History of Davenport

Davenport History

In 1836, Antoine LeClaire established Davenport, Iowa, and named the city after his good friend George Davenport. LeClaire had been stationed at nearby Fort Armstrong during the War of 1812 and Davenport had been a “sutler” or supplier to the army post during the war. In 1840, Davenport became the Scott County seat instead of nearby Rockingham after a contentious series of elections marred by claims of vote fraud and corruption. Around that time, Davenport’s population consisted largely of German immigrants who were attracted to the area by the prospect of steady jobs in the area’s grain mills, sawmills, and manufacturing facilities.

By 1856, the city’s population had swelled to 11,000 and the area’s economic prosperity was secured when the Rock Island Railroad built of the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River between Davenport and Rock Island, Illinois. Unfortunately, the operators of ferryboats and paddlewheel steamers saw the bridge as a threat to their livelihoods. Just a few weeks after the bridge was completed, a pilot at the helm of the Effie Afton crashed the ship into the bridge and the ship’s owner filed a lawsuit against the railroad claiming that the bridge was hazardous to river travel. To defend themselves in court against the charges, the Rock Island Railroad hired a little-known downstate lawyer named Abraham Lincoln. The case was appealed many times with victories by both sides until a decision by the U.S. Supreme Court allowed the bridge to remain.

During the Civil War, Davenport was selected as Iowa’s military headquarters and five camps were established inside city limits where thousands of Union soldiers were trained. The largest of which was Camp McClellan, which stood on a bluff overlooking the river and Arsenal Island. Around the turn of the century, the ground where Camp McClellan stood was bought by several of the area’s manufacturing magnates who built stately mansions with large sloping lawns that extended almost to the river. This area of Davenport is called McClellan Heights to this day and many of these homes are still standing with some of the area’s most stunning views of the Mississippi River.

In the 1920s, Davenport underwent an economic and building boom with multi-story buildings gracing Davenport’s downtown as well as the construction of theaters. Major retailers such as Montgomery Ward, J.C. Penney, and Sears and Roebuck built flagship stores in downtown Davenport and it became the Quad City area’s shopping and entertainment hub for many years.

Like many American cities, Davenport’s downtown began to struggle financially in the 70s and 80s as more of its citizens lived and shopped in the newer neighborhoods and shopping malls in its outlying areas. However, in recent years Davenport’s downtown has been revitalized with new restaurants and shops, the Figge Art Museum, a casino, and an entertainment district.