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Rock Island, IL 61201

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Rock Island, IL 61201

Geography helps railroads bridge river
First bridge built here lasted but two weeks

By Kurt Allemeier, Dispatch/Argus Staff writer

Click here for larger view.
This photo, taken in 1885, shows the first iron bridge across the Mississippi River at Rock Island, the third bridge built at the site. The others, wooden spans, were destroyed. The present-day Government Bridge was built in 1896.
Manifest destiny was pushing America westward in the 19th century.

Railroads were bursting for the opportunity to draw the frontier closer. However, the mighty Mississippi stood in the way. By the 1850s, the race was on to get a bridge across the Mississippi River. The winner would claim an advantage in shipping and communication.

Rock Island and Davenport stood between the many parties that were interested in where a bridge would breach the Mississippi River. More interest was placed on a bridge to get rail cars from one bank of the river to the other than on getting people from Rock Island to Davenport.

Southern politicians angled for a route from New Orleans to San Diego. Northern politicians pushed for a route from Chicago to San Francisco.

St. Louis steamboat companies that controlled commerce on the upper Mississippi backed waterborne tranport. Chicago officials knew the city's future was with rail transport.

Rock Island was first identified as the best place for a railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi in a pamphlet published in 1828, by William C. Redfield of New York City, according to "An Illustrated History of the Rock Island Arsenal and Arsenal Island" by Thomas J. Slattery.

The narrow channel and the natural stepping stone of Rock Island made the cities of Rock Island and Davenport a logical location for a bridge.

Click here for larger view.
Photo courtesy of the Rock Island Historical Society
The second railroad bridge across the Mississippi at Rock Island, built in 1865, is shown above after what was thought to be a tornado destroyed the swing span in the spring of 1868. The first span was destroyed when a steam boat hit it in 1856.
In April 1856, Rock Island became the crossroad of America when the Railroad Bridge Co. linked the Chicago and Rock Island Line with the Mississippi and Missouri.

The railroad bridge -- the first across the upper Mississippi -- offered farmers in Iowa and northern Illinois a direct link to Chicago and eastern markets.

After the bridge opened, St. Louis merchants feared they would be bypassed by the east-west trade. New Orleans also feared the economic impact of the northern river crossing.

Two weeks after the bridge opened, the steamboat Effie Afton ran into the bridge and burst into flames, destroying the bridge. The Rock Island bridge was rebuilt, but was damaged by ice jams and windstorms and after three years needed to be strengthened because of the volume of rail traffic.

Rock Island County's population exploded in the 1850s. Rock Island County's population in 1850 was 6,937, according to the United States census. By the end of the decade the population had tripled to more than 21,000.

A new bridge, built at the tip of Arsenal Island, was completed in 1873. The bridge had two levels, a lower level for pedestrians and an upper level for trains. In one year, 330,000 pedestrians reportedly crossed the bridge.

An improved bridge was built on the same site and opened in 1895, with traffic crossing at record levels. By 1896, 30 railroad bridges spanned the Mississippi between Minneapolis and St. Louis.

In January 1900, the Crescent Bridge -- so named because of its bowed shape -- opened for the Davenport, Rock Island and Northwestern Railroad.

At the celebration of the bridge opening, railroad officials spoke about the advantages the railroad brought the area, saying it allowed goods to be shipped to New Orleans and brought southern cotton to northern markets.

The river's waterpower also was noted. It gave companies easy rail access and an inexpensive power source, increasing the area's commercial and transportation facilities.

Rock Island Railroad purchased 60 acres from Richard Shippen Silvis in 1903, for a complex of railroad shops. More than 2,000 workmen were hired, and in 1907 the area was incorporated as a village.

Other texts used for this story were The River and the Prairie: A History of the Quad-Cities by William Roba and Rock Island: Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow edited by Bj Elsner.

Copyright 1999, Moline Dispatch Publishing Co.