By Jonathan Turner, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer
MOLINE -- The Mississippi River and its location along it made Moline. Just over 150 years after its founding, the city works to pay homage to that past as a way to brighten its future.
"Transportation by river was something people were looking for," Barb Sandberg, chairman of the Moline Historic Preservation Commission, said of the city origins. "It was easier than hauling over dirt roads. It was not necessarily for the aesthetics, as we look at it today -- the entertainment, the beauty."
In 1838 -- 10 years before Moline officially incorporated as a town -- David B. Sears and others started building a brush dam near the present 15th Street.
The dam helped power a sawmill, flour mill, machine shop and foundry -- all built by Sears. It also furnished power for a small furniture factory and helped attract blacksmith John Deere, who established a plow factory on the banks of the Mississippi in 1847.
Sears then built a second dam from the current Arsenal Island to the small Benham's Island. On the north end of this dam, he built another sawmill, a planing mill, a shingle factory and furniture works.
"You had a cheap source of power and coal, and that's the essence for everything you need for manufacturing," local historian Kathleen Seusy said. "That's what built the place."
Augustana College professor Roald Tweet has said that Deere "could not have chosen a better location on the map of the United States" than Moline. The Vermont-born Deere moved here from Grand Detour, Ill.
In the 1840s, there were almost no roads or railroads, so the only way of transporting things was by water. The Mississippi River was the main artery for national water transportation, able to connect to 42 of the 48 contiguous states, Mr. Tweet said.
One reason the railroad came to Moline in 1854 was that this is the narrowest part of the Mississippi between Minneapolis and New Orleans. In 1856, the railroad crossed the river and headed West.
Moline was ideally situated on the river also because this east-west segment is the youngest of the entire river, Mr. Tweet said. With Arsenal Island, it created a small channel, Sylvan Slough, which was useful for power.
In 1852, Moline already had 172 structures -- in what today is the downtown area -- including residences, schools and churches.
After the Civil War, a 20-foot high, half-mile long lateral wall was built on the Moline shore, creating 56 sources of power. The Arsenal and city were run by what was called "The Great Wall of Moline."
In addition to raw materials like abundant coal, Moline benefited from a large supply of available workers, which attracted people like Deere, Mr. Tweet said.
"So the farm equipment manufacturers clustered together for power and ambience," he said. "Many of these immigrants were New Englanders. They were Yankees with a strong Protestant work ethic, which Deere shared with them."
Deere and other farm-implement manufacturers helped give Moline an international reputation as an agricultural center and the nickname "Plow City." Moline in the 19th century was also a bustling industrial center, with businesses such as Moline Wagon Company, Williams & White, and Dimock, Gould & Company.
However, as the years passed, the mighty river's role in the city's history was taken for granted until the 1980s, when Moline began capitalizing on that history and scenic location. First came the develpment of Ben Butterworth Parkway along the river.
Now the site on River Drive where Deere had his original factory, now called John Deere Commons, again is in the spotlight, this time as a recreation and tourist center.
Many Deere & Co. buildings were demolished to make room for The Mark of the Quad Cities, Radisson Hotel, John Deere Pavilion, Deere office/retail complex and Centre Station.
"We wanted to save the history and tell the history at the same time," Renew Moline executive director Jay Preszler said of the Commons. The thrust behind the recent development was to honor Moline's heritage and ensure the prosperity of The Mark, which opened in 1993.
The city's oldest remaining commercial buildings are in the 400 and 500 blocks of 12th and 13th streets. The Birdsell Chiropractic building at 1201 and 1209 5th Ave. dates from 1845 and was a grocery store until the 1920s.
Some of the historic buildings that have been restored include Model Printers (1872), Finney's Bar & Grill (1884), Renew Moline (1885), Killir Outdoor Sports (1889), Gatsby's (1896), Sydney's (1897), Moline Club (1912), LeClaire Apartments (1922), C'est Michele (1922), and Bent River Brewing Company (1922).
Perhaps the oldest continuously operated downtown business is Lagomarcino's, which has occupied a 1902 building on 5th Avenue since 1918.