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River to industry: More power to you

By Evan Harris, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

The Arsenal switched to electrical power generated by a hydroelectric dam in 1899. Prior to using electricity, industry used the mechanical power of the river to drive machines.
The Mississippi River has long powered Quad-Cities industry.

When David B. Sears arrived in Rock Island, now Arsenal Island, in 1836, there was scarcely a building to be seen. After arriving in Rock Island it took little time for him to prove himself as an entrepreneur. In 1841, along with partners Spencer White and John W. Spencer, Mr. Sears constructed the first dam in the upper Mississippi Valley.

Patched together from logs and brush, the dam stretched from the east end of the island to the Illinois shore, spanning the Sylvan Slough. It was crude, but effective. This dam provided the power for a two-story mill, which Mr. Sears and his partners built on the island. By 1842, the mill's construction was complete, and had attracted another, independent mill.

Mr. Sears' two-story venture operated as a two-run sawmill on the first floor and a flour mill on the second. It was an immediate success, mainly due to demand Mr. Sears' met. His flour mill served settlers who previously had to journey nearly 100 miles to acquire the staple.

Expanding on his success, Mr. Sears soon built a four-run mill near his original mill, and then a mill on Benham's Island in 1845. The next year, a second dam, lining Rock Island with Benham's Island, was constructed. This dam, along with the first, were along a wagon trail between Illinois and Rock Island.

The next 10 years were a period of rapid development in Rock Island, mainly because of the power of the Mississippi. This power, harnassed by the dams, attracted many businesses. Mills and factories sprang up, and soon the area was full of developers.

Though Mr. Sears and the other developers had performed quite extensive improvements on the land, they had yet to posess titles to that land. Having constructed Fort Armstrong on the island, the government was entertaining the notion of building an arsenal there, and was reluctant to grant titles to private citizens.

Finally, in 1855, after much campaigning and correspondence with Washington, Mr. Sears was allowed to purchase 35.45 acres of land from the government. The titles he received also allowed him to remain on the island and continue using the water power from his dams following an 1864 government act to buy out the remaining private businesses from Rock Island.

As important as Mr. Sears' success in using the river's power was in itself, the attracted outside business was just as key to the development of the Quad-Cities. It was Mr. Sears, through an offer of free waterpower and the construction of a frame factory, who persuaded a business man by the name of John Deere, along with partners Robert N. Tate and John Gould, to move their plow shop to Moline in 1847.

In 1860, two men named Frederick -- Weyerhaeuser and Denkmann -- respectively, entered into a partnership and began their business with the purchase of the Mead, Smith and Marsh mill in 1860. The two men doubled production in the first year.

Soon, enormous log rafts floated down to the mills from the thick forests of Minnesota and Wisconsin. The company showed phenomenal growth, prompting some to call Mr. Weyerhaeuser "the Rockefeller of lumber." Since then, the company has grown to become the largest lumber company in the United States.

In 1866, following an appropriation of $100,000 for the acquisition of the whole of Rock Island from private citizens, the government bought out Mr. Sears' land -- mills and all.

The following year, Mr. Sears used that money to buy 500 acres, including Vandruff's Island and some land along the north shore of the Rock River. Once again, he constructed a dam and mill. Mr. Sears added to this over a span of years, constructing many mills and factories along the Rock.

Private citizens, out of necessity, were the first to utilize the river's power. But as the government's presence and interest in the Arsenal increased, it made many contributions of its own.

Beginning in 1866 and spanning the next 50 years, Congress appropriated more than $1 million to the development of water power in the Quad-Cities.

One of the first steps taken toward this goal was the government's entry into an agreement with the reluctant Moline Water Power Co. The company had come into being only a year earlier when its president, Charles Atkinson, had purchased the water power franchise of Rock Island.

Despite Congress' approval that year of $100,000 for the acquisition of water power in the area, Mr. Atkinson could be swayed only to enter into a contract, and not to sell. This contract proved to foster far more problems than solutions, as it resulted in several court battles.

On numerous occasions the Moline Water Power Co. alledged that the government failed to uphold its obligations as spelled out in the contract, allegations which the government denied. Finally, a court-imposed peace came down in 1882, putting the lawsuits to an end.

In the years between Congress' 1866 appropriation and the early part of the 20th century, at least eight major water power projects were taken on by the Arsenal, including dams, dikes and canals. These projects were mostly centered around powering the Arsenal with the nearby river. While steam power would have been the obvious choice, it was not feasible for an operation as large as the Arsenal. Consequently, an alternative power system was needed.

Before the discovery of electricity, there were four ways by which falling water's energy was converted to usable power. None of the methods were very efficient, or could be used over very large distances, but there was no alternative. Of the four choices, the Arsenal's appointed board members settled on telodynamics.

This method of energy transfer operated by way of a system of cables and pulleys which moved the water energy from the dam into the Arsenal's shops. In Rock Island, this system successfully moved the power farther than had been done anywhere in America. It functioned adequately for a number of years.

As ingenioug as the system as, in later years it proved to be severly inefficient compared to electricity. After an 1899 fire destroyed the entire cable and pulley setup, the Arsenal made the switch to electrical power.

The ability to generate electricity was crucial to the use of the river as a power source, because it eliminated proximity, which had previously been a necessity. Also, while other systems merely used the mechanical energy of the water to complete other mechanical tasks, electricity allowed the river to power all kinds of devices.

The rapidly expanding cities of Moline, Rock Island and Davenport were discovering this, and encountering the need for a citywide power system. Thomas and Samuel Davis, brothers originally from Kentucky, organized the solution.

In 1884, the brothers founded the Merchants Electric Light company at two locations, Rock Island and Moline. Combining engines and wheels to operate dynamos, they generated electricity with water power; one of the first companies to do so with such a design.

Four years later, the brothers moved their Rock Island operation into the building which had housed their Moline Water Works Company until the operation was sold to the city in 1886. From this site, the Merchants Electric Light company used water power to supply electricity to Moline and Rock Island. Later, the brothers added Arsenal Island and Davenport to their list of power recipients, and connected their two plants.

This connection of power plants was also an innovation by the Davis brothers. Next, they expanded their business, organizing the People's Power Company and buying electric and gas companies in the surrounding area. After constructing the Sears Power Plant in 1898, the Davises completed a power house, dams, water wheels and generators.

The setup, while still under construction, was sold to the J.G. White Company in 1906. On Valentine's Day 1912, the finished People's Power started, and the most complete water power system the Quad-Cities had ever seen was realized. The natural power of the river was harnessed.

Many texts were of great use in reseaching the this story, including 'An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island,' by Thomas J. Slattery; `The History of Rock Island County,' Vol. 1, Edited by Newton Bateman, LL.D. and Paul Selby, A.M.; `The Magnificent Mississippi' by Jim Arpy/John Zielinski; and `Rock Island: Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow,' edited by Bj Elsner. The Rock Island County Historical Society is also due a special thanks.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.