History of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers was created by Congress in 1779. At that time, the Corps was mainly concerned with building fortifications. In the decades to follow, the Corps of Engineers evolved and took on new roles that included not only military construction but also nationwide water resource development and management, more commonly known as its civil works mission.

The Rock Island District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is a civil works District tracing its roots to a Congressional Act in 1866 appropriating funds for the first sustained attempt to improve navigation on the Upper Mississippi River. Although the term “District” does not become part of the Corps’ lexicon until 1908, the arrival of Lt. Col. James H. Wilson at Keokuk, Iowa, in August 1866 is an appropriate birth date for the Rock Island District. Colonel Wilson is considered the first District Engineer as it was his responsibility to begin the improvement work on the Upper Mississippi River.

Over the years, the boundaries and missions of the District have changed and expanded. The Rock Island office had been created as a sub office in 1869 with the headquarters for operations within the District still remaining in Keokuk. But, at the time, the idea of a “District” had still not been formulated.

The start of construction on the 4½-foot navigation channel on the Mississippi River in the late 1880s gave way to the idea of the area between St. Paul and St. Louis as a “District.” In 1892, headquarters operations were moved from Keokuk to the Rock Island Office and soon after the area between St. Paul and St. Louis would come to be known as the Rock Island District. 

The construction of the 4½-foot navigation channel led to the authorization of the 6-foot channel in 1907 which subsequently led to the authorization of the 9-foot channel in the 1930s. All of this work gradually grew the boundaries of the Rock Island District. Couple the navigation work on the Mississippi River with that on the Illinois Waterway, and the civil works mission along both rivers and their tributaries such as the Des Moines and Iowa rivers, and the modern Rock Island District is revealed.

The headquarters of the Rock Island District is housed in the historic Clock Tower Building on Arsenal Island. One of the Quad Cities most notable landmarks, the Clock Tower has been home to the Rock Island District since it moved into the building from downtown Rock Island in 1932. The move was made primarily to oversee the construction of Locks and Dam 15, which was the first project authorized on the nine-foot channel. The Clock Tower building, which had been an Army materiel storage facility, was the first building constructed on Arsenal Island and has been a fitting home to this historic engineering District.

Today’s Rock Island District covers more than 73,000 square miles in Iowa, Illinois, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Missouri. The District has responsibility for 314 miles of the Mississippi River and 268 miles of the Illinois Waterway and the smaller tributaries that flow into each. More than 900 people work within the District at its headquarters building and 27 field operating sites.

The 9-foot navigation channel constructed in the 1930s is still operated and maintained by the District today. On top of the navigation mission, the District also focuses on flood risk management, environmental stewardship, emergency response, recreation, regulatory functions, and many other civil works areas.

For more than 150 years, the Rock Island District has proudly provided civil works programs to the Midwest and the nation. It stands ready to deliver vital engineering and water resource solutions in collaboration with our partners to secure our Nation, reduce disaster risk and enhance quality of life, providing value to the region and Nation.

Video by Frances Candelaria
Army SOH Star Ceremony - USACE Rock Island District
U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Rock Island District
June 29, 2023 | 3:27
The USACE Rock Island District was awarded the U.S. Army's Safety and Occupational Health Star Award during a ceremony held June 29, 2023, at the District Headquarters at the Rock Island Arsenal. This achievement marks the culmination of several years of process development and mentorship which has integrated safety into the culture of the organization and provided a method for continuous improvement.