The First Bridge Over the Mississippi and the Effie Afton

In April 1856 the Chicago and Rock Island Rail Road built a bridge across the Mississippi River. It linked the Chicago and Rock Island Rail Road in Illinois with the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad in Iowa. This bridge, which spanned the river between Rock Island and Davenport was very important for a number of reasons.

It was the first railroad bridge across the Mississippi River. A bridge across the Mississippi was necessary for the future transcontinental railroad. And the bridge was important because of controversy that surrounded it. The legal questions it brought forth gained national attention and forced the courts to make lasting decisions about bridge building.

In the 1850s when the bridge was built, steamboats were the main means of transportation for passengers and cargo along the Mississippi. Trains, however, could go places a steamboat could not, and the steamboat owners knew this gave trains a big advantage. If trains could get across the Mississippi, they could replace the steamboat as the main means of transportation.

Effie Afton Hits the Bridge

On May 6, 1856 a steamboat named Effie Afton crashed into the bridge, destroying the steamboat as well as part of the bridge. The owners of the Effie Afton decided to take the railroad companies that had built the bridge to court. They wanted the railroad companies to pay for damages to the Effie Afton and its cargo. They also wanted the court to declare the bridge a danger to river travel and order its removal. The case went to court in Chicago in September of 1857.

Effie Afton Sues

The lawyers for the steamboat owners said the bridge was a hazard to boat travel on the Mississippi River. They said the bridge should be torn down before more boats ran into it and before anybody was killed in an accident like the Effie Afton's. The lawyers for the railroads which included a young Abraham Lincoln, said the bridge was not a hazard to navigation on the river if steamboat pilots were careful. They said it was the Effie Afton's fault it had run into the bridge. They pointed out that railroads were just as important for transportation as the steamboats, maybe more important. For three to four months of the year steamboats could not travel the northern part of the Mississippi River because it was frozen over or filled with ice. Trains on the other hand, could operate year-round. The railroad companies had just as much legal right to build a bridge across the Mississippi as the steamboats had to use the river.

The jury on the case voted nine to three against the bridge. The case went next to the United States Congress. Congress decided the bridge was a hazard to navigation and should be removed but left it to the courts to decide the bridge's fate. The case was finally settled in December of 1862 by the Supreme Court of the United States. The bridge was allowed to stand.


  • Hugh Swarts "Derailed," The Goldfinch 5, No. 2 (November. 1983) 12.