The history of the U.S. Government at Rock Island reaches back farther than 200 years and has many paradigm shifting events throughout. However, perhaps the single most important event occurred not at Rock Island, but in Washington D.C. on 12 JUL 1862. On this day, Congress established three new arsenals at Columbus, Indianapolis, and Rock Island. Thus, the birthday of the installation that we see today does not happen until almost 50 years after the first boot is on the ground.

The prospect of an arsenal at Rock Island was not a new one in 1862. In fact, one would have to go back to the days of the armory at the abandoned Fort Armstrong in 1845 to find the origins. However, perhaps the most significant recommendation for a national arsenal comes from the Quartermaster General Thomas S. Jesup in 1852. Jesup stated that Rock Island “[was] one of the most valuable in our western country” and that the confluence of rail, foot, and river traffic underscored its strategic importance.[1] Sale of the island was a hotbutton issue in the surrounding community. No fewer than three times did the site come up for auction, and each time it was removed within 24 hours of bidding.

Although by 1863, both the Quartermaster and Ordnance Corps would be present on the island, the War Department saw Rock Island as a small installation in the grander scheme of the Army’s industrial power and depot system. The 1862 establishment of the arsenal originally called for Rock Island’s purpose to be a small footprint that was “designed for deposit and repair.” The allocation for construction and furnishing was $100,000. Shortly after the land was designated a site for the arsenal, a series of inspections and surveys was carried out to determine suitability and general topography, and plan where the buildings would be constructed. However, it is the first survey by GEN C.P. Buckingham that may have stood out to the War Department the most. Buckingham reported that the island was “without a doubt, the best place for an arsenal.”[2] A board of officers selected the west end of the island to construct the arsenal’s first building, “Storehouse A” in October of 1862. However, shortly after construction began, additional surveying of not only the island, but of the Army’s industrial and strategic footprint began to sway Washington towards making Rock Island a much more ambitious project. GEN George D. Ramsey wrote to Secretary of War Edwin Stanton in February of 1864 and stated that “after careful study there is no position which […] presents so few objections as Rock Island.” Ramsey went on to describe the natural security afforded by its location, ease of transportation, and wealth of available resources.[3] The emphasis from Rock Island was slowly shifting from a small arsenal to a grand national arsenal that not only repaired, but also manufactured and supported materiel and weapons.

MAJ C.P. Kingsbury took command of the arsenal as the first commander in August of 1863. Kingsbury oversaw much of the construction of Storehouse A, but quickly moved onward in the Ordnance Department. It wasn’t until LTC Thomas J. Rodman arrives at Rock Island in July of 1865 that the vision of this grand national arsenal was formed. Rodman supervised the completion of Storehouse A with some additional modifications to its original design, making the tower larger and the clock faces bigger. He subsequently planned for a national arsenal consisting of twenty stone shops, ancillary buildings, and an officer’s row of quarters.

The first commanding officers at Rock Island suffered from no shortage of problems and issues during its construction. Poor supply of limestone from LeClaire, Iowa led to the contract being rerouted to a quarry in Joliet, Illinois. After the Chicago fire and a series of disputes with labor, the Joliet quarry also began to impose limitations of supply to the arsenal, to
the point that armed guards were sent to ensure the government received its owed materials. Ice flows on the river created difficulties for bridge maintenance and construction. In addition, fires consumed a few buildings, including the power plant near the turn of the century. Of the proposed twenty shops, thirteen were built. Twelve of these shops make up the core of Rock Island Arsenal today.

160 years later, the Rock Island Arsenal continues to contribute to the organic industrial base of the U.S. Army. It also provides materiel and personnel readiness for the Warfighter anywhere in the world, truly owing to its original mission of a “grand national arsenal.” The arsenal has stood the test of seven major wars and supported numerous operations. To borrow from many old tales of the arsenal where one asks, “how it fares”, the answer one can give confidently is that the Rock Island Arsenal is ready for another 160 years and beyond.


[1] MAJ Flagler, Daniel W. A History of the Rock Island Arsenal From Its Establishment in 1863 To December, 1876; Of the Island of Rock Island, The Site of the Arsenal, From 1804 to 1863. GPO, Washington, D.C. 1877. p36.

[2] Nothstein, Ira O. “Rock Island Arsenal, Its History and Development.” National Archives and the Works Progress Administration Project. Unpublished. 1937. p79.

[3] Flagler, 1877. p38.

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