Iowa History Daily: On April 22, 1856, the citizens of Iowa cheered as they watched a three steam engine locomotive pull eight passenger cars across the recently completed Chicago and Rock Island Railroad bridge over the Mississippi River to Davenport. The first rail bridge to span the Mighty Mississippi, the accomplishment marked a new era for all Americans.
Built at a site originally surveyed by eventual Confederate General in the American Civil War Robert E. Lee while he worked for the United States Topographical Service in 1837, the location offered an ideal first rail crossing because the construction could proceed in three parts: from Illinois to Rock Island, across the island, and finally over to Iowa.
A notable first in transportation, the historic crossing almost didn’t happen as slavery and steamboats pitted future American President Abraham Lincoln up against future Confederate President Jefferson Davis. As political tensions mounted in the decade before the Civil War, then Secretary of War Jefferson Davis lobbied for a more southerly crossing in the hopes of fueling southern trade, travel routes, and migration opportunities for southerners hoping to extend slavery into the western territories. Arguing the former military base on Rock Island allowed him as Secretary of War to block construction, Davis’s objections failed to derail the project.
Although audiences at Rock Island and Davenport cheered the train on the historic April day of first crossing, steamboat interests tried to sabotage the bridge even after crews completed construction. Just fifteen days after the first train crossed, a steamboat captain rammed his boat into a piling, lighting both the bridge and boat on fire. In equally aggressive, if not as flamboyant, tactics, steamboat businesses sought to remove the bridge through litigation due to a fear of competition. The railroads brought in a skilled young attorney from Illinois named Abraham Lincoln to argue against the self-interested steamboaters. Lincoln argued the bridge did not impede traffic, as well as asserted railroad bridges across rivers provided a key to further settlement of the American West. #IowaHistoryDaily #IowaOTD #IowaHistoryCalendar