Rock Island History

Since 1835

The great Sauk warrior Black Hawk lived here when the U.S. Army secured the upper Mississippi for white settlers. Ft. Armstrong, built on what is now Rock Island, served as both a trading post and military installation, attracting more white settlers and eventually leading to the fall of Black Hawk and migration west by the Sauk and Fox Indian nations. Growth of the Ft. Armstrong post came about due to its strategic location in a shallow area of the Mississippi River, which eased access for riverboats. Within a few years, the small town across from the trading post became a thriving and growing frontier river town of several hundred families. The original City plat was filed on July 10, 1835, and was named Stephenson. It was renamed Rock Island in 1841.

Advancement of Railway & Industry

Rock Island's economy prospered after 1856 when the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad built the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi. The railway brought industry to Rock Island: lumbering, pottery, and the manufacture of farm implements and railroad supplies, among others.

Establishment of Augustana College in the Area

River towns of the mid-19th century were known to be raucous, often unrefined and even downright rough-and-tumble communities. Rock Island was no exception. Augustana College moved to Rock Island in 1875, further expanding the influence of Swedish immigrants in the community. As the years have passed, Augustana College has grown from one all-purpose brick structure to an extensive campus of beautiful buildings, where about 2,500 students walk the hallowed halls each year. Other ethnic and cultural migrations to Rock Island have included Germans, Irish, Jews, and African-Americans, who all settled in distinct neighborhoods.

Actions of the Citizen's Improvement Association

Nineteenth century prosperity brought about active business and civic associations, including the Citizen’s Improvement Association. This group of some 100 influential businessmen began to exert pressure on the City Council to pave roads and sidewalks, demolish undesirable buildings, and enhance the appearance of the City. Their successes led to the brick paving of city streets and the hiring of the City’s first park commissioner. The beautiful community parks are still a source of pride in Rock Island. The extension of the trolley car lines to the bluff top opened up huge tracts of land for development in early 20th-century Rock Island.

About John Patrick Looney's Influence on the Area

Joining the bluff-top development in a famous stone mansion on 20th Street was a crooked lawyer named John Patrick Looney, who used bribery, extortion, and violence to manage gambling, prostitution, and illegal liquor in the Tri-Cities. One of Looney’s strongest weapons was his newspaper, the Rock Island News, which was actually a scandal sheet used to attack many prominent citizens and politicians. Looney’s two decades of crime had a bloody ending in 1922 when Looney’s 24-year-old son, Connor, was killed in a street shoot-out. At least eight violent deaths that year were linked to Looney and his gang.

Activities During the World War Efforts

Rock Island citizens were soon concentrating on the war effort, which had significant impact locally. Like in World War I, workers converged here for employment on Arsenal Island and for other war-effort manufacturers. While most communities across the country saw housing construction halt during the major wars, Rock Island continued to grow rapidly, receiving special permission from the government to build housing to stem the local shortage. Rock Island is unique in that it has hundreds of homes that were built in 1918 and again from 1942-44.

Industries and families adjusted as GIs returned. Labor unrest was a common occurrence, with long labor strikes at the J.I. Case and Farmall plants in 1945. By September of 1950, 14,000 workers in the Quad Cities were on strike at the same time and labor organizations were competing for control of industries and workers. Tensions calmed by the mid-1950s, when the AFL and CIO merged and collective bargaining began.

Post-War Culture Establishment

The prosperous late 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s saw the creation of a number of institutions that are still going strong in Rock Island. Don Wooten founded the Genesius Guild in 1956, and free classical summer theater continues in Lincoln Park. The consequences of the 1965 flood, where the Mississippi River was above flood stage for nearly a full month and crested at an unbelievable 22.48 feet, resulted in the construction of the levee from 1970 to 1973. The levee forever changed the appearance of Rock Island’s downtown; buildings were protected but access to the river was limited until the Schwiebert Riverfront Park reestablished this connection in 2010.

Urban Blight & Unemployment

During this period, Rock Island experienced consequences of urban blight. As the oldest of the Quad Cities, Rock Island also had aged housing stock. Combine this with a large minority population that was finding it difficult to get good jobs, and the stage was set for disinvestment in neighborhoods. Rock Island looked to federal relief for these problems, including the construction of public housing, urban renewal, and the Model Cities program, but none achieved the security and success necessary.

The deep, national economic recession of the 1980s further compounded neighborhood and business disinvestment. Lack of industrial diversity resulted in massive job losses as the farm implement manufacturers closed. Rock Island’s population went from a high of 51,863 in 1960 to 39,684 by 2000.

The Annexation of Southwest Rock Island

In 1959, Rock Island’s City Council directed planners to jump the Rock River and annex a tract of land in Rock Island County next to Milan. This bold move has proven prosperous for Rock Island, as it is the only expansion area left to the City. This area, now known as Southwest Rock Island, saw substantial housing construction in the 1970s, followed by increased industrial and warehouse development in the 1990s.

The Rock Island Arts and Entertainment District was established in the 1990s, followed by the reemergence of residential living in downtown. Tens of thousands of people converge on the Great River Plaza for numerous cultural festivals and great food each summer.

Additional Information

For more Rock Island history, download this 40-page booklet: Rock Island History: A Companion to the Architectural Walking Tours.

Official records of the City of Rock Island from September 1845 to May 1852

These are the official minutes of the City Council of Rock Island, Illinois, for its meetings from September 1845, through May 1852.

The Rock Island (Illinois) Public Library is proud to make these digital copies of historic documents and records available, using this online venue, for the interest of the general public and the use of historians and scholars. The original copies of these documents are currently kept in the downtown/Main branch of the library in its Illinois Room archive.