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Sylvan Island

Kevin Danforth/ David Zemke
Professor Tweet
College Writing 101-15
16 Nov. 2000
The Sylvan Island Dream
Jumping into the water from a dam, running around through the trees, and fishing from the shore were some of the many exciting activities experienced by a young little boy on Sylvan Island during the 1930’s. Although these times were plentiful, they would soon diminish over the years. Republic steal which provided many jobs for members of the community went out of business and left no one to maintain proper care for this child’s playground. This island that once supported trails for people to walk and ride bikes, open land for family picnics, and a peaceful atmosphere for one to relax was now full of pollution and brush that made it impossible for one to enjoy. Nothing was really made of the island until the 1960’s when Professor Norm Moline from the geography department at Augustana College decided to take a class over for fieldwork. At the time the only intention was to provide labs and experimentation for the students. As the class continued, the student’s focus started to involve the island’s history and possible changes that could be made to the island in the future. What originally started out as a class project now turned out to be a starting point in returning childhood memories to many who spent time making this island their home. Many students and faculty had long and short-term ideas of what could be done to restore the island back into what it used to be. Eventually many volunteered hours of hard work would be spent restoring the island. The project would not however be completed by professor Moline and his students. It would become a starting point in which a once young boy named Jesse Perez who experienced and grew up with the beauty of the island, would take over and continue the quest in making Sylvan Island a home for many to experience the islands pleasures for years to come.

History of the Island
Sylvan Island was created in 1865 because the U.S. government needed more power in order to make a weapon store for the arsenal in Rock Island. The government and Moline Water Power Co. decided to make a dam that would provide power for the arsenal as well as the water company. The government would supply for all the expenses but the water company would supply the land needed. Plans for the dam were concluded in 1869 and stated that the dam would be connected to the mainland at 6th Street. The dam would continue along the island until it crossed the channel into Rock Island. By 1871, all creations of the dam were completed and both Moline Water and the arsenal received the power needed. Between 1941 and 1942 Mid American Energy moved the dam to the eastern part of the island. Since then, no changes have been made.
In 1894 Sylvan Island was leased to Sylvan Steel Company which would take over the island. The mill would on average produce 25,000 tons of steel every year. This amount was so high because in 1898 a 5-ton furnace was purchased, and could produce refined iron, hard and soft steel, agricultural iron, merchant bar steel, and steel shapes. There were also coal and gas-fired furnaces along with four mills ranging from eight to sixteen inches. That same year Sylvan Steel and Republic Iron and Steel Company of Chicago would merge and become Republic Steel. There would be a total of 150 employees. When the two companies joined, the manufacturing of steel would now be from used rail steel. Many different agricultural tools and supplies were now produced due to the merger. The most prosperous year came in 1931 when 38,605 tons of steel was produced. Republic Steel would be in business until 1956. Many different conclusions have been made as to why the plant shut down. If you were one of the laborers, you would probably say the reason was because the steel being produced was too thick and unable to be cut easily, so large companies such as John Deer would no longer purchase from the plant. Owners of Republic Steel said the reason for the company’s depletion is because the costs for operation increased, proper rails being produced were in decline, and the demand for steel products was weak. The company would then sell off all remaining products and move into their plant in Chicago.

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The island had more to it than just a steel company. Two bridges connected the island to the mainland. The wagon-bridge was built in 1871 after the dam was completed. This connected the island to 2nd street. All vehicles coming on the island would cross this bridge. In 1901 reconstruction was made to the bridge because it couldn’t support heavier vehicles. After the plant closed the bridge was restricted for pedestrians only and given to the city of Moline in 1975 by the U.S. army. The other bridge was the railroad-bridge. It was developed in 1867 for the in-take of raw materials and the delivery of finished supplies. Both bridges are still in existence and mainly used for visitors coming onto the island.

Other parts of the island in the 1890’s created some profit including a stone quarry and ice cutting in the winter. The quarry wasn’t very big, only maintaining 60 feet of the island, but produced Devonian limestone. This didn’t last long and eventually turned into a little lake. This would be home for many children who would swim or ice-skate, and fish for sunfish. There was no real supervision, and a couple of children were reported to have drowned so the lake was filled and kept from being used. In the winter for about twenty years after the 1890’s ice was cut from the surrounding waters of the island. The blocks were taken by the Sylvan Ice Company and put in wooden storage buildings. The ice was then sprinkled with sawdust so that it would last until spring for sale or city use. The storage buildings could store 18,000 tons of ice.

Finally there was an area of land that was designated for the use of planting gardens. The main crop grown was sugar cane. Free seeds were given in the mail and it resulted in the making of syrup, but many different vegetables were grown as well. People would plant their crops and fish from the edges of the island. This was a free meal at a time when people in many cases had no money to buy food (Thomas Greene).

Augustana Student and Faculty Involvement
Imagine being a geography teacher and you need a project for your class that can be both a learning experience as well as interesting to the students. What could be better than an unoccupied 38-acre island on the Mississippi River? Professor Moline’s introductory geography class of 21 students would travel but five minutes from their school and enter a piece of history that at the time had been forgotten. The main goals of the lab were to discover the history of the island, record and research the physical surroundings, and make plans for future preservation of the island. (Norm Moline)
Many of the students and faculty were interested in what was going to be made of the island. They didn’t want the island to be overlooked and not maintained. This was a part of nature and the past, and the members of this group felt that something had to be done. A project like this, which had no real means of financial support or organizational background, had to put many hours of hard volunteer work into the reconditioning of the island. The whole process of clearing brush, making paths, and cleaning up trash took about a year. Many of the participants were only able to work small amounts of time, but in some cases members would spend 40 hours a week on the island. The most useful students included the females. They were hard working and focused on their goal at all times (Jesse Perez). All in all, if it weren’t a team project then nothing would have been accomplished at the rate it did.

Not only did the members of Augustana help bring back a landscape to its original state, help bring back memories of the past, they also started a new movement that still continues on into present time. The project needed support and funds to continue, so many organizations were contacted and eventually helped the progression. One financial contributor included Don Moore, an author who knew Pastor Swanson from Augustana (Norm Moline). Also in memory of Thomas Wallace Rogers, close friends and family raised thousands of dollars in his honor. Thomas Rogers was a man that was happy about life and loved the outdoors and supported many different efforts to make nature pure. After his death, Rogers would eventually be recognized on a memorial at Sylvan Island. The Thomas Wallace Rogers visitor center was constructed in his honor to greet visitors as they cross the bridge to the island. There were also organizations such as the Western Hemisphere Conference on Health that helped physically. This group’s goal was to make pollutants on the island resources. They recycled all the cans and papers that were not properly disposed of. One last organization that helped recondition the island was the River Action Incorporated. Headed by Kathy Wine, their goal was to put pieces of public art on the island. Her efforts provided things such as fountains and statues to add charisma to the island.(Norm Moline)
Plans for the Future
Now that the members working on the island in the 1970’s had money and resources, they could start making new plans for the island. Many goals were brought about. The goals ranged from maintaining the island as a natural place to witness God’s creation of nature, and to add many different physical additions to the island to make it more suitable for pedestrians.

The physical additions and deductions included: pedestrians only (walking or bicycle riding), access only for city vehicles on railroad bridge, tear down the machine shed left by Republic Steel, keeping all habitats and vegetation on island unharmed during cleaning process, regulate a ?no dumping? of wastes procedure, mount trash cans throughout island, install toilets, regulate hunting, place site markers stating different features of that part of island, allow vegetation to continue growth, make a parking area at entrance on 2nd street, and increase police supervision.

All of these plans have been administered over the years and continue on into the present. The only section from the original plan still being worked on involves the toilets. In recent years new plans have been made and Sylvan Island has acquired many new additions. There are now seven trails running a total of 2.8 miles throughout the island. There are five picnic tables, seventeen benches, and a number of markers pointing out what kind of fish are near that spot of land. Two piers are designated for fisherman and anyone interested in looking out over the water. There are also two handicap access points on the island. The island is set up in points ranging from dense forest, light forest, and land where the quarry used to be. At the Thomas Rogers visitor center a description of the history and makeup of the island is presented.

There are still ideas that have not been accomplished yet. A group by the name of Sylvan Island Dreamers is in the process of making these changes. Jesse Perez, Gary Madson, and Thomas Greene, and Professor Moline are all on the committee. Current plans for the island include the purchasing of the used car lot to the southwest of the island and turn it into a green spot and more accessible parking for the public. A recreational building meant for public use and such things as boy scouts and school functions is in the early stages of development. The plans are being finalized and money will soon be getting raised for the project.
Current Physical Makeup of Sylvan Island
Since Sylvan Steel Company began its involvement on the island in 1894, the vegetation and geographical makeup of the island has changed dramatically. On the eastern half of the island, almost all of the vegetation was cut down and almost all of the soil was covered by machinery. Because almost all of the vegetation and natural habitat was lost, secondary succession started again in 1956 after the Sylvan Steel Company closed. Secondary succession is the natural process by which nature gradually works it way back into an area were it was once lost. After the closing of the plant, the vegetation of the island gradually started to come back and adapted to the new surroundings of the area. Weeds and grass started to work their ways through the cracks of the cement and machinery. Because they can survive easily in most soil and living conditions, they are known as the pioneers of secondary succession. They start the process of secondary succession by being the first sign of any vegetation and produce seeds that then spread throughout the area. As the taller grass grew, some of the surrounding plants and weeds were killed due to lack of light. As more seeds began to spread across the area, seedlings and bushes started to grow along with taller trees whose roots penetrated and broke up the foundations of the leftover steel company’s buildings and machinery. As the trees grew taller, they provided a canopy for the wildlife beneath and provided homes and an invitation for the wild habitat to come back to the eastern half of the island.

Geology and Landform
Sylvan Island is underlain by the Cedar Valley and Wapsipinicon formations of Devonian limestone. Throughout most of the island, the limestone is within six to eight inches of the surface and topsoil. The depth of each formation goes about 30 feet deep with a total thickness of sixty feet of limestone (Moline 29-30). Since limestone is such a desirable building material, it was once quarried on the island. Since the island is so high in relation to the surrounding waters (the Sylvan Slough and south channel of Mississippi), it is often not effected by floods or high water. The shoreline is often steep down below the level of the island and is often tricky to get down to. The island itself is very flat with few fluctuations in its surface (Moline 30). There are only two noticeable fluctuations on the entire island and one is the old limestone quarry that has been filled in, but still has depreciation in ground level.

Types of Soils
The heavy limestone buildup under the soil prevents the island from having mature soil. A layer of humus covers the limestone less than six to eight inches thick on the eastern side of the island, and considerably thicker getting up to two feet on the western side. (Moline 30). Vegetation differences cause the difference in thickness. The western side of the island was not as harmed by the steel company as the eastern side. Because of this the flora managed to survive through the industrialization of the island. This is evident by more mature trees and plants due to the maturity of the humus and its thickness. The thicker the humus is, the greater the chance for survival of the plants and wildlife around it. The fill area of the old limestone quarry on the eastern part of the island falls into a category of its own. The materials used to fill the quarry are slag, metallic debris, and coal. Beneath all the fill materials, two or three feet below the surface lies a layer of sandy clay that which then overlays the limestone. This clay is usually about six inches thick and varies throughout the fill (Moline 30). At the western end of the island there is another exception to the general rules about soil. Fill material of silt loam or sandy loam composition fill the river dredging at the west end (Moline 30). The materials used to fill the dredging favor the fertility and emergence of small garden plots on its surface and as a result several small garden spots have arose on its surface.

Bodies of Water
As a result of the islands high position above its surrounding waters, it is not of threat of flooding often. The western shoreline of the island is the lowest part of the island and most susceptible to flooding. As a result, the northern levee has been raised to keep the entire island virtually safe from flooding and any other damages caused by water. The western shore below the damn however cannot be protected. Floodwaters have risen to as high as 50 feet inland at high water times. Erosion around trees and deposition of river silt and shells leave heavy evidence of flooding. This part of the island is solely used for fisherman it is not greatly affected by it (Moline 31).

The island is surrounded by Sylvan Slough and the tail race. The slough is a man made channel that is straight as a line made by the army core of engineers. Both meet up with the Mississippi and run into it. Both the Slough and the tail race were in very bad shape from the 1950’s until the 1970’s. Sewage drains ran into the Mississippi and caused pollution of the waters. The quality was so bad in the 1970’s that it is highly recommended that pedestrians not swim in them any longer (Gary Madson). In the early 1930’s, the water in the slough and the water in the quarry were a playground for the kids in the surrounding neighborhood. Many of their fathers worked at the steel plant and their homes were all near by in what is now a commercial area. They often swam by the damn owned by the government that provides power for the Arsenal Island side, ignoring the warnings about the current (Jesse Perez). The kids had their own private playground to use and enjoy. As the steel plant closed and the surrounding area became covered by business, the atmosphere of the surrounding area changed. No longer were little kids around to enjoy the natural beauty of the island. They, along with their families moved away to different jobs and new areas. The current conditions of the water are the best they have been in years. No longer do sewers drain into the rivers and many laws have been passed against the pollution of bodies of water. Storm drains still however flow into the slough that can be scene as you cross the bridge (Thomas Greene). These however only empty natural run off into the water causing no harm. Because of the good conditions of the water, many fisherman speculate that this is the reason fishing has gone down. The food sources and things that lived in the water during the dirty times are no longer around for the fish to feed on and live off (Gary Madson). Once considered a prime fishing spot in the U.S. by major outdoor magazines, the current fishing around the island is down. Although many fishermen are still evident on the island throughout the day, the general consensus is that the fishing isn’t like it was back in the days of 1960’s when it was a fishing hotspot (Jesse Perez)
Fish And Wildlife
As a very important aspect of the island, the wildlife on the island provides both beautiful sights and sport for many of the Sylvan Island visitors. Many of the people that cross the bridge onto the island are fishermen looking to catch the big one. They are looking to catch one of the islands 12 different kinds of fish. The islands most famous fish are its walleye and sauger. Although the recent population of these fish is down, the two fish brought much of the early fishing attention to the island because they look for fast waters to spawn in. Fisherman came in from far away to catch Sylvan Island’s famous walleye. Perhaps the most pursued fish by fishermen currently is the white bass. It is native to the Mississippi river area. It provides a great fight for the fishermen and is also a very delicious reward. The waters contain two different kinds of catfish, the channel catfish and the flathead catfish. Both are bottom feeders that can become extremely large in size and can be caught from the shore around the island and of the bridge. The paddlefish is also another large fish in the water, but is only caught near the damn because it eats the small plants growing along the walls. The river carp-sucker is for sport anglers only because the meat is too bony to eat. They are scavengers and eat basically anything and can be caught all around the island. Perhaps the cutest fish on the island, the emerald shiner is a minnow and very abundant in the water. Although it is too small to be sought by the fishermen, it attracts bigger fish to feed on them. The gizzard shad is the most abundant fish in the water. A little larger the emerald shiner, it is the largest source of food for the bald eagles in the winter. The Bowfin is known as the best fighter in the waters, but is not sought by the fishermen due to its lack of edible meat. The freshwater drum is a member of the perch family and the most common species in the slum waters (the waters that are dirty and mucky). The Blue Sucker is a beautifully large fish that is very common in the waters but not often scene. It is known as the toughest catch and the smartest fish in the water. The island has a variety of fish that all have their own personal traits that make the waters around the island a desirable home for themselves.

The wildlife on the island is as various as the fish. The island still has very few animals that call it home permanently due many of the trees conditions and the habitat on the island. The beaver is the islands largest animal and often scene knocking down trees throughout the island building its own personal damn. Although the island is full of trees, the beavers on the island must leave every few years because the number of all edible trees had been depleted and that is their main food source. Eastern cottontail rabbits are permanent residents on the island, but however are not very common. They live in various spots on the island with no specific living areas. The beaver’s twin, the muskrat also lives on the island. Often mistaken for the beaver, it is smaller in size. The wholes dug into the banks of the island are their burrows and their homes and can be scene coming over the bridge. Squirrels are the islands most abundant animals. Eastern gray squirrels live all over the island and are often scene searching for food or putting on a show for the friendly visitors to the island.

The islands most prolific bird is the bald eagle. Not a permanent resident on the island, this great American symbol visits in the late fall and winter because of the open waters. Because of the rivers current, the water always remains open and provides as a food source for the birds. They feed on the gizzard shad as their main food source. The redtail hawk is the most common hunting bird on the island. It comes and goes year round depending on weather conditions, but never makes the island a permanent home. The wood duck nests in the trees high above the island and can best be scene in early spring before the leaves grow back on the trees. The osprey follows the opposite migration pattern of the bald eagle and comes to the island for its food sources in the early fall and spring. The island has seven types of gulls that grace it with their presence. The two most common are the ringbilled and herning. Both live off the fish on the island and the other water creatures. Perhaps the most prolific bird of the Quad Cities and present on Sylvan Island is the mallard. It is the most common bird on the island. It feeds on the surface and can be scene best on the island by the north levee. The most distinguishable bird on the island is the great blue heron. It is an extremely large bird that is often scene standing in the waters off the islands shore roosting. It provides a beautiful sight for a visitor that is an image they can never forget.

Plants, Trees and Vegetation
Sylvan Island is filled with a numerous number of beautiful plants and trees. Much of the islands vegetation is not mature because much of it started to grow back after the long process of cleaning commenced. The most abundant plant on the island is poison ivy. It prefers well-drained soil and moist areas to grow and the island is mostly covered with areas such as that. The woody mullein is most common in the sunny places on the island. Its yellow leaves make it a noticeable favorite on the islands. The soapwort is very common on the island with the most memorable name. Its leaves and stems if crushed can be made into soap thus explaining the name. The Queen Ann’s lace is a very pretty wild carrot that grows with in the sunny spots on the island also.

The island is full of an abundance of trees. Many have been cut down from the steel plant and many are making their reemergence onto the island after years of being missing in action. The black willow is most common along the river and is used by beavers most often as damns. The comno hackberry is taking over the areas on the island that were once dominated by the heavy elm population. The eastern sycamore is a giant pine tree that grows over the edges of the river and the most often tree that is lost to flooding. The eastern poplar cottonwood is the same in the aspects of the sycamore. It lives in the same areas under the same conditions. The slippery elm is taking over the areas that were once the disturbed areas on the island and don’t require that great of living conditions. The red mulberry trees are on the island in the cooler, moister conditions and look for the shade of taller trees and are an offspring of the box elder tree, another popular tree on the island. The box elder tree is the most common pioneer among trees. It often invades open land and has dominated the island since about 1960. The tree of heaven is known for its ability to resist pollution and is no surprise to the island. It is most common in industrial areas as the island once was and the surrounding area of the island is. The green ash tree is the beaver’s favorite tree to eat and chop down. It grows in the better-soiled areas on the island and has only been present on the island since 1970 on, after the soil conditions became better and cleanup was commenced. The whole islands vegetation at one time may have been the vegetation of the bur oak savama. It consists of a mixture of flowers, grasses and bur oaks all living in balance with each other. Although the island at one time may have consisted of this, due to the industrialization of it and the pollution of it, only one bur oak tree still remains on the island and it is at the northwestern side of the island next to the arsenal power damn. This is a prime example of the changes the island has gone through and how important the cleanup process has been in reviving its beauty.
Sylvan Island is a beautiful piece of nature that has gone through several changes in its 135-year existence. In visiting the island you can see and enjoy the natural beauty along with revisiting its prolific history. As you cross the bridge a transforming feeling takes over you and you feel like you are crossing into a different world. The paths provide a walkway for you to enjoy yourself and visit with the many different aspects of nature. Throughout the seasons, people are always at the park enjoying the outdoors and its many friendly creatures. Dog walking, jogging, bike riding, walking, and bird watching are all possible due to those people involved in the continuous effort to clean the Island up. It was their continuous efforts that make the island into what it is today. Visible graffiti and other sings of vandalism are evident near the visitor center because the city of Moline isn’t taking proper care of the park. They are currently in charge of the maintenance and cleanup of the island. This is the first year they have been in charge and the island isn’t seeing the proper care it should (Jesse Perez). Many of the ideas for the future will not be able to be completed unless those who enjoy the island make a big enough impression on the Moline government to get their full attention.

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