Often when we hear the term “gateway to the West” we have images of the Arch in St. Louis pop into our minds. After all, St. Louis was one the first major cities on the western banks of the Mississippi. St. Louis served as the main western point of American settlement after the Louisiana Purchase, since the faltering Illinois capitol at Kaskaskia had since been moved to the interior of the Illinois territory. However, the gate to the west was arguably much further north, spanning between Iowa and Illinois. In fact, the only site in Missouri that was considered to be a more apt candidate for this gate was at Hannibal, spanning Quincy to the eastern shores of Missouri.
In April 1845, Colonel George Davenport, a sutler that was operating on Rock Island, called a meeting with several perspective business partners. Amongst them was a man by the name of Henry Farnham, a longtime entrepreneur and engineer and Antoine LeClaire, a philanthropist and businessman. LeClaire had since incorporated the city of Davenport, Iowa in honor of George Davenport, as the two were close friends. At this meeting, Davenport and LeClaire pitched the idea of connecting rail lines that were west of the Mississippi River with railway systems in the east. They had posed that the growing surrounding communities in the region provided much in the way of commerce, and that the river was such in the area to allow a bridge to connect the railways with very little resistance.
The region encompassed what was known as the Rock Island Rapids. Surveyed originally by Zebulon Pike in 1804, and then again by Major Robert E. Lee in the 1830’s, the Rock Island Rapids was described as a “14 mile white knuckler.” It was a stretch of low water that spanned from the base of Rock Island to just north of LeClaire, Iowa. Steamboats were forced to unload cargo and carry it the 14 miles upriver and reload ships (or vice versa travelling down the river). After Lee’s survey, the Army Corps of Engineers had opted to dredge the river to 4 feet in the channel, part of the navigation improvement project. Despite the dredging, the Rock Island Rapids were still a perilous portion of the river due to the nature of the current resulting from the terrain below the surface.
The island of Rock Island was a federally owned property, having been the site of Fort Armstrong during the Blackhawk War of 1832. As such, any construction on the island required the approval of the Secretary of War. Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War from 1853 to 1857, continuously denied the approval for the construction of the bridge. Davis had wanted the bridge to cross further south, examining sites such as Memphis and Cape Girardeau.
Despite Davis’ resistance, the rail companies began construction on the bridge in the early 1850s. Two rail companies were to oversee the construction: The Mississippi and Missouri Railroad, and the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad Companies. The mission objective was to establish a transcontinental railroad that would connect the gold cities on the west coast with the commerce centers on the east coast. Davis sent out federal marshals to stop construction of the rail lines multiple times between 1853 and 1856, but each time they were sent, workers would resume work as soon as the marshals left the area. By the time the last marshal visited the area in March of 1856, the bridge was virtually completed, and the marshals opted to ignore the inquiry.
The bridge opened on 22 April 1856, and the gate to the west was considered open. A draw span was placed about mid-channel, but due to the nature of the rapids in the area, this was somewhat difficult to navigate. It was also not situated where the channel was the deepest. Steamboat traffic continued in the area unaffected until about 14 days after the bridge opened on 6 May 1856. The steamboat Effie Afton, a cargo liner that was on its first venture north of St. Louis stalled just above the bridge. The failure to regain control of the boat resulted in it crashing into the bridge and burning an entire span. No passengers nor cargo were damaged however, and historians question if there was not a case of insurance fraud at play.
The crash resulted in a legal dispute between the steamboats and the railroad companies. A young Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, represented the railroad companies. Despite his best efforts, Lincoln was unable to fully win the case, having it result in a Supreme Court hung jury. The resulting actions of the case allowed bridges to cross waterways of commerce, but river traffic would always have the right of way over the rail or pedestrian crossing.
The damaged bridge was repaired and used from 1856 until an ice flow damaged the bridge again in 1866. The bridge was rebuilt again with upgraded weight capacity. Unfortunately, this bridge was damaged by weather as well in 1870. Brevet Brigadier General Thomas J. Rodman had assumed command of the newly established Rock Island Arsenal by this time, and had decided to move the rail line to the lower end of the island (approximately 300 feet down stream) to make way for the new arsenal. The third iron bridge was completed and open under the supervision of Major Daniel W. Flagler. The third bridge was a double decker bridge that had a wagon crossing below and a train crossing above. However, almost as soon as it opened it was considered obsolete for the increasing weight of locomotives.
The fourth and current bridge to cross in this location was opened in 1896 and used the same piers as the 1872 bridge used. Created by Ralph Modjeski, the current bridge features dual tracks above with two lanes of traffic and a pedestrian walking trail below. The swing span rotates a full 360 degrees, and the Rock Island Joint Manufacturing and Technology Center (a division of Tank-automotive & Armaments Command, TACOM) is fully responsible for the repairs to the drive mechanism. Over 120 years later, this bridge only uses about twenty-five percent of its weight capacity and is anticipated to remain in operation well into the 2050s and beyond. The bridge is also one of the only bridges to be owned and operated by the U.S. Army.