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The Mississippi (Indian name - "missisipi," meaning, great water), was formed through the action of six great glaciers over thousands of years. Before the ice age, the river channel ran through Central Iowa where it met the present channel south of Muscatine, Iowa. The Rock Island Rapids proved to be a geographical formation of great significance to the settlement of the Quad City area. The rapids occupied 14 miles of the Mississippi River. Before attempts at control, the rapids provided a major obstacle to river traffic on the Upper Mississippi. So treacherous were the rapids that a special occupation - "rapids pilot" - was created. This individual would have a thorough knowledge of the currents and formations and would be taken on board before the boat entered the rapids.
Settlements grew at the head and foot of the rapids as a result of the need for a place to dock steamboats before the rapids, and as a location for warehouses to store goods awaiting passage. These settlements eventually emerged into the Quad Cities.
Centuries ago, the Sauk formed a village called Saukenuk where the Rock River empties into the Mississippi. It became the largest Indian Settlement in North America, with an estimated population of 6,000 to 7,000 people. The Fox tribe settled near Saukenuk and created their own villages along the Mississippi, including one that would later become the downtown Rock Island area of the Quad Cities.
One member of the Sauk tribe, Black Hawk, had great animosity towards Americans that carried over from the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812. During this period, he led a band of British allies and launched attacks on a variety of American strongholds. He and his band overturned Major Zachary Taylor's plans to overtake Saukenuk and develop a fort in the area.
There was good reason for Black Hawk's hostility toward the Americans. In the previous years, his once great nation had been squeezed into smaller and smaller portions of the once grand land. He watched and protested as settlers took over not only his fields, but his home as well. He lodged formal complaints with the white man's government, only to be ignored.
That determination is what eventually led to Black Hawk being the only man in U.S. history to have a war named after him - The Black Hawk War. Although he met with little success, on April 6, 1832, Black Hawk and some 1,000 followers - men, women, and children - set out to make war on the frontier settlements. On May 9, 1832, an army of 2,000 soldiers and mounted troops began to track the Indians up the river. Aside from scattered violence against settlers and three "skirmishes" there was no war at all.
Black Hawk was captured and taken on a tour of eastern cities, including Washington, D.C., where President Jackson impressed him with the extent and power of the United States. In the Treaty of September 21, 1832, the Sauk and Fox ceded all their land in Illinois. In addition, they ceded a fifty-mile deep strip of land on the west bank of the Mississippi. This tract of six million acres came to be known as the Black Hawk Purchase. Black Hawk spent a year as a prisoner. Upon his release, he lived with his wife and children along the Iowa River, and then the Des Moines River. He died on October 3, 1838.
From beginnings rooted in the protection of fur traders to its current role as a modern military installation, Arsenal Island has been an important part of the growth of the Quad Cities. Arsenal Island was originally purchased by the U.S. Government in 1804 as a part of a treaty with the Sauk and Fox Indians. The Island is approximately 3 miles long by 3/4 of a mile wide, with an area of 946 acres. In 1817, Fort Armstrong was built on the western end of the island. The original fort remained active until 1836, after the defeat of Black Hawk and his followers in the Black Hawk War.
After the Black Hawk War, a civilian custodian from the War Department managed the island until 1862, when the United States Congress passed legislation establishing a U.S. Army Arsenal on the island. It wasn't until after the start of the American Civil War that construction began on the limestone buildings that are a major part of the island. The limestone is native to the Quad City area.
During the Civil War, over 12,000 Confederate prisoners were housed on the island. A confederate cemetery is open for visitation.
During World War I, Rock Island Arsenal was expanded with the construction of several new manufacturing buildings. All ten original factory buildings, plus the new ones, were operated at full capacity to manufacture artillery carriages and recoil mechanisms, rifles, and a vast array of personal items. With World War II came the greatest weapons buildup in history. With over 18,000 employees, the Rock Island Arsenal began building tanks, artillery, rifles, machine guns, spare parts, etc.
During the Korean Conflict and the Vietnam War, the Arsenal saw major changes. The establishment of a major command created a situation where the Arsenal was now a landlord for tenant activities being established there. Many of the manufacturing buildings were consolidated into a centralized location.
The influx of immigrants into the Quad Cities during the 1800's provided the area with a rich ethnic tradition. German immigrants were so dominant that they established their own school, newspapers, and became a powerful economic and political force. German settlers even maintained their own community, making their homes west of the downtown Davenport business district. Belgians and Swedes were attracted to the area by the opening of John Deere's new plow factory in Moline, Illinois in 1848. Indeed, prior to World War II, the Moline Belgium community was the largest in North America. Other groups who settled in the area included the Irish, French, Greeks, Armenians, English, Welsh, and Mexicans.
For some towns, such as LeClaire, Iowa, the economy was directly tied to the functions of the steamboat industry. In LeClaire's case, many of its residents were captains, pilots, engineers, and clerks in the river trade. It was at LeClaire where the "rapids pilot" was generally stationed to be taken on to navigate the Rock Island Rapids.
The lumber industry was another of the area's prominent businesses in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1860, two German immigrants, Frederick Weyerhaeuser and F.C.A. Denkmann, bought a floundering lumber mill and expanded it to include mills in Rock Island and Moline. In 1854, the business had an employee roster of 2,000 men and produced 213,629,000 board feet per year. The partnership dissolved in 1902. Even though the lumber industry moved west, closing the mills, the company owned firms remained in the area until 1970.
One of the earlier entrepreneurs of the area was John Deere. In 1848, John Deere opened a factory in Moline, Illinois, to produce the first steel plow. Today, Deere and Company operates not only as a major local employer, but as a international corporation specializing in the production of agricultural implements. The manufacture of agricultural implements was a major business in the area, especially in Moline. At the turn of the century, Moline was the undisputed agricultural center of the Midwest, if not the world.
The coming of the railroad to the area in 1854 served not only as a boon to settlement, but perhaps made the greatest impact on its commercial growth. In 1876, three major railroads served the area, including the famous Rock Island Lines.
Three bridges span the Mississippi for rail traffic. In 1856, the first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi was built between Rock Island and Davenport. Later in the century two more bridges were constructed; The Government Bridge in 1872 and the Crescent Bridge in 1899.
There was intense rivalry between the railroad and steamboat companies. Several attempts were made by the steamboat companies to destroy railroad bridges by ramming them with boats. In one such case, young Abraham Lincoln came to Rock Island to represent the railroad against the steamboat company in court.