ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. - When William Channon walked through the gates on Rock Island Arsenal on his first day of work, America was at war, and he was a one-man show.
Soldiers were engaged in heated conflict and the Arsenal was ramping up to support the needs of the U.S. Army as the battles raged on several fronts.
The casualty counts were staggering to read about in the papers and many in the communities on both sides of the Mississippi River were wondering how much longer the country could endure.
They questioned if their loved ones even return home from these far away places… called Chancellorsville, Vicksburg, and Gettysburg.
Channon, the first Army civilian employed on Rock Island Arsenal, began his long federal service career at the height of the only conflict conducted on U.S. soil. His fingerprints and craftmanship still exist today in the intricately carved woodwork in Quarters One and the Clock Tower.
While the beauty of this interior artistry has withstood the test of time and is still on display today, the enduring legacy he left the Arsenal is intangible and untouchable: the lineage of his family’s service to the island, and to our nation.
We know about Channon’s employment and contributions to the Arsenal, thanks to the historic and genealogical work of his great-great grandson, Michael Davis. Davis has conducted exhaustive research over the years to document his family’s five-generation employment streak with RIA.
From carpenters, to fire captains, to methods and standards specialists, the Channon-Davis family has a storied history of federal civilian service and is a shining example of the long-standing symbiotic relationship the Arsenal and Quad Cities residents have shared for more than 160 years.
Channon, an English immigrant, arrived with his wife to Davenport, Iowa in 1857, where he worked as a builder. About six years later, he accepted a job on the Arsenal, making him the OG (Original “Govvie”) on the island.
The projects he worked included construction of key troop support buildings such as the barracks, hospital and prison. He and his wife, Charity, lived for years on the Arsenal in General Winfield Scott’s former cottage. Scott was a famed Soldier who had negotiated the end of the Blackhawk War and had resided in the cottage (also his headquarters) during his time in the area. They eventually settled in Rock Island, Illinois, in 1873, and Channon was killed in a buggy accident in 1886. That wasn’t the end for the Channon family’s service to the island – it was just the beginning of the family’s story with RIA.
The next chapter opens with Channon’s son, John, taking the helm as the superintendent heading up new construction initiatives in the Arsenal’s next ramp up for military engagement - this time the Spanish-American War. A Civil War veteran himself, he had worked alongside his father on the Arsenal following his return from serving in uniform and was a natural successor to the position.
A new war saw a new face of federal employment from this family as Lee Roy Davis, Channon’s grandson, served as the Arsenal’s liaison officer in Washington, D.C. during World War I.
The next generation saw World War II welcome another grandson, Ben Channon, though the gates of RIA where he worked in the shops during that era, as well as the Korean War. Also in that family generation was Channon Lee Davis, an equipment specialist for what was then called Weapons Command. He arrived to work in 1962 and left in 1978, with the Vietnam War on his watch for the Channon-Davis family federal service “shift.”
Which brings us to Generation #5: Michael Lee Davis, who will be at the Rock Island Arsenal Museum Grand Re-Opening on June 29, something he has come all the way back from Texas to be a part of, proudly representing a direct line of his family’s connection to RIA since his great-great grandfather arrived that first day in 1857.
Davis followed in the family business in 1965 and worked alongside his father during the Vietnam years, and continued through the Persian Gulf War. He worked in a variety of areas including research and development, was drafted and served a stint in unform for Uncle Sam and returned as an engineering technician.
He says he has been in pretty much every nook and cranny of RIA and can dispel the urban legend of the secret tunnel running from the Arsenal to Davenport under the Mississippi River. He retired in 2003 as a federal employee, but the Arsenal was in his blood and came back as a contractor from 2005-2013.
Now fully retired and enjoying life with Ruth Ann, his bride of 43 years, Davis is back in the Quad Cities for a visit and excited to see the museum reopen, particularly with the new focus of the many exhibits highlighting the contributions of the residents of the Quad Cities as members of the Arsenal’s workforce.
“A lot of people wonder what goes on over here on the island,” he said. “Well, what goes on here is a lot of people not just working for the nation but working for the community. These are fathers, sons, aunts, uncles and grandfathers working as an integral part of the nation and the community.”
And that is the story Patrick Allie, Rock Island Arsenal Museum director, has spent more than two years and $2 million curating: the story of the Arsenal and its workforce, and its contributions to our nation’s history and the global impact the residents of the Quad Cities have had on world affairs…from a small island located smack dab in the middle of the Mississippi River.
When asked how he feels looking around the Arsenal and running his hands along bookcases his ancestor carved, and what it means to the generations of not only his family, but all of the families who have worked on the Arsenal over the last 160 years, he reflects on the legends of Mexico, not far from his new home.
“In Texas, the Mexican people go down to the graveyards and take flowers and have picnics,” he said. “Because they say when you forget, that’s another death. And that’s something I also believe. You have to carry this on and remember who they were and what they did. I know that when they did some work in Quarters One in the sitting room, they pulled off a panel and his name was penciled on the back. He was here.
“They were all here and, when you are here walking on the Arsenal, you can hear them call out to you.”
Editor’s Note: This is part of a series reflecting on the experiences of people with ties to the grand reopening of the Rock Island Arsenal Museum on July 29, 2023. This is Part Two – The Legacy. William Channon was the first Army civilian employed by the Arsenal in 1863 and this story highlights five direct generations of descendants and their federal service on Rock Island Arsenal.