As the Mississippi River freezes over during the winter, hundreds of American Bald Eagles migrate south along the Mississippi Flyway. The areas around locks and dams are popular hangouts for eagles during migration since the running waters allow them to continue to dive for fish. During the height of eagle migration season, mid-January to mid-February, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Rock Island District pairs up eagle watching along Locks and Dam 15 with a tour of the historic clock tower located on Arsenal Island in Rock Island, Illinois.
Meet for the tour at the Mississippi River Visitors Center. Arrive a little early to browse the displays about the Quad Cities stretch of the Mississippi River or to view Locks and Dam 15 through windows in indoor comfort.
At the start of the tour you watch a film about the comeback of the American Bald Eagle describing how nesting pairs have increased since the late 1960s, from numbering in the tens to numbering in the thousands today. The Corps of Engineers park ranger will give you tips on how to spot an eagle versus other birds of prey.
Clock tower history
Construction on the limestone clock tower, the first building on the Rock Island Arsenal and originally used as a warehouse, was supposed to begin in 1862, but with the turmoil of the Civil War, the start of construction was delayed until 1865. When a second warehouse was built closer to the production lines, the clock tower building was scheduled to be razed. The locks and dam project happened to begin at that time, and the Corps of Engineers needed offices. The clock tower was converted to office space, and it remains offices for the Corps of Engineers Rock Island District today.
Ascending the clock tower and eagle watching
You ascend the building’s original oak staircase one floor at a time. At each landing the park ranger tells about the construction of the building and the use of that floor in the past and in present day.
From the building’s attic you enter the clock tower and ascend another flight of stairs to the level from which you view eagles, with windows on all four sides making a great vantage point. You can view eagles from the scope on site or bring your own binoculars. The colder the season, the better your chance is for viewing eagles, since they congregate around the dam’s flowing water rather than spreading out along the river. Come mid- February, the eagles will leave the area to nest in areas more wooded than Arsenal Island provides.
The final point of the tour is the clock tower’s top floor where the clock mechanism resides. You get a glimpse of the clock works, including the gears and the 32-foot, 350-pound pendulum.
Historic Clock Tower and Eagle Watch tours are conducted weekends from mid-January through mid-February. Advanced registration is encouraged. The Rock Island Arsenal is located approximately 2.75 hours west of Chicago off of Interstate 80.
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