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Swords into Plowshares

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

Visitors who come to the Rock Island Arsenal with preconceived notions of stark, purely functional military architecture are surprised to find a good deal of attention to aesthetics.

The overall plan of the imposing, Italianate buildings of the Arsenal we owe to General Thomas J. Rodman, the second Commandment, but the ornaments which adorn these buildings—the fluted columns, the door knobs, fencing, hinges, and locks—we owe to the third Commandment, Lieutenant Colonel Daniel W. Flagler. In the early 1870's, Colonel Flagler became one of the few military officers on record who have beaten swords into plowshares.

Here's how that happened. Colonel Flagler was assigned to the Arsenal in 1871 following the death of General Rodman in order to complete the buildings Rodman had designed, but which were already over budget and behind schedule because of erratic delivery by contractors.

Looking around the Arsenal grounds at the huge piles of war material—horseshoes, cannonballs, gun tubes, and pieces of broken equipment, much of it confiscated from the Confederates—Colonel Flagler saw in this scrap metal a way of bypassing the contractors, speeding construction and cutting costs. He received permission from the Chief of Ordnance to smelt the material on the spot for use by Arsenal blacksmiths.

From these weapons of war, then, came iron pipes for sewer mains, roof trusses, fancy cast iron fences, iron railings and stairways, sashweights, and fluted iron support columns in the shops. An oak leaf cluster fence with American eagles atop each post was cast and erected at the National Cemetery on the island.

Brass smelted from old artillery shells was turned into handsome hinges, locks, pulleys, and bronze doorknobs by the hundreds.

Colonel Flagler went on to become Chief of Ordnance during the Spanish American War in 1898, and so lived long enough to watch the Rock Island Arsenal reverse itself, turning plowshares into swords, a more familiar trade for Colonels.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by Augustana College, Rock Island, Illinois.