On July 16, 1853, a month before a lawyer named Abraham Lincoln would christen a Logan County town named after him, construction began on the Rock Island Bridge between Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa. The bridge would be the first railroad span across the Mississippi, uniting the East Coast with the Western territories. It was completed in 1856, but a steamship wreck that year led to a lawsuit that threatened the bridge’s future. With the high-profile interests of both the rail and steamboat industries looking on, Lincoln’s meticulous argument in defense of the Rock Island Bridge put him in the national spotlight as an up-and-coming lawyer.
Bridging the Lives of Future Foes
Beginning when he was 19, Abraham Lincoln spent three years transporting goods and commodities down the Mississippi River to New Orleans and other southern locations. Several years later, he was an attorney working for the Illinois Central Railroad, one of the nation’s most prominent railroad lines at the time.
As a lawyer, Lincoln used his knowledge of the river—as well as a survey conducted by one of his future adversaries—to defend the Railroad Bridge Company against a lawsuit brought by a steamship owner to halt the reconstruction of the Rock Island Bridge. In 1856, the steamboat Effie Alton cleared the bridge’s draw, but the starboard engine failed and the port engine drove the boat into the bridge, causing damage and starting a fire that destroyed the steamer and damaged the bridge. The captain of the Effie Alton filed a lawsuit seeking damages from the Railroad Bridge Company for the loss of his boat.
Opposed to the rail bridge from the beginning, steamboat interests rallied behind the case, making it far more prominent than many of the other cases Lincoln had worked on. To defend the railroad and its bridge, Lincoln relied on his own previous knowledge of rivers and railroads, as well as a survey on the Rock Island site itself done some twenty years earlier by a young lieutenant in the Army Corps of Engineers—Robert E. Lee.
The lawsuit wasn’t the first attempt to stop the Rock Island Bridge; nor was Lee the only future Confederate involved in the Rock Island Bridge saga. As the bridge was being built in 1854, then-U.S. Secretary of War Jefferson Davis—who would become president of the Confederacy—filed an injunction against the continued construction. Davis sought to block the Rock Island bridge so one could be built across the Mississippi farther south. A federal Judge denied Davis’s injunction because it was determined that the War Department no longer had claim over the land.
Getting a Hung Jury
Not satisfied with descriptions of the steamboat wreck, Lincoln also consulted data from Lee’s survey and a local railroad worker. He considered the speed of the river, traffic on the river, and the engineering specifications of the bridge. The point in question came to whether the bridge presented a hazard to steamboat travel. Lincoln’s defense produced a hung jury, and the judge tossed out the steamship operator’s case in a victory for the Chicago & Rock Island Railroad. The case raised Abraham Lincoln into national prominence as a diligent and persuasive attorney.
The Rock island Bridge was rebuilt shortly after the 1856 wreck. During the Civil War, the Rock Island site was again acquired by the Department of War and transformed into a Union POW camp. It later became the location of an arsenal. Today called the Government or Arsenal Bridge, the first bridge to span the Mississippi River still stands as a double-decked monument to one of Lincoln’s signature legal achievements.
Want more Lincoln history? Contact Logan County tourism for more information on Lincoln’s activities in central Illinois!
- Further Reading: Brian McGinty, Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America (2015).