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Learning the history of the Rock Island Arsenal

Published: Wednesday, April 25, 2012 10:50 a.m. CDT

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ROCK ISLAND — The Rock Island Arsenal Museum was established on July 4, 1905, and is the second oldest Army Museum in the United States. The West Point Museum was opened in 1857 and is the oldest Army Museum.

There were three unrelated, important events that led to the founding of this museum. First, on Oct. 1, 1903, Chief of Ordnance Major Gen. William Crozier notified Rock Island Arsenal that 15 boxes of ordnance materiel would shortly be arriving “for the purpose of preserving it in a Military Museum to be established at the Rock Island Arsenal.” The boxes included a large accumulation of weapons and accouterments from foreign countries that had been forwarded over the years through U.S. Embassies to the Office of the Chief of Ordnance for study.  

Second, a small arms plant for manufacturing the Model 1903 rifle was established at Rock Island Arsenal in 1904. In order to make room for the manufacturing plant, the weapons and obsolete materiel that had been warehoused at Rock Island Arsenal were sold at auction in the East. Before this materiel was shipped, two examples of each gun were selected and retained for the museum.

Third, the U.S. government had a display at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition (St. Louis World’s Fair) in 1904. At the conclusion of this event, portions of the government display were transported to the Rock Island Arsenal for the new museum. Included in this shipment were weapons confiscated during the Philippine Insurrection and taxidermic horse specimens, which are still part of the collection today.

In 1962, all Army Museums were placed under the authority of the U.S. Army Center of Military History. To coincide with developments in museum professional standards, each museum was acknowledged as a unique organization with an approved mission. The primary mission of the museum at Rock Island Arsenal was the history of Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island. Its secondary mission was the history of small arms development.

Today, the Rock Island Arsenal Museum has exhibits that reflect Rock Island Arsenal’s unique history. Rock Island Arsenal was established by Act of Congress in 1862. The arsenal has been an active manufacturer of military equipment and ordnance since the 1880s. Its diverse products have included leather horse equipment, meat cans and canteens, paper targets, artillery recoil mechanisms and carriages, and the Model 1903 rifle.

Early island history is portrayed with scale models of Fort Armstrong and the Col. George Davenport house. One exhibit features photographs, documents and a violin from the Rock Island Prison barracks, one of 21 Union prison camps for Confederate prisoners of war. Arsenal Island was home to a Confederate prison camp, the Rock Island Prison barracks. The camp was operational from December 1863 to July 1865. 

“Meet the People of Rock Island Arsenal” is an exhibit that focuses on the diversity of employees at Rock Island Arsenal and uses photographs, documents and artifacts to illustrate the story of individual employees. Examples of Rock Island Arsenal products are on exhibit and include artillery, leather equipment, mess equipment, a paracrate, machine guns and the Model 1903 rifle.

The museum has a significant small arms collection that includes rare examples. There is serial No. 1 of the Model 1903 rifle and serial No. 2 of the M1 Garand rifle. There are five weapons that have been positively identified as Sioux or Cheyenne-owned weapons used at the Battle of the Little Bighorn. There is one of five Rappahannock Forge wall guns known to exist, serial No. 1 of the basic issue M9 pistol and of the General Officers M9 pistol, as well as examples of the eight XM9 test candidates. 

The Rock Island Arsenal Museum is open Tuesday through Saturday, noon to 4 p.m. Visitors are recommended to use the Moline entrance to the island. Visitor entry requirements include a current photo ID, such as a driver’s license, for everyone age 16 or older. Foreign visitors must register one week ahead by calling 309-782-2686.

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