1856 – Bridging The Father Of Waters.

On April 22, 1856, the citizens of Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa, cheered as they watched three steam locomotives pull eight passenger cars safely across the newly completed Chicago and Rock Island (C&RI) Railroad Bridge that spanned over the Mississippi River. Indeed – a historic day in Iowa history!

Read what the The Iowa State Democrat had to say about all this…

As we discuss on another post, earlier that same year – on January 3, 1856 – the good people of Iowa City celebrated the first passenger train to run from Davenport to Iowa City. The Mississippi & Missouri (M&M) steam engine – The Oskaloosa – rolled into Iowa’s capital city, pulling seven passenger cars filled with those who had boarded the C&RI train in Chicago the day before. Arriving in Rock Island, the party-goers spent the night of January 2nd there, and early the next morning, ferried across the Mississippi to Davenport, boarded the M&M train there, and finally, arrived in Iowa City in the late afternoon of January 3rd! Whew – quite the trip!

But now – as of April 22, 1856, the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was open for business! Now, the people of eastern Iowa could travel non-stop – reaching New York City by rail in no more than forty-two hours!

This historic day – April 22, 1856 – in Iowa history actually had its beginnings fifty years earlier. In 1805, after President Thomas Jefferson sent Lewis and Clark on their expedition up the Missouri River into the newly-purchased Louisiana Territory, he also sent Lieutenant Zebulon Pike up the Mississippi River to gather data and determine strategic sites for American forts. Read more here.

On his way north – leaving St. Louis in August 1805 and returning in April 1806 – Pike spent a total of 34 days identifying important sites in and around what is today – Iowa. In late August 1805, as Lt. Pike and his team were about 350 miles – via the river – north of St. Louis, one large island stood out as being a perfect place to build a fort.

This large island in the Mississippi River was located very near the expansive Sauk village of Saukenuk, and the Sauk War Chief Black Hawk – who cordially welcomed Pike and his men to camp in the area – said this about that special island in his 1834 biography…

This [island] was the best one on the Mississippi, and had long been the resort of our young people during the summer. It was our garden, like the white people have near their big villages, which supplied us with strawberries, blackberries, gooseberries, plums, apples and nuts of different kinds. Being situated at the foot of the rapids, its waters supplied us with the finest fish. In my early life I spent many happy days on this island. A good spirit had charge of it, which lived in a cave in the rocks immediately under the place where the fort now stands. This guardian spirit has often been seen by our people. It was white, with large wings like a swan’s, but ten times larger. We were particular not to make much noise in that part of the island which it inhabited, for fear of disturbing it. But the noise at the fort has since driven it away, and no doubt a bad spirit has taken its place.

As you can read from Black Hawk’s words written in 1834, the United States did eventually claim this beautiful island as their own, reserving it for military use in 1809 and naming it Rock Island.

Strategically, this large island that Black Hawk loved was, not only, the perfect place to build a fort, but it was also the easiest place to cross the wide Mississippi River. As you can see from the map (above left) Rock Island not only physically breaks up the vast wideness of the Mississippi, but it is also part of the Rock Island Rapids (see above right) where the Great River separates into smaller, less deep channels, making a crossing much easier – especially during the winter months. Interestingly, this type of natural bridge spanning across a large body of water is described in the Sauk/Fox tongue – the language of Chief Black Hawk – as “kiowa” – meaning “this is the place where we can cross over.” Read more about how Iowa got her name here.

After the War of 1812, Fort Armstrong was built here at the foot of Rock Island, near the present-day Quad Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Made of stone and timber, the 300 feet square fort was begun in May 1816 and completed the following year.

Garrisoned by two companies of United States Army, in 1832, Fort Armstrong became the military headquarters during the Black Hawk War, and was the site of the signing of the Black Hawk Purchase – 6 million acres of land located directly west of the Great River. By 1835, this vast area of prairie – known to Black Hawk as “kiowa” – now became known to the white man as the Iowa District of Wisconsin Territory – with new communities springing up all along the Mississippi.

As we discuss on another post, from 1823 – when the first steamboat (The Virginia) traveled from St. Louis to St. Anthony, Minnesota – until the early 1860’s, traveling westward into Iowa meant going south by steamboat on the Ohio River to St. Louis and then north on the Mississippi to new Iowa communities such as Ft. Madison, Burlington, Bloomington (Muscatine), Davenport, Lyons (Clinton), or Dubuque.

But all this changed drastically in 1854, when the Chicago and Rock Island (C&RI) Railroad was finally completed under the direction of Henry Farnam and his partner Joseph Sheffield, becoming the first railroad to connect the East – via Chicago – with the Mississippi River. The map (above) shows the completion dates at various points along the route westward from Chicago to Rock Island. Read more about the earliest days of railroads in Iowa.

As we mentioned earlier, Rock Island earned its significance by being one of the easiest places to cross the vast Mississippi River. And it was this fact alone that forced the C&RI to chose this specific route as it was attempting to be the first American railroad to reach the Pacific Ocean. You see, in the early 1850’s, the California Gold Rush had pressed the accelerator on America’s hunger for a transcontinental railroad. And while the major rivers of the U.S. – the Ohio & the Mississippi – had been the primary highway of the early 1800’s, now the iron horse – running westward from Chicago – could go places no steamboat could ever hope to go.

So, in the the rush to go west, in 1853, two major things in Iowa happened…

In Chicago in May 1853, two business men from Iowa City were sent to the C&RI Board Meetings, commissioned by our fair city to twist some arms while sweetening the deal just a bit. Iowa City’s LeGrand Byington and William Penn Clarke offered M&M Railroad – which was working in Iowa alongside the C&RI – a $50,000 bonus – payable to M&M with two conditions – 1) Iowa City becomes M&M’s primary destination out of Davenport, and 2) M&M completes the 55-mile track into Iowa City on or before January 1, 1856. Read more here.

In order to unite these two railroad lines – the C&RI of Illinois and the M&M of Iowa – it was necessary to form a new corporation that would be given recognition and empowerment in both states. So, in 1853, the Railroad Bridge Company was incorporated and authorized to “build, maintain, and use a railroad bridge over the Mississippi River … in such a manner as shall not materially obstruct or interfere with the free navigation of said river.” Proponents of the project, of course, touted Rock Island as an ideal location for the bridge as it provided a direct rail link between New York City, the Mississippi Valley, and the Far West.

Project engineers – drawing from an 1837 topographical survey by Lt. Robert E. Lee (see below) and other surveys – deemed the site of Rock Island ideal, so construction of the new bridge started on July 16, 1853, and lasted for nearly three years. The construction involved three sections—a bridge across a narrow portion of the Mississippi between the Illinois shore and Rock Island, a line of tracks across Rock Island, and the long bridge between the island and the Iowa shore.

This map of the western part of Rock Island is from a survey of the Rock Island Rapids conducted by Robert E. Lee in 1837. Upstream from Fort Armstrong (far left) is a piece of Rock Island that protrudes out into the main channel of the river, labeled “Traders Vista.” It is close to the location of a cabin (and later a house that remains today) occupied by Col. George Davenport, who was the Fort’s sutler and trader of goods after whom the city was named. Apparently from this spot, Davenport would look up and down stream for potential customers of his trade. Trader’s Vista became the starting location of the bridge that would run across the main channel of the river. In the northwest (upper left) corner – in Davenport – is land and a house occupied by Antoine LeClaire, who donated the land for the beginnings of the first railroad in Iowa – the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad. LeClaire’s house would eventually become the first railroad depot in Iowa!
Above left – This 1857 map shows the circular path of the new railroad line across Rock Island, and the position of the new bridge at Traders Vista. Trains would head eastward out of the City of Rock Island, then turn north on the island, adjacent to the land held by Col. Davenport. and then enter the City of Davenport from the southeast. Above right – This 1860’s map places the Railroad Bridge in the context of the Tri-Cities. The Rock Island Railroad came from the east though Moline into the City of Rock Island. From there, the trains would circle over the Mississippi River to the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad station in Davenport, and then head northwest out of town toward Iowa City. Note: the town of Gilbert, in the upper right, would become Bettendorf in 1903.
Above – this December 1854 view from downstream, drawn some sixteen months before the bridge was completed in April 1856, shows how the bridge utilized Rock Island as a stepping-stone. On the left are the six spans of the bridge across the main channel of the Mississippi River extending from the island to Iowa. On the right are three spans of the bridge over the Slough between the island and the City of Rock Island on the Illinois shore.

Below – The Howe Truss design of the bridge was distinguished by long wooden arches, anchored to the piers on either side of each fixed span. The bridge was made primarily of wood and had five fixed spans, each with a flat top and each 250 feet long. The draw, or swing, span was 286 feet long and located near the middle of the river. At the time it was the longest swing span in the world.

So, after nearly three years of construction, the first railroad bridge over the Mississippi River was ready to go. And as we said earlier, the next day – April 22, 1856 – it all happened!

This view from downstream shows Ft. Armstrong at the west end of the island (right). The house in the painting is presumed to be the Col. Davenport House, although in actuality it was located east of the bridge and would not be visible in this view.
This bird’s eye view shows the Rock Island Railroad Bridge approaching 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 that was donated to the railroad by Antoine LeClaire. As we mentioned earlier, his house on that land was used as the first railroad depot in Iowa.
Records show that the first train on the Mississippi and Missouri (M&M) left Antoine LeClaire’s depot in August 1855, destined for nearby Walcott – eight months before the bridge connected Iowa with Illinois. And, with the $50,000 prize awaiting, the M&M completed their line from Davenport to Iowa City on December 31, 1855, some four months before the bridge was finished. Above right is the first depot in Iowa City. From here, the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad finally reached Council Bluffs, Iowa on the Missouri River in 1869, and by that time the M&M had become part of the Chicago, Rock Island, and Pacific Railroad. Read more here.

On the morning of May 6, 1856, just fifteen days after the Rock Island Railroad Bridge opened, the steamboat Effie Afton crashed into the bridge, causing one span of the bridge and the boat to burn. The accident was considered a bit suspicious, with some believing the steamboat industry – which stood to lose a lot of business to the railroads – pre-planned the “accident.” The legal case surrounding the incident went to court, eventually making it all the way to the Supreme Court, with a lawyer from Springfield, IL, one Abraham Lincoln, representing the railroads along the way. Historian William H. Thompson tells us more…

In a series of court cases, steamboat interests claimed that the bridge was an impediment to navigation, and In the most famous of these cases, Hurd et al. v. Railroad Bridge Company, a young Abraham Lincoln defended the railroad in September 1857. The case concluded with a hung jury, allowing the railroad to continue using the bridge.

Four months passed before the bridge was fully repaired after the Effie Afton damaged it in May 1856. This photograph, taken from a point upstream near the Col. Davenport House on the island, is one of only two photos of the first Rock Island Railroad Bridge that we have found thus far. It was probably taken around 1860. Below is the other photo – taken in 1860 from east of the Col. Davenport House. Both photos show some new V-shaped cables that were added to the fixed spans, sometime after the Effie Afton incident, to supply additional support to the bridge.

Once the Civil War started, the bridge became an important component in the Union Army’s war effort – remaining in place until replaced by an updated bridge in 1866.

This 1863 panoramic map, facing southwest, shows the Civil War prison camp that had been established on Rock Island in that year. The prison held a total of about 13,000 Confederate prisoners during the year and a half it was open. In the upper right corner you can see the Rock Island Railroad Bridge extending over the main channel of the Mississippi River from Traders Vista to Davenport. In the upper center of the image are a wagon bridge and the C&RI Railroad Bridge extending over the Slough to the City of Rock Island.

Here’s a big salute to the very first bridge of any kind over the Mississippi River – a bridge to never be forgotten! Here’s to the Rock Island Railroad Bridge!

Kudos to the amazing resources below for the many quotes, photographs, etc. used on this page.

Railroads In Iowa, The Iowa State Democrat, April 7, 1856, p 2

Fort Armstrong (Illinois), Wikipedia

A pictorial history of the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River and its three successors, Curtis C. Roseman, RiverAction

The Railroads and Steamboats Clash at the Rock Island Bridge, David A. Pfeiffer, National Archives, Summer 2004, Vol. 26, No. 2

Misc. graphics, 1851 Iowa Township Map Info, Iowa Dept of Transportation

This Week In Illinois History: First Railroad Crosses Mississippi River (April 22, 1856), Clint Cargile, Northern Public Radio, April 19, 2021

Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Co., Wikipedia

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