Rolling on the River. . . to a Bridge

How Lincoln and Modern Technology Changed History

When the Effie Afton (not pictured) ran into the Rock Island Railroad Bridge stone pier in 1856, exploding in flames and destroying a section of the bridge, it led to the transcontinental railroad. Today people and goods move across the country from the Atlantic Ocean to the Pacific Ocean because of this court case argued in a Chicago courtroom in 1857. Abraham Lincoln, who had a vision of swifter, cheaper travel and a nation united east and west, joined this legal team before he ran for President.

The case: The Effie Afton highlighted the economic interests of steamboats vs. the railroads and competitors along the Mississippi River. Technically: Hurd et al (steamboat investors) v. The Railroad Bridge Company. The steamboat owners filed suit to recover damages against the Railroad Bridge Company, which retained Lincoln and a panel of lawyers to defend themselves against the steamboat company.

The incident: A high wind whipped across the water as the Effie Afton paddled the upper Mississippi the night before the collision. Calmer morning winds encouraged Affie’s captain to get a fresh start. He zoomed backward from the dock into the steamboat John Wilson butkept going, even engaging in a race to the bridge with the slower J.B. Carson. Effie won the race, but about halfway under the drawbridge, the boat began to sway, then plowed into a supporting pillar for the Rock Island Bridge on May 5, 1856. Just open for two weeks, the Rock Island Bridge was the first railroad bridge to span the Mississippi River.

The impact could be felt from Effie’s bow to stern. Emergency bells blared, and the hissing sound of escaping steam filled the air. Two hundred people were on board, including fifty crew, plus livestock, machinery, farm implements, and groceries weighing more than 350 tons. Desperate passengers braved the cold water to swim to nearby ships, and some even reached out to grab sections of the bridge now jutting down from the suspension. Some cattle swam to shore, but others drowned or burned on board. Every person survived as other steamboats fished them out of the water. Firefighters extinguished smaller fires erupting from space heaters on the deck or cooking stoves in 50 staterooms, but then the timbers of the bridge caught fire. Eventually, the remains of the ship and the fallen bridge span floated down the river until they rested on a Rock Island sandbar.

Steamboat Heyday & History’s Influence

Steamboat traffic in the 1850s became the lifeblood of cities along the river, like St. Louis and New Orleans, bringing food, shelter, and people starting a new life. But the boats could not guarantee when any boat would reach port because of surprise sandbars and snags that could delay a trip for days until a strong wave helped ease the ship back on its way. If you glance at a map of the U.S., you will see the Mississippi and its tributaries follow a winding route, not a straight line, south to New Orleans. The Big Muddy weaves lazily through 3,000 miles of soggy land, taking a trip a bird could fly directly in 675 miles, according to Mark Twain in Life on the Mississippi (2).

Ironically the relative of a future President, great-uncle of Teddy Roosevelt, Nicholas Roosevelt, financially helped build the first steamboat in America with Robert Fulton and Robert R. Livingston in 1810-11 when Abe Lincoln was just two. In October 1811, Roosevelt made the first steamboat trip from Pittsburg to New Orleans aboard the New Orleans with his wife, Lydia Latrobe. Her father, Benjamin Latrobe, served as the second architect of the U.S. Capitol, creating his reputation.

Railroads’ American Entry

America’s railroads grew from a horse-drawn tramway used to carry granite from Quincy, Massachusetts, four miles to Milton to construct the Bunker Hill Monument in 1826, the origin of the Granite Railway. It took thirty years before the rail industry grew to build the Rock Island Bridge over the Mississippi. Just twelve years later, with Lincoln’s assistance in the White House, two trains met at Promontory Point, Utah,on May 10, 1869, opening the transcontinental railroad to passenger and freight traffic from coast-to-coast.

When he was in the Illinois legislature, Lincoln voted to straighten and deepen river channels, build roads, and build bridges over creeks and rivers. In addition, he supported state financing of a nearly one-hundred-mile-long Illinois and Michigan Canal linking the Chicago River (near Lake Michigan) with the Illinois River, which flowed into the Mississippi. A twelve-year project (1836-48), the canal pushed Chicago to become the Midwest’s principal commercial (and agricultural and cattle) center. (Zobrist, “Steamboat Men versus Railroad Men,” 160.)

Lincoln and the Effie Afton

As a prairie lawyer, Lincoln strolled into the Chicago courtroom in the Effie Afton case and proceeded to etch his role in history. Abraham Lincoln, then 48, had hundreds of civil and criminal cases under his belt (eventually totaling 3,200 cases over 25 years). Twenty years earlier, he began to ride Illinois’ Eighth Judicial Circuit on horseback, his proving ground. From spring into summer, he endured the glaring heat and swirling dust on horseback, then returned to do it again each fall.

In his free moments traveling the Circuit, Lincoln read Euclid’s Geometry to study the logic he found there. He put it to use in the courtroom. Once Billy Herndon, his law partner, questioned Lincoln about why he took the jury so far back in the history of the law in a particular case in the Illinois Supreme Court. (Lewis v. Lewis, 48 U.S.[7Howard] 776 (1849) Lincoln’s response: “I dare not trust this case on presumptions that this court knows everything. I argue the case on the presumption that the court did not know anything.” Herndon noted that Lincoln “won the case by the history he was so careful to state fully.”

Lincoln prepared well for jury trials, particularly those before the Illinois Supreme Court. He removed other cases from his calendar to spend a week or two in the library studying both sides.Lincoln would argue the appeals of more than two hundred cases that other lawyers had lost at the trial court level.

In Effie Afton, Abraham Lincoln served on the legal team for the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad Company and the Mississippi and Missouri Railroads, running on either side of the Big Muddy. Lincoln began his speech in his characteristic way by telling the jury that “he did not propose to assail anybody, that he expected to grow earnest as he proceeded but not ill-natured.”When Lincoln spoke of the depth of the river channel under the bridge, following him took attention and some skill. He conveyed detailed information; his voice gave assurance and facts. While his voice was “shrill, squeaking, piping,” as he continued to speak, it “became harmonious, melodious, musical, if you please; his form dilated, swelled out, and he rose a splendid form, erect, straight and dignified.” (Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life 1:320)

Lincoln honed his analytical and debating skills in this case, further building his reputation. He had learned how to communicate effectively with juries, to speak to them in words that would convince them that justice should prevail. During this trial, Francis Saltonstall, a stock and bond broker, recalled Lincoln “seemed to have committed all the facts and figures to memory, and often corrected evidence so effectively as to cause a ripple of mirth in the audience.”  Then Lincoln applied what he learned about appealing to members of the jury to voters in his political life. However, he won his first election to the Illinois State Legislature in 1834, more than two decades earlier.

He didn’t need to stay working in out-back Illinois. After Lincoln won several important cases, a prominent Chicago attorney named Grant Goodrich invited him to join his law practice, but Lincoln said “no,” explaining directly that he “would rather go around the Circuit . . . than sit down & die in Chicago.” (Herndon’s Informant’s: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 349)

When Lincoln spoke of the depth of the river channel under the bridge, following him took attention and some skill. He conveyed detailed information; his voice gave assurance and facts. While his voice was “shrill, squeaking, piping,” as he continued to speak, it “became harmonious, melodious, musical, if you please, with a face somewhat allow; his form dilated, swelled out, and he rose a splendid form, erect, straight and dignified.” (Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln: A Life 1:320)

In this case, he honed his analytical and debating skills, further building his reputation. In addition, he had learned how to communicate effectively with juries, to speak to them in words that would convince them that justice should prevail. Then Lincoln applied what he learned to gather Illinois voters to his political life. He advanced from his earlier victory as an Illinois State Legislator in 1834. During the trial, Francis Saltonstall, a stock and bond broker, recalled Lincoln “seemed to have committed all the facts and figures to memory, and often corrected evidence so effectively as to cause a ripple of mirth in the audience.”  

He didn’t need to stay working in out-back Illinois. After Lincoln won several important cases, a prominent Chicago attorney named Grant Goodrich invited him to join his law practice, but Lincoln said “no,” explaining directly that he “would rather go around the Circuit . . . than sit down & die in Chicago.” (Herndon’s Informant’s: Letters, Interviews, and Statements about Abraham Lincoln, p. 349)

Lincoln would argue the appeals of more than two hundred cases that other lawyers had argued at the trial court level. When preparing for a case before the Illinois Supreme Court, he would quit his other work for a week or two in the court’s library or his office. When he stood to argue an appeal before the Illinois Supreme Court, the opposing lawyer never had an opportunity to make a point Lincoln had not already investigated.

Lincoln on the River:

As a youth, Lincoln learned to navigate the Mississippi River. In 1827, when he was 18, he operated a private flatboat ferry on Little Pigeon Creek, charging twenty cents daily. Eventually, regular ferry operators became angry and arrested him for operating a ferry without a license. He defended himself before a justice of the peace. Lincoln argued that Kentucky law (he lived close to the border between the two states) did not forbid non-licensed ferry boats from conveying passengers to steamboats in the middle of the river. Later Lincoln said this experience helped him develop an interest in the law.

Far from being against water transportation, Lincoln appreciated what steamboats could do to widen the horizons of his fellow Midwesterners. So he built a simple flatboat sailing down the Mississippi to New Orleans. While there, Lincoln saw many black people, including women and children, in chains, being bought and sold in the market, many to work on plantations growing cotton. That experience awakened him to the perils of slavery and stayed with him throughout his political career.

This case fell within Lincoln’s philosophy –the American System–(and the 1830 Whig Party philosophy of Henry Clay). The Whigs called for tariffs to protect and promote American manufacturing and create a home market for American products, a national bank to provide a sound and uniform currency, and federal support for roads, canals, and river improvements.” (Holt, Rise, and Fall of American Whig Party, speech by Henry Clay, March 30, 1830)

History’s Verdict of the Effie Afton

Abraham Lincoln cemented his legal reputation based on this victory. Then after a series of debates with Stephen Douglas, Lincoln overcame better-known candidates to be the Republican nominee and mounted a successful campaign for President in 1860. (Although candidates did not travel around the country in those days, but had surrogates who spoke for them.) But, unfortunately, the jurors could not reach a legally binding verdict—the jury was hung—since they could not reach a unanimous decision. Financial results show the steamboat companies’ fears of the rail industry were realistic. Still, technological change brought faster, less expensive, more reliable transportation that made all the difference, sinking the steamboat trade.  

  • Despite the Effie Afton litigation cost, the railroad spanning the Mississippi made money the year after the decision.
  • 1866 – Railroad bridges were funded and built at Quincy, Ill; Burlington, Iowa; Hannibal, MO; Prairie du Chien, WI; Keokuk, Iowa; Winona, MN; Dubuque, Iowa, and St. Louis and Kansas City, MO
  • 1879 –  More than 85 percent of farm products were shipped from states along the Mississippi by rail and 15 percent by the river.
  • By 1890, the entire rail business out of St. Louis was twelve times the river traffic; by 1906, it was one hundred times.

But just a few decades after the court’s ruling, these economic events gave the victory to travel by rail that now operates across the country. Of course, as history continues, rail passenger travel focuses more on efficient regional trips on both coasts. Now less bulky freight travels by air for swifter service. Instead, large trucks carry products to final destinations, generally for shorter distances, though some 18-wheel trucks haul bulky equipment and agricultural products.

All transportation services compete for drivers and currently rail freight engineers are negotiating higher salaries and sick leave after working through the Pandemic without upgrades. Transportation that moves America will continue to evolve as advances in electric batteries create opportunities for less polluting vehicles. However, the electricity that runs the modern vehicles still relies in part on coal as an energy source. New inventions and advances in energy sources will bring new challenges, just as in the 19th century.  

Notes:

McGinty, Brian. Lincoln’s Greatest Case: The River, the Bridge, and the Making of America (New York: Liveright Publishing Corp., a division of W.W. Norton & Company, 2015)

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