First Mississippi River bridge pits North and South

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First Mississippi RIver Bridge

The Effie Afton steamboat plowed into the first bridge across the Mississippi on May 6, 1856. Both the bridge and the boat burned.

Memphis, Tennessee,  April 24, 1856: The first bridge spanning the Mississippi River is now completed-not in Memphis, Vicksburg, or New Orleans – but in the North, connecting Rock Island, Illinois, to Davenport, Iowa. With this new Mississippi River  bridge, the North has beaten the South in establishing a means of better trade and commerce directly to the expanding American West.

Bands played and citizens in Rock Island and Davenport cheered Tuesday afternoon as they watched three locomotives pull eight passenger cars across the Rock Island Railroad Bridge.

Ever since US Army surveyor Lt. Robert E. Lee surveyed the bridge site back in 1837, this bridge has been controversial.

Railroad travel across the entire continent was divided between those who favored a northern route and those who favored a southern one.

This controversial bridge pitted steamboat travel and its main cargo, cotton – important businesses in the South, against railroad travel and shipping- powerful businesses in the North.

President Franklin Pierce’s Secretary of War, Jefferson Davis from Mississippi, has argued strenuously for years that this important bridge should be built in the South.

Until 1845, Rock Island in the middle of the river had been the site of the US Army’s Fort Armstrong.  The fort is now gone.  However, Secretary Davis still claimed army jurisdiction on the island in 1854 and, as Secretary of War, attempted to delay construction of the bridge by refusing to grant land to the railroad companies to build on this “military” island.

The powerful railroad companies in the North ignored Davis and started building the bridge anyway, also ignoring the Southern steamboat and cotton interests who were vehemently against it.

Davis continued other delay tactics.  He sent a US Marshall to Rock Island to evict all the bridge workers “for unauthorized work on US property.” The US Marshall was ignored. Next, Davis took the railroad companies to court. The railroads won their case.

So, now, the bridge is finished, and a new era in American transportation has begun. Jefferson Davis and many Southern steamboat and cotton interests are not happy.


The night of May 6, 1856, just 15 days after the bridge opened, a Southern steamboat, the Effie Afton, plowed into one of the support piers of the wooden railroad bridge. The boat caught fire, and fire destroyed the bridge.

The railroad companies investigated and found a list of peculiarities:

1. The Effie Afton’s normal run was between Louisville, Kentucky, and New Orleans-the South.

2. It had no cargo.

3. It had no official destination. And,

4. The river currents that night made it virtually impossible for the steamboat to drift accidentally into the pier supports.The railroad companies concluded it was an act of sabotage.

Abe Lincoln

Abraham Lincoln, as he appeared in 1857, the year of the Effie Afton Trial

In the months that followed and as the new bridge was being constructed, the owner of the Effie Afton brought suit against the railroad companies in Chicago arguing the bridge was a “material obstruction to navigation on the river” and to halt all bridge construction; plus, the boat’s owner wanted compensation for the destruction of his steamboat.

The railroads hired a charismatic Illinois lawyer named Abraham Lincoln to defend them. Mr. Lincoln won the case in 1858. But, legal battles concerning other bridge construction represented by additional attorneys raged on through the entire Civil War, until 1867. Then, all was settled. Bridges could be built safely and legally on the Mississippi River.

So, a remarkable set of Southern Memories evolved pitting Jefferson Davis and Robert E. Lee, against Abraham Lincoln, on opposite sides of just a single North/South issue-a bridge. These three men obviously would be at even greater, more deadly, odds with one another by 1861 when the scene switched from bridges and courtrooms to battles in the American Civil War.

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