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Bridging A Great River By Rail

August 5, 2013

There is a dramatic change in lifestyle between the 1850 Pioneer Farm at Living History Farms and the 1900 Farm. People often comment on how dramatically life changed in just one to two generations. One of the biggest changes that dramatically altered what life was like for Iowa pioneers was the arrival of the railroad. Through a series of posts, we will explore the development and the impact of the railroad on Iowa’s agriculture industry.

Though momentous in the development of the American West, the railroad was first developed amidst controversy. There were some who favored a Northern railroad route and some that favored a Southern railroad route (one notable name: Jefferson Davis). There were steamboat companies already supplying to places out West who were concerned about both the competition from the railroad and the bridging of the main river routes. City rivalries sprung up supporting various interests. The people of St. Louis rallied behind the rivers and steamboats, while the people of Chicago supported the railroads. Maybe this is at the root of the Cardinals-Cubs rivalry that baseball fans enjoy today?!

Steamboats were already operating along Iowa’s border on the Mississippi, stopping in cities such as Dubuque, Davenport, and Keokuk. But travelers and merchants alike were eager to see the railroad connect Iowa and destinations westward to the bustling city of Chicago and the rest of the country. One major obstacle stood in the way of that connection – the mighty Mississippi River.

In 1853, the legislature of the state of Illinois granted power to build a bridge over the Mississippi that would not interfere with boat traffic, or navigation of the river. This would become a very important legislation as the process of bridging the wide river ensued. Begun in 1853 and completed in the Spring of 1856, the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi connected Rock Island, IL with Davenport, IA. On a joyous day in April, the first steam engines to cross the river arrived in Iowa, but it was a short-lived victory for the bridge.

Two weeks after it opened, the bridge caught fire after being struck by the steamboat Effie Afton. Though the bridge was repaired and already hauling cargo four months later, the wreck continued to be a source of controversy. Some sources believed there was scandal surrounding this particular “accident,” and wondered what the boat was doing so far off her regular route, going through the locks at night. Nonetheless, steamboat companies maintained that a wreck meant that the bridge did not allow for safe navigation of the river, as was promised. The owner of the Effie Afton brought a suit against the Railroad Bridge Company for damages to the boat, insisting that it was worth fifty thousand dollars.

The impending court case, Hurd vs. Rock Island Railroad Company, brought the feud between the rival transportation agents to the court room, and to the attention of the nation. A recognized railroad lawyer from Illinois, already making a name for himself, was hired as the lead defense counsel. His name? Abraham Lincoln. Over a span of two weeks in a Chicago courtroom, the lawyers put forth their suits. They called for professionals: engineers, bridge builders, riverboat pilots, boat owners, and local citizens, including John Deere. They argued the facts of the case and in the end, a persuasive closing statement from Lincoln helped sway the case. He contended that the bridge over the river would have a positive economic impact for Illinois, and that movement from east to west was just as important as movement from north to south. His background, as a lawyer who previously argued for the rivers, gave his points credibility. A deadlocked jury meant that no damages were paid in the case.

The Effie Afton case was a critical first step in the development and subsequent expansion of the railroad into the Western United States. It was seen as a victory for the trains and for the city of Chicago in opposition to steam boats and the city of St. Louis. The bridge would have other legal troubles, but eventually a much larger conflict would pull the nation’s attention back East. There would be more bridges to cross, both for the railroad and for Lincoln.

Iowa’s connection to Chicago, and populations East, was crucial to the state’s agricultural heritage. In future posts, we will explore how the railroad connections impacted the crops grown in Iowa fields.

Information for this article gathered from:

Pfeiffer, David A. Prologue Magazine, publ. National Archives, Vol. 36, No. 2, Summer 2004 accessed at:


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19th Century Politics   Science of Everyday Life   Then and Now   Travel and Transportation


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