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Savanna Army Depot

officerThe Company Officer’s Quarters constructed in 1918.

The Savanna Army Depot is rich in history and was an integral cog of this nation’s military machine since its birth in 1917. Prior to the U. S. Government taking control of the property, the over 13,000 acres parcel was owned by several resident of Carroll and Jo Davies counties and was known as the Sand Prairie. 

On June 12, 1917, the U.S. Congress passed the Sundry Civil Act which appropriated $1.5 million for increasing the U.S. Army’s facilities for the proof and test of feild artillery and ammunition.

According to the act, the land purchased has been used for the purpose of farming, though on a minor scale, the soil being very sandy and non-productive, and 90 percent of the property was in poor and neglected condition.

The land acquisition was orchestrated by H.E. Curtis of Rock Island, who was authorized to pay up to $67 per acre. Over 100 residents eventual sold their property to Curtis, who then deeded to the U.S. Army.

Landowners Henry Croffot, Myron Shepard and James Albert Shephard were the first to deed their property on Feb. 21, 1918. The over 1,000 acres would become the upper and lower posts near the entrance of the depot.

The total purchase price for the 13,172 acres was $900,000, leaving $600,000 available for development and buildings.

Work officially started on the general project on May 2, 1918, by Walsh Construction Company of Davenport, Iowa, as the contractor. Among the original construction projects was the commander’s house, officer’s barracks, hospital, administration building, firing platform, ammunition buildings, heating plant, machine shop and a vehicle storage building. The Savanna Proving Grounds officially opened on Dec. 26, 1918, with Lt. Col. Charles Baxter as its first commanding officer. Proof firing of the 75 mm. Field guns and 155 mm. Howitzers began Sept. 9, 1918.

In 1919, the Savanna Proving Grounds were designated as a storage point for general supplies, ammunitions, tractors, and light tanks. This designation prompted the Army to build 40 warehouses for storage. Each warehouse was 96’ x 400’ and were built of timber frames and corrugated iron. The total cost was $918,000 and 18 of those warehouse are still standing today.

In September of 1920, the second expansion of the depot was enormous and cost over $3 million. It included threee 100-man barracks with dining facilities, 47 stand magazines, 30 high explosive magazines, a combination of field office/storehouse, and addition railroad facilities were extended from the lower post to the ammunition area.

The Savanna Proving Grounds became an independent depot in 1921, breaking away from the Rock Island Arsenal. From 1922 to 1938 only minor construction improvements were made except for a new ammunition plant in 1931.

The new plant provided proper facilities for the renovation of loaded shells and was designed to take care of immediate demands for the increasing amount of work necessary for war reserve and other stocks in longtime storage.

The number of civilian employees from 1919 to 1939 averaged between 100 and 200 depending on the availability of funds. 

With the War Department’s decision to make this depot one of the largest single establishments in the country for storage of ammunition, the construction of additional storage was necessary.

The first project authorized the construction of 194 igloos, 26 smokeless power magazines, and seven standard ammunition magazines. Work began on Aug. 28, 1938 and was completed by Jan. 3, 1941.  A new bomb loading plant was built in 1941 at a cost of $600,000.  Savanna’s bomb loading plant was selected to load the special bombs used by Gen. James Doolittle in his historic raid over Tokyo in 1942.

Another 218 igloos were completed in 1941 and another  48 standard ammunition magazines were completed by November of the same year.

Construction of a Group I Shell Loading Plant was initiated in September of 1940 and completed in September of 1941, as a cost of $1.65 million. The plant was unique in that it was the only one in the U.S. which was operated by the government using civil service employees.

The improvements at the depot at the start of World War II included 14 warehouses for storage of inert materials, generating plant, fire station and guard house, 60-car garage, new field office, new administrative building, Clipping-Belting-Link Plant, and a nitrate ammonium processing plant.

At the beginning of 1939, the civilian personnel at the depot consisted of 138 males and five females. By the end of 1942, civilian personnel increased to a total of 7,195 of which 1,327 were females.

Women were a key workforce in World War II as over 1,300 were employed at the depot.

During 1942, the Savanna Ordnance Depot loaded and shipped 8,392 carloads of ammunition and components, and received and stored 10,487 carloads.

The increase in workforce brought about two projects to help alleviate the housing problem—Craig Manor in Hanover, consisting of 47 buildings, and Blackhawk Village, located on the access road, which had 240 apartments in 45 buildings. 

By September of 1947, the civilian personnel had decreased to 913 employees but due to the Korean War, the number was over 3,000 by June of 1951. During the Korean War, the deactivated Group I Load Line was reactivated and modernized to assemble standard 90 mm ammunition. Also reactivated was the conversion of 75 mm recoilless rifle ammunition of standard 75 mm ammo.

A warehouse containing 80,000 anti-tank mines blew up at 9 p.m. on Jan. 21, 1948 at the Savanna Ordnance Depot. The explosion of 300,000 pounds of TNT as the depot blast broke 400 windows a the Hanover Woolen Mill and sent people to their phone in record numbers. Between 9 p.m. and midnight, 12,000 local calls were placed in Savanna. A normal 24-hour period back then usually saw 16,000 calls per day.

The blast was heard in Dubuque and felt in Peoria. To people thought that something in their house had either fallen or exploded. As the Savanna Times Journal explained the day after the blast was felt, “But for as loud as the bang was, the depot was curiously silent about the entire affair.” The brief news release given by Army officials 12 hours after the event read, “An igloo magazine continuing anti-tank mines was destroyed at 21:00, 21 January by a explosion of unknown origin. No casualties but considerable structural damage to other magazines. No resultant fire.”

In 1950, the Ordnance Ammunition Surveillance and Maintenance School was moved to Savanna. The school had been inactive since July of 1946 but due to the critical shortage of ammunition inspectors due to the Korean War was reopened. It offered 32 separate training course from one-week refreshers to two-year career programs.

On Aug. 1, 1962, the depot was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army Supply and Maintenance Command and it was renamed Savanna Army Depot.

At the end of 1963, there were 847 civilian and 255 military personnel employed at the depot.

The depot received a Special Weapons mission during the year of 1961 and also constructed the adequate facilities. The program, which was continued through 1975, expanded and by 1968 was one of the major functions for the depot.

During to the Vietnam War, the civilian work force was 1,270 in 1967. In November of 1967 the depot was ordered to reduce its work force to 1,042 by the end of the year and then drop to 929 by June 30, 1968.

In July of 1971, the U.S. Material Command Ammunition  Center was established as a tenant activity to the depot and in July of 1972 was remanded the U.S. Army Defense Ammunition Center and Schools. As a result of BRAC 95, USADACS was moved to McAlester, Oklahoma as part the army restructuring.

After the Army revealed revealed its Stockpile Ammunition Reduction plan in 1994 the handwriting was on the wall for the Army’s oldest depot.

In February of 1995, the Dept. of Defense announced the Savanna Army Depot would be closed under BRAC 95. Despite a fight from local citizens, the BRAC 95 commission upheld it decision to close the installation. The depot lowered its flag for the final time in March of 2000.

tran car
A railcar filled with ammunition is unloaded on the docks at the Savanna Army Depot during World War II. Nearly 11,000 train loads were either shipped or unloaded in1942.