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First Mississippi bridge opened 155 years ago, ushering in new era, new jobs
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First Mississippi bridge opened 155 years ago, ushering in new era, new jobs

First Mississippi bridge opened 155 years ago, ushering in new era, new jobs

This drawing, from the Putnam Museum collections, shows the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River, which was completed in 1856. The image offers a birds-eye view of the bridge as it approaches the Iowa side of the river. On the right is the bridge superintendent's house perched on the center pier of the draw span. In the upper left is a rail yard located on land in Iowa that was donated to the railroad by Antoine LeClaire.

One hundred and fifty five years ago, the first bridge to cross the Mississippi River was completed between Rock Island and Davenport. Just 15 days later, the bridge was struck by a steamboat and burned.

The opening of the bridge (located just upstream from where the Government Bridge is today) signaled not only a shift in transportation from river to railroad, but also began to link the nation from east to west, provided a big boost to the local economy -- including the eventual creation of jobs at future local railroad yards -- and secured a historic connection between Abraham Lincoln and Rock Island.

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Construction on the controversial bridge began in 1854 and was finished April 21, 1856. In contrast to the hoopla surrounding the Grand Excursion of 1854, which marked completion of the railroad from Chicago to Rock Island, there were no parties to mark the bridge opening, Roald Tweet, a retired Augustana College professor, said in an interview on the 150th anniversary of the event.

"Before the bridge was completed, there were already boats bumping into it. Maybe they tried to keep it low-key," he said. "There was no formal ceremony, no speeches. Church bells rang out. It was lower-key than you think it would have been."

When the railroad reached Rock Island in February 1854, there was a big dinner here with 600 people to celebrate it. In June, a Grand Excursion of several steamboats ferried more than 1,200 dignitaries, politicians, journalists and business leaders, including then-U.S. President Millard Fillmore. They were taken to see the potential of the Upper Mississippi River Valley, sparked by the railroad.

On April 22, 1856, Rock Island Railroad president Henry Farnam and guests were the first to cross the new bridge. On May 6, the steamboat Effie Afton, traveling from St. Louis to St. Paul, lost control and struck one of its piers. The boat was destroyed by fire, and a portion of the bridge also burned.

The steamboat company that owned the Effie Afton filed a lawsuit against the railroad, claiming the bridge was a public nuisance. Abraham Lincoln, an attorney in Illinois at this time, was one of three defense lawyers for the railroad company.

There was speculation in the local newspapers as to whether the incident was an accident or intentional arson. The thinking was that steamboat owners wanted the bridge to burn because the railroads were taking away their customers, Mr. Tweet said.

"The minute the Effie Afton hit the bridge, all the steamboats on the river blew their whistles, as if they knew something was coming," he said. "The only reason it had an accident was one of two engines failed, and the boat twisted sideways and fell back against the bridge. It wasn't insured for fire, so it was hard to see that it was deliberate."

The bridge was built 35 feet above the water line, high enough for rafts to go under, and the swing span remained open so steamboats didn't have to wait for it to open as the Government Bridge does today.

The original swing span was 280 feet wide, so each side of the centerpost had 140 feet clearance -- far wider than any steamboat, Mr. Tweet said.

However, the boat company in 1856 charged that the bridge was a hindrance to navigation and should be torn down. In addition, steamboat interests asked the court to prohibit all future bridges on the river.

The first bridge was built here because this was the narrowest part of the river and Arsenal Island gave builders a natural footing to ease construction, Mr. Tweet said. Other communities were working feverishly at the time to build river bridges as well, including Dubuque, Galena, Clinton, Keithsburg and Quincy.

Four years before running for president, Abraham Lincoln was a well-known attorney who was taking on railroad litigation. His argument in this case didn't address the placement of the bridge but, rather, backed the rights of different forms of commerce to use the river, Mr. Tweet said.

"The steamboats argued they were on the river first, but he argued they didn't have an exclusive right to the river. The railroad had just as much right to the river as steamboats did," he said.

In his closing argument, Lincoln reportedly talked about the importance of rail to the future of America. He said, "It is growing larger and larger, building up new countries with a rapidity never before seen in the history of the world." Still, the case ended with a hung jury at Chicago circuit court.

After several appeals, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1862 in favor of the railroad.

As president, Lincoln pushed for completion of a transcontinental railroad and, when it was done in 1869, the Rock Island Line was one of the links connecting the East and West coasts.

* * *

The first Rock Island bridge was repaired and used for many years. Because of the growing number of trains that crossed it, the bridge was rebuilt in 1872. To accommodate even heavier freight loads, the current Government (or Arsenal) Bridge was completed in 1896.

The minute the 1856 bridge opened, it attracted immigrants from New York and New England eager to find work, and also became stiff economic competition to steamboats, Mr. Tweet said.

"It's always been the case that American society tends to be more competitive than cooperative," he said. "The railroad was built where Interstate 80 eventually came through. Roads, cars and truckers did to the railroad what the railroad did to steamboats."


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