The Rock Island Bridge Case

Cross Currents: Conflicts of Interest and the Rock Island Railroad Bridge

The “Effie Afton Case,” formally known as Hurd et al. v. The Rock Island Bridge Company, has long been considered one of the most important cases in Abraham Lincoln’s legal career. Larry A. Riney describes the trial as “one of the most important courtroom events ever held,” noting that because the case was so well documented it provides the most complete account of Abraham Lincoln’s arguments in court.  Why then was this case so well documented by the press? Lincoln historian Mark Steiner notes that “the economic interests colliding here merged too strongly with national economic themes for historians to ignore this case.” [1]
In its own time, Hurd et al. v. Rock Island Bridge Company’s significance was similarly recognized by newspapers in the major cities especially those directly connected to the case. The eyes of the nation were on that Chicago in the fall of 1857. Although the Hurd et al. v. Rock Island Bridge Company was in one sense a simple damage claim, the case had the power to change the future of the country given the interests involved. Participants on all sides fought bitterly and conspired to create the results they desired within the Effie Afton trial and its aftermath. Although Abraham Lincoln is generally portrayed as “honest Abe,” he too was financially involved in the sectional war which engulfed the Effie Afton trial.
In 1856, the first bridge was built from Rock Island City across the Mississippi River. Technically speaking, the bridge was composed of two bridges: a small bridge crossing from Rock Island City over Sylvan Slough to Rock Island and then a longer bridge crossing the main channel of the Mississippi River from Rock Island to Davenport, Iowa. [2] Locally, the bridge is often rumored to have been the first bridge over the great river; however, this is a fallacy as a pedestrian bridge had previously been completed further up river in Minneapolis. However, the Rock Island Bridge was the first railroad bridge to cross the channel, and, as such, the first economically significant bridge over the “Father of Waters.”
Prior to the Rock Island Bridge being built, there was significant opposition to its construction. In March 1854, Jefferson Davis, then acting as Secretary of War in the Franklin Pierce administration, attempted to forestall the completion of the bridge. This was possible in that a section of the rail line went across land which on paper still belonged to the War Department. However, the Federal Government had abandoned Fort Armstrong, located on the island, years earlier, and local residents were already treating the island as if it were public land. Davis issued an eviction notice against the contractors laying the tracks across Rock Island after complaints were issued alleging the construction was damaging the land and environment of the island.  Outcry against Davis’s actions came not only from Illinois but also from the East. In New York the Evening Post claimed Davis was simply acting to prevent a northern route for the Transcontinental Railroad.[3] 
These claims seem perfectly reasonable considering Davis himself had proposed a southern route for the Transcontinental Railroad with a terminus at Memphis, Tennessee.[4] The Transcontinental Railroad route was still unsettled at that time and was a hotly debated issue. However, with a bridge already being built across the Mississippi at Rock Island, a northern route certainly became more convenient. Many politicians in the North supported a route through Illinois. However, some politicians supported a central route going through the middle of the country using St. Louis as a location for bridging the river, and meanwhile many politicians in the South supported Davis’s southern route. Whichever route the railway took, it would employ thousands of laborers, strengthen the cities and towns along its route through commerce and population growth, and increase land values along its path.  One eastern newspaper noted while discussing the opening of the Chicago-Rock Island Railroad that the railroads controlled the plotting of towns and created new towns along their path rather than towns dictating the routes of railroads.[5]
Ironically, the result of Davis’s attempt to use Federal power to halt the construction of the tracks was a legal battle concerning states’ rights on behalf of the bridge company against Davis and Federal power.  The bridge was designed to connect the Rock Island-Chicago Railroad in Illinois with the Mississippi-Missouri Railroad in Iowa. Each of these railroads where chartered to operate in their respective states and therefore could not build across state lines. This meant that neither of the two companies could build a bridge across the Mississippi since the border between Illinois and Iowa was located in the river. In order to solve this problem, a separate company known as the Railroad Bridge Company was created by the Illinois State Legislature to build the bridge.[6] The Railroad Bridge Company argued that they had been given the right to build across the land by the Illinois State Legislature and that the land was public (state) property because the Federal Government had long abandoned Fort Armstrong. The fort had been built on Rock Island following the War of 1812.[7]
The issue was decided by Justice John McLean (who later presided over the Effie Afton case) in United States v. The Railroad Bridge Company et al.  in July 1855.[8] McLean ruled in favor of the Railroad Bridge Company claiming, “…that the government, or Secretary Davis, had no legal precedent to halt construction of anything chartered by State legislators on abandoned public government land because of what might happen in the future.”   He also noted that the construction would not damage the government land and, in fact, “…estimated the value of land would rise from $150 to $1,000 per acre.” Despite this apparent pro-bridge decision, McLean left the bridge open for the legal attacks which followed.[9]
McLean had by that time had already been active in deciding the future of bridges over navigable waterways. His record on the issue is complicated at best. He had presided in the famous case Pennsylvania v. Wheeling and Belmont Bridge Company in 1852. In the case, he ruled that, absent an act of Congress, a bridge would be considered a nuisance if it did not accommodate river traffic. He noted that if the railroads were allowed to build bridges where and how they liked “our beautiful rivers [would], in a great measure, be abandoned.”  Congress declared the bridge lawful shortly thereafter.[10]
Although McLean’s decision and the fact that he claimed that bridges had to accommodate river traffic may seem anti-railroad, the decision can be seen as pro-railroad in some ways. During the Rock Island Bridge trials, river interests consistently argued that the bridge was an obstruction to the free use of navigable rivers.  In 1835 the case Clark v. Lake came before the Supreme Court of Illinois  and Justice Samuel Lockwood. In deciding for the owner of a lost vessel, Justice Lockwood noted: “It is well settled, that every person who erects an obstruction across a public highway, is liable for all injuries that result from it.”[11] Throughout the nineteenth century, the question in cases against bridge became what constituted an obstruction.
To the river men, nearly any bridge amounted to an obstruction because steamboats and barges had to avoid running into piers which were not previously placed in their paths. Aside from being seen as nuisances themselves, the bridge piers supposedly caused eddies and cross currents. It is irrefutable that the creation of bridges did change some of the river conditions and created a hindrance, especially to large wide boats and barges. Those in favor of the extension of railroads, on the other hand, held views similar to McLean’s. They believed that navigable rivers could be bridged so long as the bridge builders took the river traffic into account and left ample room through which they could pass unscathed. This view also contains great merit because bridges were essential for effective travel across the states from east to west.
Interestingly, Justice Thomas Drummond, who served with McLean in the Federal courts and presided over the preliminary hearings of the Effie Afton, countered this claim two years after Wheeling Bridge in his decision in Columbus Insurance Co. v. Peoria Bridge Co. which came before the United States Circuit Court, District of Illinois in 1854. [12] Drummond argued that the only questions at hand were whether or not the bridge was a material obstruction and whether or not the boat in question was handled with reasonable care. Drummond claimed that although the bridge met the requirements laid out by the Illinois State Legislature, it was not necessarily a legal bridge.  In opposition to McLean, Drummond claimed that even the Illinois State Legislature could not authorize a bridge which amounted to an obstruction and it was up to the jury to weigh the facts of the case. Therefore, he left the facts to the jury, and they came back split.[13]
The facts of Hurd et al. v. Rock Island Railroad Co. were very similar to those of the Peoria Bridge case. Although in the Peoria case, Abraham Lincoln served as an attorney for river interests against the Peoria River Bridge whereas he served on behalf of the railroad interests in the Effie Afton trial.  Interestingly, Hezekiah Wead, one of Hurd’s attorneys in the Effie Afton trial, noted that the plaintiffs only desired to collect damages due to them as in the Peoria Bridge case.[14] However, as shown, there were reasons to think that Hurd had planned the accident. 
Like other bridges, the Rock Island Bridge was not altogether welcomed given the sectional and economic interests at stake. Therefore, it faced heavy opposition from the onset. Much of the opposition was from steamboat interests based in St. Louis, but it was also opposed more broadly by Southerners who did not want the Transcontinental Railroad to take a northern route. Some local residents and institutions also opposed to the bridge. A Rock Island newspaper, The Daily Argus, called the bridge after it was built a “serious obstruction to the navigation of the river and a detriment to the trails of [the] entire region.”[15] Steamboat lines argued that the bridge interfered with their ability to move freely up and down the river, but the issue was also a battle between the east to west transportation via rail lines and north to south transport on the river. 
Despite resistance, the Rock Island Railroad Bridge opened on April 22, 1856 as a train pulling one railcar and carrying only a few passengers crossed over the Mississippi for the first time. Even the pro-river interest The Daily Argus could not help but gloat about “the first passenger train ever run over the first and only railroad bridge ever built across the Mississippi.”[16] After a triumphant opening, the bridge only remained operational for two weeks without a major incident. The Effie Afton, a large steamboat, crashed into the bridge as it was going upstream from St. Louis and burst into flames destroying the boat and a section of the bridge on May 6, 1856.[17] The 430 ton Effie Afton had been completed only a few months prior on November 15, 1855. According to historian Daniel Stowell, the vessel was designed to carry three hundred tons of cargo and up to two hundred passengers.[18] Author Larry Riney, in contrast, claims the boat was designed to carry 430 tons of cargo.[19]  If Stowell’s information is correct, it would mean that on May 6 the Effie Afton was above capacity carrying approximately an extra fifty tons of cargo for which it was designed and a full load of two hundred passengers.[20]
The Effie Afton had spent the previous night docked downriver from the bridge due to high winds and a strong current which made passing the draw of the bridge extremely dangerous. At approximately five in the morning on the sixth, the Effie Afton prepared to pass the bridge.[21]  As the boat backed out of the wharf, the Effie Afton scrapped against a ferry damaging some of the chains which supported the paddle wheels.[22] After assessing the damage, pilot Nathaniel W. Parker and the Effie Afton engaged in a race towards the bridge barely pulling in front of the J.B. Carson before entering the draw.[23] Two other large side-wheel steamboats had already safely passed through the draw that morning.[24]
After the Effie Afton entered the draw the accounts of what happened differ. What is certain is that the vessel struck one pier and then another. After the collision the vessel caught fire multiple times. The crew supposedly put out two fires, and a third fire consumed the vessel and a span of the bridge.  Why exactly the boat ran into the bridge was debated from the beginning. The Rock Island Daily Argus and the St. Louis Intelligencer as well as the riverboat men blamed cross currents and eddies that were supposedly caused by the angle of the piers.[25] Traditionally bridge piers were placed so that they ran parallel to the current, but the piers of the Rock Island Bridge were placed at an angle.
The bridge company’s defense team claimed these cross currents and eddies did not exist. They insisted the bridge was built in a manner which facilitated steamboat travel and provided evidence to support their claims. The cause of the accident, according to the legal team, was at best recklessness on the part of the crew of the Effie Afton and at worst part of a conspiracy to destroy the bridge involving purposely running the Effie Afton into the bridge. The Bridge Company had some cause for suspecting that the collision was something other than an accident and attempted to bring a suit against Hurd, but apparently the case never came to court.[26]
After the Effie Afton crashed into the bridge, it caught fire multiple times.  Usually when a steamboat crashed, it caught fire almost at once, but the Effie Afton’s fatal fire did not start until well after the initial collision. The rise of the steamboat to prominence was marked by a wave of judicial and congressional decisions about how they would fit into the legal apparatus of the United States. This wave was necessitated by the inherently dangerous nature of steamboats.  Crashes and fires from the coal burning steam engines were frequent. Given this, in the court battle that followed the Effie Afton disaster, both sides brought in witnesses to discuss how the fires started and why the first fires were able to be extinguished while the later fire could not be. In addition to the fact that the fire started late is the peculiar fact that the Effie Afton was insured against fire damage only, not collision.[27] The fatal fire also conveniently started after all the passengers had been able to exit the vessel and therefore no one was killed in the disaster which is atypical.[28]
Jacob S. Hurd, partial owner and captain of the Effie Aftonclaimed the owners and operators of the Effie Afton had no intention of crashing into the bridge. Supposedly, he was only taking the Bridge Company to court to recover damages, but he must have known that there would be long term ramifications for the Rock Island Bridge Company if he won. The Rock Island Daily Argus noted the day after the disaster that the rumors of an intentional accident were already spreading, and attempted to refute the possibility of such a conspiracy. They claimed that no one in their right mind would have crashed their ship intentionally with all the principal owners on board as well as two hundred passengers. The ship was also only insured for less than half of its value leaving them in financial risk if they had planned the collision in order to damage the bridge and challenge it in court.[29]
Although neither side focused on the issue, the Effie Afton may have crashed due to its size.  If nothing else, the size of the vessel certainly added to other factors which influenced the crash. Smaller steamboats were naturally more maneuverable and had a comparably greater breadth of space when passing through the draw.  The Effie Afton was an enormous vessel at two hundred thirty feet long and thirty-five feet wide.[30] The sheer size of the vessel alone would have complicated passing any obstacle including the rapids above the bridge.  Economic historian Paul F. Paskoff, in his discussion of steamboat disasters, notes that large vessels were at greater risk of getting stuck on both natural and manmade obstructions. Having a long and wide water plane, they were also faster, especially when moving with the current.[31] So if there were cross currents the Effie Afton may have been more subject to them than other vessels as it moved upstream.  The Rock Island Daily Argus also noted that given the size of the vessel “it was almost impossible to change her course in so narrow a passage and against such powerful current and wind.”[32]
Regardless of the true cause, the result of the collision was the destruction of the vessel, its cargo, a span of the bridge, and an invigorated war against the bridge. The primary owner of the Effie Afton, Jacob Hurd, sued the bridge company for damages. Hurd et al. v. Rock Island Railroad Company became a test case in the clash between railroad and steamboat interests. The case was also seen as a regional battle with St. Louis versus Chicago and the North versus the South. The outcome of the case was crucial in determining the route of the Transcontinental Railroad which was being debated hotly at the time.
Riverboat men celebrated the destruction of the bridge and attempted to get an injunction to prevent its repair. Lincoln alluded to this during the case when he discussed the honking of horns and celebration onboard other boats following the incident.[33] A few days after the crash, another steamer was seen moving upriver flying a flag which read: “Mississippi Bridge Destroyed- Let All Rejoice” causing even the pro-river Rock Island Daily Argus to note that the statement was a little too strong.[34]  Lincoln argued in the trial that had a suspension bridge been built steamboat interests would have found a way to make the boats strike the bottom of the bridge.[35] Although these suspicions may or may not have been true, they certainly demonstrate the sectional and economic interests in the case. The case was vital in deciding issues between north-south trade, which favored the steamboat and St. Louis interests, and the east-west trade, which favored the railroads.  It also helped decide whether the Transcontinental Railroad would take a northern or southern route.
Thus, it is not surprising that signs of legal instrumentalism and legal activism were a major part of the case given the economic, sectional, and societal interests. For Hurd and his counterparts, the economic interest is evident. Whether or not they intentionally crashed, they wanted to recover their losses. As members of the river trade they may have wanted to destroy the bridge
which was both a hindrance to their mode of transportation and an economic rival. A defeat in court would have opened the flood gates for further litigation against the bridge and more monetary losses than the Bridge Company could afford to sustain.
Given this fact, the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce backed Hurd and his fellow owners and had even sent a condemnation of the Rock Island Bridge to Congress in Washington a few weeks prior to the Effie Afton crash.[36]  Estimates placed the total fund raised by St. Louis to remove the bridge at $500,000 with about $16,000 slotted for the Effie Afton trial itself.[37] St. Louis had opposed the construction of the bridge from the start as businessmen and politicians feared the bridge would shift trade substantially towards Chicago.
Time proved their fears to be true. According to Riney, “within 18 months after the first train crossed the Rock Island Bridge…two-thirds of the produce once transported by river to St. Louis…had been diverted and sent by rail to Chicago and beyond.”[38] Although the battle in the Effie Afton trial is usually seen as a battle between the railroad and steamboat industries, St. Louis’s own railroad and bridge proponents were well represented in the battle against the bridge. They favored a central route for the Transcontinental Railroad through Missouri. The St. Louis Chamber of Commerce appointed the head engineer for a proposed bridge at St. Louis, Josiah Bissell, who was also a lawyer, in charge of finding any legal means to remove the Rock Island Bridge. [39]  Bissell would later be implicated in a scandal involving an arson attempt against the bridge.[40]
Riney, in Hell Gate on the Mississippi claims that Abraham Lincoln betrayed his earlier support of the river men and joined an “East Coast railroad conglomerate” and eastern capitalists in his fight for the bridge.[41] This is partially true; Norman Judd and John Douglass were both born and raised in the East, and both could be seen as capitalists in that they served in lower positions with railroads and as presidents in different periods of their lives. However, they were not eastern capitalists; they were Illinois residents and were active in Illinois politics.[42] Given Lincoln’s pro-Illinois attitude, it is almost certain that he joined Judd and Douglass because he saw that a victory in this case would promote the railroads which were creating a strong economy in Illinois. 
Joseph Knox of Rock Island City, Illinois also joined Lincoln, Judd, and Douglass. Knox was born in Massachusetts, but moved to Rock Island City as a young man. He had made his name prosecuting the murderers of George Davenport, a key figure in the founding of Rock Island City. He is also the man for which Davenport, Iowa is named.  Davenport’s residence stood on Rock Island where he was murdered in 1845. Knox demonstrated in the murder trial that he was an aggressive and competent lawyer.  Knox, like Judd and Douglass, also had ties to Illinois railroads as an investor in the Rock Island-LaSalle Railroad.[43] Judd hired a reporter from Chicago to report on the case clearly demonstrating that he was confident. He would have had no interest in broadcasting a loss.[44]
Clearly, all three of Lincoln’s counterparts with the Rock Island Bridge counsel had something to gain from a legal victory given that they all had money invested in Illinois railroads. What about Lincoln? What did he have to gain? To begin with, Lincoln was a lawyer primarily for profit and he regularly took cases on both sides of divisive issues. For Hurd et al. v. Rock Island Bridge Co.  Lincoln is said to have been paid handsomely receiving $500 for his legal services; a hefty fee for a “prairie lawyer.”[45] Secondly, he had prestige to gain. Lincoln’s political success was closely tied to his legal success, and his name became well known through the Effie Afton case.
 Although, Riney called Lincoln an “unpolished circuit-rider,” by 1856 Lincoln had thousands of cases on the books at all levels of the court systems including influential cases for the railroads such as Illinois Central Railroad. v. McLean County and Barrett v. Alton-Sangamon Railroad[46] For his work in the McLean County case Lincoln received $5,000, a significant fee compared to the meager $5 he received in many other cases. Lincoln held onto very little of his pay from the McLean county case for long.
According to Lincoln historian Harry E. Pratt, Lincoln lent $2,500 to Judd while he was in Chicago for the Effie Afton trial. Judd then invested the money in real estate in Council Bluffs, Iowa on the opposite side of the state from the Rock Island Bridge at the terminus of the Mississippi-Missouri Railroad. Lincoln visited Council Bluffs a couple years after the case in 1859 to survey the land, but did not receive payment in his lifetime. Instead, Mary Todd Lincoln, Abraham Lincoln’s wife, collected the debt as executor of the estate after Lincoln’s assassination. By that time, the interest on the loan had enlarged Judd’s debt to the Lincolns up to $5,400 more than doubling Lincoln’s initial investment.[47]
Given the influence of St. Louis and the South, Hurd’s counsel might be expected to be full of Southerners. However, this was not the case.  His attorneys were Hezekiah Wead, Corydon Beckwith, and Timothy D. Lincoln. Wead was at the time a resident of Peoria, Illinois but had been born in Vermont and educated in the Northeast. Beckwith was born in Vermont, educated in the Northeast, and moved to Chicago only a few years earlier. As with the other two, Lincoln was trained in the Northeast and born in Massachusetts. After completing his law training he moved to Cincinnati, Ohio where the Effie Afton had been built.  Aside from Lincoln
whose residence in Cincinnati may have connected him to river interests, Hurd’s counsel was not directly tied to the river interests.
Although the incident occurred on May 6, 1856, the trial did not occur in the United States Court in Chicago until September of 1857. The common-law suit occurred in federal jurisdiction because the amount of damages claimed exceeded five hundred dollars. In October of 1856, Hurd and his associates sued the bridge for $200,000 in damages.[48]
 The case was ultimately decided on three points which the bridge’s attorney, Joseph Knox, explained during the case: “They [the plaintiffs] allege, first, that they were running a perfect boat with care and skill through the draw. Second, that we placed the piers so as to form cross currents and eddies. Third, that these cross currents caused the loss of this boat. Each of these allegations must be separately and conclusively proven.”[49] Lincoln noted that the decision rested solely on whether or not the bridge was at fault for the crash of the Effie Afton.[50] As in the Peoria Bridge case, if the boat was piloted without ordinary care the bridge could not be at fault.
Much of the evidence presented by both sides was based on depositions from witnesses who were either involved in the crash or had experience with the bridge.  However, both sides also brought in engineers to testify to the effects of the bridge on the currents.  The plaintiffs argued that the crash was caused by cross currents
which pushed the Effie Afton into the piers of the bridge.  The defendants, however, showed that there were no cross currents, and the Effie Afton had been damaged by reckless piloting earlier in the day.
Lincoln personally made a trip to Rock Island to survey the bridge and the currents. Supposedly, he ran floats through the draw and timed them to verify the speed and direction of the current. Despite claims by the  Effie Afton’s pilot’s of a current of up to twenty miles per hour, Lincoln claimed the current had been conclusively evaluated as being only five miles per hour. Lincoln noted that only one of the “expert witnesses” supplied by the plaintiffs had ever been to Rock Island. Therefore, they were certainly not experts in the water flow around the bridge.[51]
In the closing arguments, the lawyers from both sides emphasized the importance of the case.  Wead, on behalf of the plaintiff, proclaimed: “The question is, is it an obstruction…If out of a thousand boats seven must be injured, is that not an obstruction?” For the defense, Lincoln addressed the jury saying: “The plaintiffs have to establish that the bridge is a material obstruction and that they have managed their boat with reasonable care and skill.” He also noted that many of the details the plaintiffs provided dealing with the wind, high water, and barges had nothing to do with the case as they did not play a part in the incident at hand.[52]
It is clear that the opposing sides had different interpretations of what amounted to an obstruction. Clearly, Hurd’s counsel wanted the bridge to be considered an obstruction even if less than one percent of the boats passing underneath the bridge faced damage. For weeks leading up to the case various newspapers, which supported the river interests, published false accounts of crashes at Rock Island claiming the bridge caused loss of life and property.  They claimed that all of those incidents were due to the fault of the bridge. Collisions on the Mississippi and other major waterways were frequent and loss of life was common, especially when the boilers on steamboats exploded. However, most of these incidents were cause by the instability of steamboat technology not railroad bridges.  The Rock Island Bridge Company’s defense team demonstrated through depositions, Lincoln’s account of the current, and the fact that Hurd’s counsel was clearly manipulating the data, the bridge did not necessarily amount to an obstruction as many of the incidents which occurred may have been due to piloting errors.[53]
During Justice John McLean’s summary of the evidence and final statements he noted in several instances that the dictates of the country necessitate trade and commerce and that the railroads were part of the future of that trade.  Although this is evidently dicta, it can certainly be cited as legal instrumentalism on McLean’s part considering these statements likely influenced the decision of the jury.[54] He notes that “a draw bridge must be convenient and safe” but does not have to be “adapted to the use of ignorant pilots or boatmen” and that the bridge builders are not responsible for winds or other elements they cannot control. He also noted that the interests of the railroad and the riverboats were on equal grounds as was protected by Article 1 Section 9 of the Constitution of the United States of America. [55]
 Despite being a case based on formalist grounds, some of the evidence in the case was entered purely to demonstrate the economic value of the bridge. For example, Judd o was allowed to submit evidence which demonstrated the amount of traffic across the bridge in relation to the river traffic below the bridge.[56] Clearly, this was designed to show the utility of the bridge. However, the utility of the bridge was not in question for the case. Thus, it does seem that this evidence was designed to influence the jury in favor of rail traffic. Justice McLean allowed the evidence to be entered and presented to the jury despite being ultimately irrelevant to the questions at hand and objections from the plaintiffs’ counsel.
When the trial ended, Lincoln expressed that he understood the predicament that faced the steamboat lines, but he also explained that east to west expansion was inevitable and moving at an ever increasing rate. Ultimately, according to Justice McLean, the case rested on formalist grounds of whether or not the jury believed that the Effie Afton was handled with reasonable care. If it was handled with care, the accident had to be caused by the angle of the piers, not any natural causes, for the plaintiffs to recover damages. Like in the Peoria Bridge case, the jury came back split with nine jurors favoring the defense and three favoring the plaintiffs. [57]
Henry Binmore of the Missouri Republican covered the jury selection process and tracked down information on ten of the twelve jurors. According to his findings, ten of the jurors lived in towns which directly benefited from railroads. [58] Larry Riney later tracked down further details and found that most of the jurors had direct ties to the railroad industry. Many of them also owned stock in Illinois railroads. One juror, Isaac Underhill, was even on the board of directors of the Peoria-Bureau Valley Railroad. Norman Judd of the Rock Island Bridge Company defense team was president and director of that very railroad. Riney suggests that the Unites States. Marshall who gathered the jurors, Justice McLean, the lawyers of both sides, or possibly all of the above were involved in some level of collusion considering that the jury was made up of men which directly benefited from the railroads. Because these jurors had an economic interest in the case, they should have been excluded, yet little resistance was applied by the plaintiffs’ counsel.[59]
The Effie Afton case was dismissed with the possibility of a new trial. Hurd attempted to continue his legal battle, but in the end his case never went through. [60] This was seen as a major victory for the railroads over the steamboat lines. James Ward, a boat owner from Iowa, managed to win in Iowa courts and had the bridge declared a nuisance. However, the Supreme Court of the United States in Mississippi and Missouri Railroad Company v. Ward overturned the ruling based on the fact that the piers in question lay outside of Iowa jurisdiction.[61]  According to author Allen Spiegel, the end result of the cases against the Rock Island Bridge was the end of “litigation over railroad bridges spanning waterways.”[62]
Like many important legal cases, Hurd et al. v. Rock Island Bridge Company at the surface seems to be a simple case.  Without looking at the case in detail, it would seem like a straight forward damages claim not unlike cases which entered the court system regularly.  However, what made this case so important was the struggle between railroad, river, and regional interests as well as its relevance to westward expansion. As has been shown, the legal team defending the bridge, including Abraham Lincoln, was financially connected to the case. On the plaintiff’s side, Hurd and his associates were backed by the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce which fought to further the cities own interests including the steamboat industry.
In fact, after Hurd et al. v. Rock Island Bridge Company was dismissed in Chicago, many of the participants in Hurd’s case collided again in another controversy.   The St. Louis Chamber of Commerce’s agent, Josiah Bissell, apparently continued his fight against the bridge through criminal methods in the years after the Effie Afton trial. Bissell also had ties to the Ward cases.  On August 5, 1860, Bissell and Walter F. Chadwick were arrested in connection to a foiled arson attempt against the bridge. They were accused of bribing a police officer to help them burn the bridge using fifty champagne bottles filled with “a highly combustible, treacle-like fluid, known as ‘Greek fire’” which had been shipped to them from St. Louis. The Chicago Journal reported that when the fluid was presented before the “Grand Jury of the Recorder's Court” it nearly caught the room on fire.[63]  The St. Louis Chamber of Commerce denied any involvement through the St. Louis Republican claiming they had never given their agents permission to do anything unlawful. They also countered the claims against their agents claiming that the police had conspired to convict them.[64]
 Joseph Knox, still legal counsel for the bridge, paid Chadwick’s bail and stated that Chadwick was willing to testify against Bissell. Bissell in turn claimed that the railroad promoters had offered him $20,000 to quit working for St. Louis.  Ultimately, as is the Effie Afton trial, the jury came back hung, and neither Bissell nor Chadwick served jail time. Even if they had been convicted, according to Larry Riney, they would have served a maximum of “six months in prison and paid a $100 fine.” It seems both the St. Louis Chamber of Commerce and the Rock Island Bridge Company had not settled their fight, and the battle continued up until the outbreak of the Civil War.[65]
Despite what essentially amounted to legal victories in multiple court cases, the original Rock Island Bridge only lasted until 1866 when a new bridge was constructed on the original piers. Only another six years passed before the current “Government Bridge” opened in November 1872. The new bridge is located on the western edge of Rock Island which is once again an American military establishment. This bridge still stands today after being modified in 1895 to have double tracks and is heavily used by those traveling from Davenport to what is commonly referred to as Arsenal Island. [66] A small stack of bricks and mortar on Arsenal Island are the only remnant of the bridge. They stand with a plaque commemorating the structure.[67]
While the steamboat lines certainly lost business to the ever growing rail network, river traffic was not made obsolete. Barges pass up and down the Mississippi River every day and pass under the Quad Cities’ bridges. However, the bridges remain an impetuous to river traffic as large barges and smaller watercraft alike must pass through the locks near the Government Bridge and slowly negotiate the narrow openings. This remains as a reminder of the steamboats of the nineteenth century who had to traverse the narrow openings on the original bridge.
Standing down river of Rock Island City, provides a picturesque view of the many bridge crossings of the Quad Cities. These bridges are a major symbol of the area. The Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge linking Moline to Davenport and Bettendorf and Centennial Bridge linking Rock Island City and Davenport are the most commonly used, but the older Government Bridge, which replaced the original Rock Island Railroad Bridge, is also regularly used for both automotive and rail traffic.[68] Bridges like these would not have been possible had the legal battles against the Rock Island Railroad Bridge in the middle of the nineteenth century turned out differently.


[1] Mark Steiner, An Honest Calling: The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln (DeKalb: Northern Illinois University Press, 2006), 69.
[2] David A. Pfeiffer, “Bridging the Mississippi: The Railroads and Steamboats Clash at the Rock Island Bridge,” Prologue Magazine Vol. 36, No. 2 (2004).
[3]Larry A. Riney, Hell Gate on the Mississippi: The Effie Afton Trial and Abraham Lincoln’s Role in It (Geneseo: Talesmen Press, 2007), 65.
[4] Riney, Hell Gate, 44.
[5] Andrew Cayton, “Abraham Lincoln and the Problem of Progress” (Indiana Historical Society
Railroad Symposium, 2005), 7.
[6] Pfeiffer, “Bridging the Mississippi.”
[7] Riney, Hell Gate, 67.
[8] Daniel Stowell, ed. , “Hurd et al. v. Rock Island Bridge Company” in The Papers of Abraham Lincoln: Select Documents and Cases vol. 3 (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2008), 320.
[9] Riney, Hell Gate, 72-73.
[10] James Ely Jr., “Lincoln and the Rock Island Bridge Case” (Indiana Historical Society
Railroad Symposium, 2005), 2.
[11]Clark v. Lake 1 IL 229 (1835)
[12] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 314.
[13] “Opinion of Judge Drummond” in The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln 2nd Edition Online, Document ID: 129720
[14]Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 354-357.
[15]Neil and Jeremy Dahlstrom, The Deere Story: A Biography Of Plowmakers John & Charles Deere (DeKalb Northern Illinois University Press, 2005), 32.
[16]“The First Passenger Train,” Rock Island Daily Argus (April 24, 1856).
[17] “Steamer Effie Afton Wrecked—Boat and Cargo a Total Loss—Bridge Partly Burned,” Rock Island Daily Argus,
[18] Stowell, “Hurd v. Rock Island,”  310-311.
[19] Riney, Hell Gate, 3.
[20]Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 312.
[21] “Steamer Effie Afton Wrecked—Boat and Cargo a Total Loss—Bridge Partly Burned,” Rock Island Daily Argus (May 7, 1856).
[22] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 312.
[23] Riney, Hell Gate, 8.
[24]Riney, Hell Gate, 3.
[25] “Steamer Effie Afton Wrecked—Boat and Cargo a Total Loss—Bridge Partly Burned,” Rock Island Daily Argus (May 7, 1856).; “The Loss of the Effie Afton and Rock Island Bridge,” New York Daily Times (May 14, 1856).
[26] Riney, Hell Gate, 79.
[27] Riney, Hell Gate, 16.
[28] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 313
[29] “Steamer Effie Afton Wrecked,” Rock Island Daily Argus.
[30] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 311.
[31] Paul F. Paskoff, Troubled Waters: Steamboat Disasters, River Improvements, and American Public Policy, 1820-1860  (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2007), 135-145.
[32] “Steamer Effie Afton Wrecked,” Rock Island Daily Argus.
[33] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 360.
[34] “How the River Men Feel,” The Rock Island Daily Argus (May 8, 1856).
[35] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 365.
[36] Riney, Hell Gate, 35.
[37] Riney, Hell Gate, 62.
[38] Riney, Hell Gate, 35-36.
[39] Riney, Hell Gate, 39-40.
[40] Riney, Hell Gate, 219-225.
[41] Riney, Hell Gate, 30.
[42]The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, “Biography: Norman B. Judd” in The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln Second Edition.;, The Papers of Abraham Lincoln, “Biography: John M. Douglass” in The Law Practice of Abraham Lincoln.
[43] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 314.
[44] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 316.
[45] Harry E. Pratt, The Personal Finances of Abraham Lincoln (Springfield: Abraham Lincoln Association, 1943), 56.
[46] Riney, Hell Gate, 29.
[47] Pratt, Personal Finances, 78-79.
[48] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 313.
[49] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 353.
[50] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 359-360.
[51] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 356-357.
[52] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 365.
[53] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,”353-365.
[54] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 376-377.
[55] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 376-377.
[56] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 343.
[57] Stowell “Hurd et al.,” 381-382.
[58] Riney, Hell Gate, 133-135.
[59] Riney, Hell Gate, 133-135.
[60] Stowell, “Hurd et al.,” 377-380.
[61] 67 U.S. 485; 17 L. Ed. 311; 1862 US LEXIS 257; Black 485.
[62] Allen Spiegel, A. Lincoln Esquire: A Shrewd, Sophisticated Lawyer in His Time (Macon: Mercer University Press, 2002), 101.
[63] The Chicago Journal, “A Bold Conspiracy…” reprinted in the New York Times (Aug. 12, 1860).
[64] St. Louis Republican, “The Burning of Rock Island Bridge; The St. Louis View of the Affair,” reprinted in The New York Times (Aug. 18, 1860).
[65] Riney, Hell Gate, 220-225.
[66] Pfeiffer, “Bridging the Mississippi.”
[67] See Arsenal Island, Rock Island, Illinois.
[68] The Iowa-Illinois Memorial Bridge is commonly known in the Quad Cities as the 74 Bridge as the pair of bridges connects Interstate 74 from Iowa into Illinois.

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