The City of Rock Island (population approximately 40,000) began as a small Illinois settlement and trading post along the Mississippi River, near a fort built after the War of 1812 on what is now Arsenal Island.
The nearby area originally served as the center of the Sauk Indian nation, and from 1740 to 1820 one of the largest Indian villages in North America, Saukenuk, was located near the confluence of the Rock and Mississippi Rivers. The westernmost battle of the Revolutionary War was fought there between Americans and the Sauk, who were British allies. In 1832, during the Black Hawk War, the Sauk resistance to American settlement was ended.
During the Civil War construction on an arsenal began, but was not completed, on Arsenal Island in the Mississippi to take advantage of the tremendous water power of the Rock Island rapids. During the war, the island was used as a prisoner-of-war camp for Confederate prisoners. The government's Rock Island Arsenal began operating in the 1870s, and has remained in operation as an active source of military ordnance and equipment.
In addition to the historic buildings of the government-owned arsenal, whose original buildings make up a National Historic Landmark district, Rock Island boasts three major commercial and residential historic districts, as well as numerous historic neighborhoods and additions.
In August 2000, the Rock Island Preservation Commission adopted the "Tourism Involvement Plan for Historic Preservation and Historic Neighborhoods in Rock Island."
City staff and volunteers also created a John Looney Legend Trolley Tour for Rock Island Summerfest, and eventually a companion guide, highlighting the haunts of the 1920s gangster. Looney was the inspiration for the fictional character featured in a series of graphic novels and played by Paul Newman in the film, "The Road to Perdition."
The city and the non-profit Rock Island Preservation Society sponsor numerous walking and driving tours, and the Broadway Historic District Association has received national attention for its "Great Unveiling" annual program to remove artificial siding from historic homes. More than 40 homes have benefited from the "unveiling" process. Rock Island is a Certified Local Government and an Illinois Main Street Community.
Designated a Preserve America Community in March 2004.