My Present Past
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Rock Island Bridge
The 21st day of April, 1856, can be set down as the beginning of a new era in the history of Davenport, as on
that day the first locomotive crossed the great bridge which spans the Mississippi river at this point. The
event occurred at dusk in the evening, very few persons being eye witnesses, the company, with their
proverbial silence in regard to their operations, having kept everything quiet in relation to the matter. Slowly
the locomotive “Des Moines” proceeded on the bridge, very cautiously crossed the draw, and then with
accelerated speed rushed on to the Iowa shore where it was welcomed by the huzzas of those who had there
assembled to witness the event.

The last link is now forged in the chain that connects Iowa and the great west with the states of the Atlantic
seaboard. The iron hand that will span our hemisphere has been welded at Davenport; one mighty barrier has
been overcome; the Missouri is yet to be crossed and then the locomotive will speed onward to the Pacific.

Who can conjecture the effect of the completion of the road upon the city of Davenport! As it progresses,
business must continue to augment and when at last a communication is effected with the distant and wealthy
state of California, how vastly must that business increase. There is a future for Iowa that promises to make
her the brightest star in the galaxy of states. Her extent of territory, fertility of soil, everything warrants
this conclusion, and commensurate with her progress must be the advance of Davenport.

Davenport Gazette  April 24, 1856
Total cost of bridge:

Type of bridge:

Draw span:

Total length of bridge:

Wrought iron used:

Sylvan or Slough

285 feet in length

1,581 feet

400,00 pounds
7 Piers resting upon solid rock:

Length of each span:

Clear channel on draw span:

Lumber used:

Cast iron used:
7' wide (top) x 35' length x 38' height

250 feet

120 feet on each side of draw pier

1,080,00 feet

290,00 pounds
River men and the City of St. Louis were bitterly opposed to the erection of a bridge across the Mississippi
River and did all in their power to place obstacles in front of the railroad, both legal and illegal attempts to
prevent its construction. But in spite of the St Louis Chamber of Commerce and the steamboat companies,
whose officials used every means that money and political influence could command, the work of constructing
the bridge went on and continued until finished.

History of Davenport & Scott County Iowa
Henry E Downer     1910
On the evening of May 6, the steamer Effie Afton moved slowly upriver toward the newly completed bridge.
The vessel blew her whistle signaling that she was moving through the draw. The draw slowly opened and the
steamboat moved through. Some two hundred feet after the Effie Afton cleared the draw, she heeled hard
to the right. Her starboard engine stopped, the port power seemingly increased. She struck the span next to
the opened draw. The impact caused a great deal of damage to both the bridge and the boat. Then a stove in
one of the cabins was knocked over and its fire spread rapidly to the deck and then to the bridge timbers.
The vessel burned to cinders within five minutes. One span was completely destroyed, and there was some
pier damage as well as minor damage to the rest of the bridge. By the following day, the rest of the bridge
caught fire and was completely destroyed. Steamboats up and down the river celebrated, blowing whistles
and ringing bells. The Effie Afton was new, well equipped, and worth about fifty thousand dollars. The
accident occurred on her first trip above St. Louis. Her usual run was on the Ohio River and on the Mississippi
between Louisville and New Orleans. According to the local newspapers, there was no evident reason for her
appearance this far north on the river at night. In addition, there was at the time, apparently, no public
record of who or what the boat carried or her destination. People in the Davenport-Rock Island area who
favored the railroad were sure that the Effie Afton was loaded with something flammable and deliberately
run into the bridge. They believed that if the boat had been drifting out of control, it would have drifted with
the current in the channel and not touched the bridge pier.

Shortly thereafter, Capt. John Hurd, owner of the Effie Afton, filed suit in the U.S. District Court at
Chicago, demanding damages from the Railroad Bridge Company for the loss of his ship and cargo. The
complaint alleged that the Effie Acton was carefully and skillfully navigated at the time and that the boat
"was forcibly driven by the currents and eddies" caused by the bridge piers, resulting in the destruction of
the boat by fire. The Rock Island Bridge Company maintained that the accident, so-called, was in fact an
intentional and premeditated act, a charge angrily denied by the ship owners. The impending litigation,
officially docketed as Hurd v. Rock Island Railroad Company, promised to be the "battle of the century" for
the competing transportation rivals. The case attracted national attention and proved to be the most notable
of all of Abraham Lincoln's court cases. Lincoln was fully prepared as the case came to trial in the U.S. Circuit
Court in Chicago, again before Judge John MacLean, on September 8, 1857. The roster of counsel appearing
for Captain Hurd was impressive. The team was headed by Judge H. M. Wead of Peoria, the best "river
lawyer" in the state. Judge MacLean, during his charge to the jury, said the whole case boiled down to one
point: Was the bridge a material obstruction to navigation? The trial lasted fourteen days. Engineers, pilots,
boat owners, river men, and bridge builders were subjected to examination and cross-examination by the
opposing lawyers. Models of the steamboat and the bridge, along with many maps were exhibited. The conflict
in testimony was direct and extensive. Finally, after both sides had rested, Lincoln rose to make an eloquent,
if lengthy closing argument in favor of the bridge. Lincoln maintained that the pilot drove his boat as though
the river had no bridge with piers in it, and the starboard paddle wheel was not working. He declared that by
no stretch of the imagination could a steamboat, out of control, get so far out of the current as to be able to
hit the pier. However, the main focus of his argument was that one man had as good a right to cross a river as
another had to sail up or down it. He perhaps melodramatically concluded that the fate of the civilization of
the west was at stake. Two days after beginning his summation, Lincoln finally came to a halt. He said that he  
had more to say, but that he had used up his time. The jury deliberated for a few hours and ended up as a
hung jury. Therefore, the judge dismissed the case. The court's action was seen as a victory for railroads,
bridges, and Chicago over steamboats, rivers, and St. Louis.
Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Company was a crucial case in Lincoln's career and solidified his reputation as a
great trial lawyer, which served him well when he ran for President three years later.

The fight, however, was still not over. During 1858, the Committee on Commerce of the U.S. House of
Representatives conducted an investigation to determine if the Rock Island Bridge was a serious obstruction
to the navigation of the river. The committee concluded that the bridge did constitute a hazard because of
the length of the pier, the angle of the bridge, and the swift current under the bridge. The committee
believed, however, that the courts should settle the matter and therefore did not recommend any action by
Congress. Predictably, in May 1858, James Ward, a St. Louis steamboat owner, filed suit in the U.S. District
Court for the Southern Division of Iowa asking the court to declare the bridge a nuisance and order its
removal and restore the river to its original capacity for all purposes of navigation. After voluminous
testimony, Judge John Love gave his decision on April 3, 1860, for the plaintiff. He declared the bridge a
nuisance and ordered the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad to remove the three piers and their
superstructure that lay on the Iowa side. The judge reasoned that if this bridge was not stopped, many other
bridges would follow. The piers were not torn out, for the railroad appealed the case to the U.S. Supreme
Court. Mississippi and Missouri Railroad Company v. Ward came before the Court during its December 1862
term and was decided on January 30, 1863. That Court, although not by unanimous decision, reversed the
decision of the district court and allowed the bridge to remain. Justice John Catron, writing for the Court,
stated that because the jurisdiction of the Iowa court extended only to the middle of the river, removing
the bridge on the Iowa side would solve nothing in the matter of obstruction. Furthermore, Catron reasoned
that if Judge Love's decision was accepted, then "no lawful bridge could be built across the Mississippi
anywhere; nor could the great facilities to commerce, accomplished by the invention of railroads, be made
available where great rivers had to be crossed." One could not stop the inevitability of progress: that
railroads needed to cross rivers.
This view was reaffirmed in another U.S. Supreme Court case, The Galena, Dubuque, Dunleith, and Minnesota
Packet Co. v. The Rock Island Bridge. This case resulted from the appeal of a libel filed in the U.S. District
Court for the Northern District of Illinois for alleged damages done by the bridge to two steamboats. The
plaintiff claimed that the bridge obstructed the free navigation of the river and that the bridge had done
seventy thousand dollars' worth of damage to his steamboats. The court found for the plaintiff, and the
property was attached. The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad and others then filed an exception to the
jurisdiction of the court to take a proceeding against the property. The district and circuit courts sustained
the objection, and the case was dismissed. The railroad then requested the Supreme Court to confirm the
correctness of this ruling. On December 30, 1867, the Court upheld the decision, and the bridge was allowed
to remain. Speaking for the Court, Justice Stephen Johnson Field argued that "though bridges and wharves
may aid commerce by facilitating intercourse on land, or the discharge of cargoes, they are not in any sense
the subjects of maritime lien." A maritime lien could exist only upon movable things engaged in navigation
(such as vessels, steamers, and rafts), not things that are fixed and immovable (such as a wharf, bridge, or
real estate of any kind). The result of the decision was to establish for all time the right to bridge navigable
streams. The way was legally clear to build more bridges over the Mississippi. Of course, by this time there
were already several bridges across the river.
This decision marked the effective end of the Rock Island Bridge litigation.

Bridging the Mississippi: The Railroads and Steamboats Clash at the Rock Island Bridge
By David A. Pfeiffer 2004