Part IV — When the U.S. Military left Ft. Armstrong in 1836 after twenty years of service there, and again in 1845, the government replaced the army with civilian agents or custodians to watch over the buildings remaining. And to try keeping out the “squatters” who persisted in building “shanties” or businesses assuming it was public domain.
For years the government had insisted the Rock Island was reserved for use of the U.S. government, perhaps, someday for an arsenal/armory. Notices were posted (see). It did little good because even established merchants in nearby cities moved onto the island. The waterpower of the Mississippi drew mills, the first of them built by David B. Sears whose gristmill was a large, fine necessary service.
Not all “squatters,” you see were poor or destitute. If not already well-to-do, they became so in the ensuing years because of their enterprise.
The island, 850 acres, was much endowed with natural resources like limestone on which it rested and filled with thick timbers of various trees, each then a valuable commodity.
Sears built a milldam constructed to join the island with the Illinois mainland by 1842. In 1846 Sears again built a dam that joined the Rock Island with Benham Island on its north side. These dams provided a road for wagons to cross, a convenience, with a ferry carrying traffic across to the Iowa shore.
During that decade more businesses followed to the Island ... Factories, manufactories, plants of all sorts—and often taking advantage of the timberland, not theirs, remember. But why not, thought the lumberyards that opened there, too? Railroads, too, saw a sturdy stepping stone from Illinois to Iowa with the Island’s location.
“Squatters” Claims about 1857.
Eastern and local speculators seeing into the future had sometime before realized the importance of an arsenal in the Heartland, protected by its distance from cannon fire and gunboats. And closer to the Far West, a growing market for guns and ammunition. That federal investment would be excellent for the economy and development.
David Sears built a fine farmstead complex near his mill site, further exemplifying his status and the fact that he must know something others didn’t—he’d win legal claim to the property although no one else had! The stone dam built in 1846 was further note of permanency. And there were the poorer squatters too, who were tenacious in their abilities to well, squat. They came by the dozens.
In 1847 Sears did make an important, history-changing decision by persuading John Deere and his then partners, Robert Tate, of Grand Detour where Deere had begun his plow shop, on Rock River. John Gould, an accountant at Grand Detour, had sold his interest back to Deere in 1851 for $2,600, going elsewhere to make his fortune.
David Sears clinched the deal with Deere to move his plow factory to the village of Moline because of the unfailing waterpower the Mississippi provided ... FREE for a certain period of time. FREE was the key word in Deere’s rapidly growing concern.
Meanwhile, John Gould had partnered up with his brother-in-law, Dewitt Dimock to open a woodenware factory on the Rock Island. Their factory would manufacture wooden tubs, pails, barrels, and “all kinds of turned stuff” an ad read. A major material for kitchen wares in those days.
Dimock had already been making bedsteads so their product line covered the gamut! They would be close to the lumberyards(!!) and close to a burgeoning market because till then woodenware had to be brought in from the East, a costly part of the budget. It became a lucrative market, almost an exclusive one in the Midwest at that time.
But as everything, changes rushed in when galvanizing became the “modern” way.
Dimock and Gould switched to galvanized (rust resistant zinc) pails, tubs, etc., etc. And took on the Rock Island’s newest tenant, the U.S. government’s Prison Barracks a-building in 1863. You couldn’t beat such a nearby, constant customer. After 1867 when “civilians” had to move off the Rock Island, Dimock and Gould went to Moline where they became involved in a totally new product material—the paper pail. It was a pressed product that remained popular (and light weight) for many years and outlasting the original manufacturers.
All those years in between David Sears and other of the entrepreneurs continued to contact Congress and the influential about private claim being made to the Island property they “squatted” on. But, No and No! Too many high level military and governmental big-wigs saw the importance of the Island and would not release property which might be victory or defeat of any future conflict. The U.S. would always need the waterpower, wouldn’t they? With the capture of Harper’s Ferry by John Brown in 1859, serious thought arose to move the federal armory from beside the Mason-Dixon line, the 250 mile boundary line between North and South but laid out in 1763, long before most anyone knew about the Rock Island. The railroads could make a short day of it then, so transportation was not so difficult. The railroad chapter in the Rock Island’s history was complicated and chaotic but will not now be told here. In future Involvement of the Island and railroads was a foregone conclusion and on April 22, 1856 the first locomotive to cross the Mississippi at the “narrows” then and again it was a history-changing event at the Rock.
Military occupation of the Rock Island ended in 1845 but was revived in 1863 following legislation by Congress opening it as an arsenal by building a “Storehouse,” the first construction, near the ruins of the by-then razed fortress. The storehouse wasn’t completed until 1867 but it stands yet today as the Clock Tower Building, a story in itself. It is the first permanent structure on the Island.
Just months before, the Quartermaster corps began work on the Prison Barracks. It was to contain 10,000 prisoners-of-war. It would be in the north central section of the island (marshy wetlands), rectangular in shape, twelve acres in size. Eighty-four rough wooden barracks to confine 120 prisoners each in triple bunk beds.
There would be a kitchen, stove and a forty gallon cooking kettle. The Barracks were 22 ft. x 100 ft. on the exterior in fourteen rows of six. A crude board fence 12 ft. high enclosed the entire. Every one hundred feet there was a sentinel lookout post (shaped similarly to an outhouse). Guards were sometimes men who had been wounded but who could no longer go into battle, or men too old to enlist but who wished to serve their country (one was eighty and booted out when the inspector came by).
For a time a “colored regiment” did guard duty to the dismay of the Confederate prisoners. They claimed they were shot at unnecessarily, some killed. The lookout posts were back from the fence about four feet, elevated above the platform surrounding the whole. Trenches were dug inside the fence and prisoners should not come onto them or would be shot. If they approached this “dead line!” It was the end. But there were ten who did escape, though either killed or captured within a short time.
An inspector had checked the Prison Barracks in November, 1863 and the first prisoner enrolled in December, 1863. The facility was not ready nor the correct buildings planned or executed ... Hospital, pest house, etc., etc. Those two named were vital from the beginning because a small pox epidemic ensued and not until February, 1864 were strict enough measures taken by the assistant surgeon general able to contain the awful conditions (including a sewer system).
Twenty-one sites had been selected throughout the Union for prisons and although most were fairly adequate in comparison to the Confederacy’s terrible conditions, the worst enemy the Rebels faced was the frigid northern winter. They were thinly clad and not enough blankets had arrived at first. The temperatures fell to thirty below zero and even the guards and staff complained.
The first contingent that arrived were four hundred sixty-eight Southerners captured at the Battle of Lookout Mountain (Tennessee). As they were marched across to the island, a large crowd of locals watched behind rope restraints. In a few weeks five thousand more arrived. The most in confinement were 8,594. All had trouble adjusting to the weather and wrote home about it, this found in letters saved. Writing home kept lonesomeness at bay as well as church services, carving trinkets from clam shells (sold to locals or guards), playing cards, singing and so forth. Just staying alive was the biggest challenge.
During the twenty months of the Barracks use, 1,964 prisoners died of small pox, diarrhea, or pneumonia or attendant ills. Also 171 guards died of exposure or the prevalent disease. Those were buried at the Rock Island National Cemetery, if not otherwise claimed. The Confederate soldiers were first buried near the Barracks but later moved to the present site in February, 1864. In 1906-1912 a Congressional commission was assigned the duty of marking every Civil War soldiers’ grave, the government providing the stone markers. Every Memorial Day a ceremony is held there also. The scene is a sobering one, all those “strangers in a strange land” as are the Yankees at grave sites in the South. But the Union was saved!!!
Of the 12,192 imprisoned at the Rock Island, 730 were transferred; 3,876 exchanged, 5,581 released, the last two from the hospital in July of 1865.
The Prison Barracks were turned over to the arsenal and all buildings were razed. The only reminder of the Civil War era is the cemetery, an example of the human emotion, physical trials and mental suffering that is part and parcel of the Rock Island’s myriad details.
What began as a story only about the Confederate cemetery took a wild turn and came out as a “series,” most of which was taken from a very interesting book lent to me by Mark Williams, Princeton ... An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island, both combined in one, written by Thomas Slattery. There are photos on every page, some certainly rare but well thought out and arranged. Such an impressive book. One picture was used from it. We appreciate the informative, interesting collection.