One hundred years ago, the United States was entering the second year of World War I, and employment at the Rock Island Arsenal was nearing an all-time high.
As the nation responded to the need for war goods, 14,778 found work on the island.
At the same time, housing for production workers and their families was in short supply, not just in the Tri-Cities, as the Quad-Cities then was known, but throughout the country.
To bolster the supply, the federal government decided for the first time to create emergency defense housing.
Though no precedent existed for government-involved civilian housing, the feds determined that war production was being greatly hindered by the inability of workers to find a place to live.
The United States Housing Corporation was formally established and authorized by Congress to begin operations on June 28, 1918, and with that, the Tri-Cities was on its way to landing one of the three largest of such projects in the nation.
About 600 homes were built here, behind the Philadelphia Navy Yard, with 634 houses, and Cradock, at Norfolk, Virginia, with 655. Most, if not all, still are standing.
What to look for
Specific neighborhoods were selected in Davenport, Rock Island, Moline and East Moline, based on available land with streetcar access.
Despite its size and unprecedented nature, the nearly 100-year-old project is mostly forgotten.
People living in the homes today generally do not know the history that is contained within their walls.
Most of the information in today's Big Story comes from the exhaustive research done by James E. Jacobsen, a historic preservation consultant, based in Des Moines.
Jacobsen compiled an architectural/historical survey for the city of Davenport in 1998 and a historic preservation plan for the city of Rock Island in 2000, researching National Archives records, Quad-City area newspapers and city records, among other sources.
Despite the forgotten nature of these homes, once you know where and what to look for, they are easily recognizable.
Numerous homes with a gambrel roof line — a style often associated with barns — can be found in the area of Rock Island between 18th and 15th avenues and 39th and 41st streets. Similar homes are found in Moline on the north side of Avenue of the Cities between 19th and 27th streets.
In Davenport, in a neighborhood west of Van Buren Park and south of Telegraph Road, one finds a different distinctive design. Homes there have recessed dormers and front porches that are continuations of the main roof plane. Many are sided in stucco.
And nearly all these homes, no matter which city, have such short foundations that the basement windows were built partially or entirely into the siding of the house.
No explanation has been found to explain why the foundations don't rise higher from the ground, Jacobsen writes in Rock Island survey. "The explanation likely lies in the area of time and materials saving."
A sense of urgency; all hands on deck
The Davenport neighborhood of 172 homes is called the Black Hawk Addition and/or the McManus Tract. The homes were laid out on curved streets and given names ending in "wood," such as Linwood, Elmwood and Birchwood. And all 172 are still standing today, Jacobsen found.
Oct. 1, 1918, was the official start date for construction, and calls went out to local employers to pitch in. They were asked to bring their workers to the site, because labor was in short supply.
A sense of patriotism was widespread, and the response was tremendous.
Davenport offered up its entire 150-person street department. Spencer Furniture sent 50 employees, and Davenport High School sent its male students. The Davenport Pearl Button Co. and the Tri-City Button Co. closed operations and delivered their employees to the construction site.
Palmer College of Chiropractic brought 180 of its students, led by B.J. Palmer himself, along with much of his faculty. The "chiro" lads completed 17 basement evacuations in just a few days.
Their availability to work was aided by the fact the Spanish flu, or influenza, was raging throughout the world, and their school was closed by quarantine.
By late October, field recruiters were operating as far west as Nebraska and South Dakota, searching for workers. Farmers, finished with their harvest, were encouraged to report.
Shifts were 12 to 14 hours long, and Sundays were work days, too. To keep the workers fed, a 250-man mess hall was quickly built at what is now Van Buren Park.
The Nov. 3, 1918, edition of the Democrat and Leader proclaimed: "Never in the history of Davenport have such a large number of houses been rushed to completion, and not in a haphazard manner either ..."
Construction-site buildings included a field office, receiving office, hospital (10 feet by 20 feet), carpenter and tool house, warehouse and dining room. The latter was 31 feet wide by 144 feet long and had 16 tables measuring 25 feet in length. A 30-foot photography tower was erected to document progress.
The 8th floor of the Putnam Building was turned over to the contractor.
The total workforce numbered 800 men by Nov. 8, and construction was underway at three sites. In addition to Black Hawk, there were homes going up west of the Annie Wittenmyer Center and in an area northwest of Vander Veer Botanical Park.
No more war
And then, almost as quickly as it started, it was over.
On Nov. 11, 1918, an armistice was declared. The war had ended, and Congress decreed by mid-December that only projects that were at least 75 percent complete would be permitted to continue.
Davenport: Wound up with 172 homes in Black Hawk, but the two others sites called Park Lane and the King Tract were mostly scrapped.
We say "mostly" because, when historian Jacobsen drove through Davenport as part of his research, he found four complete houses in the Park Lane area near Vander Veer. The area is bordered by Garfield Street to the north, West Central Park Avenue on the south, Western Avenue on the west and Scott Street on the east.
Jacobsen also was "astounded" to find 12 to 14 homes in the King Tract, immediately west of Annie Wittenmyer. The area is bordered by East 32nd Street on the north, East 29th on the south, Grand Avenue to the west and Arlington Avenue to the east. The homes are clustered on 29th and Davenport streets and Arlington Avenue.
Rock Island: About 200 homes were built in three distinct neighborhoods. The biggest concentration was between 18th and 15th avenues between 32nd and 44th streets. Two smaller neighborhoods were between 18th and 15th avenues and 32nd and 33rd streets and around 44th Street.
Moline: About 110 homes were built between 23rd (now Avenue of the Cities) and 20th avenues and 19th and 27th streets. On the corners, duplexes were built at angles across the lots.
East Moline: About 111 houses were built in two neighborhoods, including one called the Highlands, which is west of 7th Street, between 21st and 25th Avenues. The other is called Deere's Tract, but it appears that the latter is not so much a specific area as a scattering of houses with access to Deere plants.