On April 22, 1856, crowds cheered and bands played in Rock Island, Illinois, and Davenport, Iowa, as a train chugged across the very first bridge to span the Mississippi River. The bridge connected the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad in Illinois and the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad in Iowa.
But construction of the Rock Island Bridge almost didn’t happen, and even after its historic opening, opponents tried to sue and sabotage the bridge out of existence. At the heart of the bridge battle were steamboats, slavery, and two men who would later stand on opposite sides of the Civil War: Abraham Lincoln and Jefferson Davis.
The site was chosen based on a topographical survey done by Robert E. Lee in 1837. It was an ideal location because the bridge could be built in three parts: from the Illinois side to Rock Island, across the island, and from there to Iowa.
But Secretary of War Jefferson Davis wanted to see the transcontinental railroad cross the Mississippi by way of a southern route through St. Louis. This route would provide southern cities with more trade, travel routes, profits, and, access to new slave states west of the Mississippi. Davis tried to claim that Rock Island was the property of the U.S. military because it had once held an army post, though this post had been abandoned for nearly 20 years. His demand to cease construction was ignored and he failed to derail the project.
After the bridge was built, steamboat businesses tried to remove it through litigation. They filed multiple lawsuits, arguing that the bridge would damage their industry’s profits and disrupt river routes. A judge eventually ruled in favor of the bridge as long as it didn’t impede navigation.
The celebration of the new bridge was short lived. Just 15 days after opening, a steamboat owner piloted his ship under the bridge and turned sharply toward a piling, crashing the steamboat and igniting both the boat and the bridge. The accident, which was almost certainly a deliberate act of sabotage, put the bridge out of operation for four months.
The steamboat owner sued the railroads for damages and demanded the bridge be removed. The railroads brought in skilled railroad attorney Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln successfully argued that the bridge did not impede river traffic and that railroad bridges across rivers were necessary to settle the West and carry the country forward. The case brought Lincoln national attention and settled an issue that today we take for granted: the right to build bridges across navigable streams.