyed the house for 11 years. On the Fourth of July, 1845, burglars murdered Davenport. They thought he had $20,000 ($807,000 in 2024) in his home. He didn’t. He identified his murderers before he died, living long enough to identify them. Two assailants escaped, but officials captured three of them. A crowd three times larger than Rock Island’s population watched them die by hanging. 

Guided tours provide insight into the Davenport family lifestyle. Remember to explore the lovely garden.

3. Quarters One, Rock Island Arsenal

Brevet Brigadier Gen. Thomas Rodman designed the 10 stone shops at the island’s center. He designated the south row’s five buildings as “arsenal row,” for manufacturing and overhauling general ordnance material. The north five were “armory row,” manufacturing and overhauling small arms.

He also designed living quarters for himself and his military assistants. Rodman never lived there because he died before its completion. The 20,000-square-foot Quarters One, an Italianate villa, opened in 1871 with 51 rooms. The rooms include an observation tower, and separate parlors for men and women to use, separately, of course. Historians consider it the second-largest single-family government residence next to the White House. 

Famous guests include famed aviator Charles Lindbergh, Gen. William Sherman, Gen. Philip Sheridan, Secretary of War and future President and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Taft, then Lt. Col. and future President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and Gen. John J. Pershing. 

It’s now an event venue.

Related: Learn more about Eisenhower in his hometown, Abilene, Kansas.

Gray two-story log blockhouse on a grassy hill above the Mississippi River
A replica of a Fort Armstrong blockhouse

4. Fort Armstrong, Rock Island’s protector

The United States Army fought three battles with the Sauk Nation around Rock Island: the Burning of Saukenuk, the Battle of Campbell’s Island, and the Battle of Credit Island. The battles provided the impetus for Fort Armstrong (PDF). 

Roxie’s reliable report: The fort was named for President James Madison’s Secretary of War John Armstrong. Armstrong is a curious choice. He failed to defend the nation’s capital during the War of 1812 and watched in horror as the British burned Washington, D.C. Earlier, he wrote the anonymous “Newburgh Letters,” urging Continental officers to agitate for salary arrears and other adjustments after the Revolutionary War. Gen. George Washington had to stop a potential mutiny because of his intrigues.

Fort Armstrong was an administrative and logistic center during the war. Post-war treaties pushed Native Americans west of the Mississippi, and the Army abandoned the unneeded fort. The reoccupied fort became an ordnance depot from 1840-45, then abandoned again. A fire destroyed it by 1856.

The Army built a replica blockhouse in 1916, the centennial of the fort’s establishment. 

Bronze sculpture of Abraham Lincoln and 15-year-old Benjamin Brayton discussing the Arsenal Bridge.
Abraham Lincoln and Benjamin Brayton contemplate the Arsenal Bridge in Davenport’s Bechtel Park. Brayton explained the bridge’s interaction with the river.

5. Government (Arsenal) Bridge, connecting Rock Island Arsenal to Davenport

The Government (Arsenal) Bridge connects the arsenal to Davenport. The initial bridge was slightly upriver and opened in April 1856 as the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River. It had five wooden spans and one draw span in the middle of the river. Two weeks after it opened, the steamboat Effie Afton struck one of its piers and caught fire. The fire destroyed the boat and part of the bridge. 

Brass Effie Afton ship's bell
Salvagers later unearthed the Effie Afton’s ship’s bell, and the museum reassembled it.

The steamboat company sued the railroad, claiming the bridge caused a hazard. Abraham Lincoln and others defended the railroad company. They argued that railroads had just as much legal right to bridge the Mississippi as the steamboats had to use the water.

Related: River pilot Philip Suiter of LeClaire, Iowa, testified on the railroad’s behalf.

The jury on the case voted 9-3 against the bridge. Next, Congress decided the bridge was a hazard to navigation, but let the courts decide. The United States Supreme Court allowed the bridge to stand in December 1862.

Jefferson Davis, then Secretary of War, tried to stop the bridge’s repair to open the way for a Southern Transcontinental Railroad. The judge said the War Department had no authority.

Related: The case cleared the way for the Transcontinental Railroad along the Great Platte River Road. Traffic used the repaired bridge for many years. In 1865, the bridge was rebuilt around the old structure, but was again built with wooden timbers. 

The first Government Bridge of 1872 replaced it. Today, a monument marks the location of this bridge. The current Government Bridge was built in 1896. The double-decker bridge stands on the same piers as the 1872 bridge. Its swing span rotates 360 degrees for river traffic is a unique engineering accomplishment.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: To better appreciate the bridge, walk from Arsenal Island to Davenport, but carry your visitor’s pass with you. You’ll need it when you return.

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Five armed services flags and military headstones
Service flags fly above the Rock Island National Cemetery.

6. Rock Island National Cemetery

The Army established a Confederate prisoner-of-war camp on Arsenal Island in 1863. A regiment of “Gray Beard” volunteers, men over 45, were the first guards. The 108th U.S. Colored Infantry, mainly former Kentucky slaves, replaced the “Gray Beards.” The Army established the national cemetery for the guards, 50 of whom rest there. Pvt. William English was the first burial.

Related: Curtis King of Wapello County was one of the Gray Beards. The 80-year-old is the oldest soldier ever to serve in the United States Army.

When the Army planned a Rock Island Arsenal expansion, it relocated 136 graves to the island’s southeastern tip. Initially, a picket fence surrounded the cemetery, but eventually, the arsenal turned excess Civil War cannonballs into a decorative cast-iron fence.

A black wrought-iron fence surrounds the Rodmans' white stone markers and obelisk under a partly cloudy sky.
Thomas and Martha Rodman’s graves

Memorial Walkway at Rock Island National Cemetery

The memorial walkway features over 30 monuments honoring Pearl Harbor survivors, Mexican-American veterans, female veterans, American Veterans (AMVETS), and other organizations. Seven cast-iron plaques contain verses from Theodore O’Hara’s poem “Bivouac of the Dead.”

The walkway ends at four gravesites. Rodman and his wife, Martha Ann, and Col. David Matson King and his wife, Marguerite. King commanded the arsenal from 1921-1932.

Three Civil War-era cannons mark Rodman’s gravesite. he invented their construction method that allowed the cannon to withstand higher pressures.

Moskala's white military-issue headstone with gold lettering among other headstones
The grave of Pvt. Edward J. Moskala

Two Congressional Medal of Honor recipients rest in the cemetery

Pvt. Edward J. Moskala charged 40 yards through gunfire to eliminate two machine-gun nests on Kakazu Ridge, Okinawa, during World War II. He voluntarily remained behind with eight others after his company withdrew. He killed more than 25 Japanese.

When the surviving Americans descended a ridge, they discovered that they had left a wounded comrade. Moskala immediately climbed the bullet-swept slope to assist in the rescue. He had saved another casualty and killed four infiltrators when he was mortally wounded while aiding another disabled soldier. Moskala gave his life in “his complete devotion to his company’s mission and his comrades’ well-being,” the citation said.

Frank Peter Witek's military-issue headstone with gold lettering among other headstones and a tree
The grave of PFC Frank Peter Witek

PFC Frank Peter Witek stood to fire a full magazine from point-blank range. He killed eight enemy soldiers, enabling most of his platoon to take cover during the Battle of Finegayen at Guam on August 3, 1944.

His platoon withdrew, but he remained to safeguard a severely wounded comrade until aid arrived. He continued to return fire while protecting the wounded and their rescuers. A hostile machine gun pinned down his platoon, but Witek threw hand grenades and fired his rifle while advancing within 5 to 10 yards of the enemy. He destroyed the machine-gun emplacement and eight Japanese before an enemy rifleman shot him. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Navajo Code Talker

Navajo Code Talker John “Junior” Willie Jr. was one of 29 Navajos who developed an unbreakable code based on their native language. Willie fought in the battles of Tarawa and Saipan. Congress awarded the original Code Talkers the Congressional Gold Medal in 2000, but Willie died on July 20, 1962. The Code Talker operation remained classified until 1968, so Willie could never share his deeds with his loved ones.

Additional notables

Other notable burials include 16 “Galvanized Yankees” who died before being assigned to the western frontier, and 159 Civil War veterans reinterred from Davenport’s Oakdale Cemetery.  Nineteen servicemen who perished in the USS Warhawk’s explosion during a suicidal motorboat attack in the Philippines on January 10, 1945, are the largest group burial.

Related: The recovered Hero Street USA casualties rest in Rock Island National Cemetery.

United Daughters of the Confederacy obelisk with interpretive panel and brochure box
The United Daughters of the Confederacy installed this obelisk at the Confederate Cemetery.

7. Confederate Cemetery at Rock Island Arsenal

Rock Island Confederate Cemetery is the only remnant of the Civil War-era Rock Island Prison Barracks (PDF). Prisoners from the Battle of Lookout Mountain, Tenn., arrived from Chattanooga in December 1863. A string of Union victories overcrowded the other Midwestern prison camps, and the Army shipped POWs to Rock Island before the camp’s completion.

They arrived in one of the worst winters ever recorded, and the camp quickly ran out of blankets. No one had built a hospital for the POWs. Smallpox, pneumonia, and diarrhea claimed POWs and guards’ lives. 

Members of the 108th U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment stationed at Rock Island Prison Barracks circa 1864. (Courtesy of Rock Island Arsenal Archives)

When the 108th arrived as guards, the POWs created an uproar. Even their fellow Union soldiers treated the 108th as lesser beings. Ironically, the title partially came from rations reductions in retaliation for Andersonville’s maltreatment of Union POWs.

Some of the POWs escaped, but 3,000 left the camp as “Galvanized Yankees,” serving in the Union Navy or in frontier forts. Some may have enlisted for better food, but others likely enlisted because the South was losing.

By January 1864, camp critics called it the “Andersonville of the North,” comparing it to the notorious Confederate camp in Andersonville, Ga.

The POW camp stopped burials in the Confederate Cemetery 2,500 yards northwest of the national cemetery on July 11, 1865, with approximately 1,950 internments. Most of them died from smallpox and pneumonia. The last POWs left the hospital at about the same time. The arsenal used the buildings for storage until their 1909 demolishment.

8. Weapons displays at the Rock Island Arsenal

The Rock Island Arsenal’s green spaces display numerous weapons. Most of them are American, including a damaged M4A3 Sherman Medium Tank that fought World War II’s Battle of the Bulge with the Fourth Armored Division. However, some are from other nations, like the Chinese Type 59-1 130mm Field Gun, the Swedish M1 Bofors 40mm Anti-Aircraft Gun, and the Soviet ZSU-23-4 “Shilka” Self-Propelled Anti-Aircraft Gun.

Related: Look for a rare Atomic Annie cannon. Another one perches on a hill above Junction City, Kansas.

People looking at boats traversing Lock and Dam 15
Scout leaders and scouts watch out the window of the Mississippi River Visitor Center as a tow locks through at Locks and Dam 15. (Mark Kane/US Army)

9. Mississippi River Visitor Center

The Mississippi River Visitor Center overlooks the Upper Mississippi River at Locks & Dam 15. Learn more about the Mississippi River and its lock and dam system. Watch bald eagles feed during the winters, and boats navigating the locks when the river is ice-free.

Jet-skiing on the MIssissippi River with Moline, Illinois, in the background.
Watch people and scenery on a Channel Cat boat ride.

Roxie’s reliable recommendation: Explore more of the Mississippi on the Channel Cat Water Taxi. After your ride, eat at Lagomarcino’s Confectionary in Moline. Choose lodging in the map. I receive a commission at no charge to you.

10. How to enter the arsenal

The Rock Island Arsenal is an active military installation. All first-time visitors must enter through the Moline Gate on River Dr. Visitors without an approved Department of Defense identification card and are 18 years old or older must obtain a visitor pass at the Moline Gate Visitor Center. If the Moline Gate Visitor Center is closed, visitor passes are issued at the Moline gate. Foreign nationals are only allowed if on official business. Passes are valid for a year. Visitors with a pass may use the Rock Island Gate and the Davenport Gate.

Bring a valid state identification card (driver’s license) or valid American passport. All visitors must complete a favorable criminal background check at the Visitor Control Center. Minnesota, Missouri, and Washington state residents need additional documentation, like a Social Security card or vehicle registration listing your name and address. Arsenal Island security requires that bus groups require two weeks’ advance notice. Arsenal Island prohibits motor coaches from carrying luggage.

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