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Brief History of Government Bridge at Rock Island Arsenal. Illinois

Updated on August 28, 2015
Driving through the bridge
Driving through the bridge | Source
tugboat coming through the locks
tugboat coming through the locks | Source
Barges by the locks
Barges by the locks | Source

Government Bridge

The Government Bridge, also known as the Arsenal Bridge crosses the Mississippi River from Davenport, Iowa to Arsenal Island near historic Fort Armstrong. It is owned and maintained by the United States Government and it carries two lanes of traffic and two rail lines. There is a lock and dam, Lock and Dam No. 15, at this location with a considerable amount of river traffic. The bridge has a “swing span” which is a section of the bridge that swings around to let river traffic through. As I understand it, the custom of laws of water traffic gives the river traffic priority over other traffic, at least car traffic. As such, if barges want to come through, traffic is stopped, and the span swings out to let the boats and barges through. It is something of an annoyance for those who work on the Island or need to drive though to the City of Rock Island. The span is a section of the bridge that pivots to a 90 degree angle.

The original bridge was built in the 1850s, 1500 ft. south of the present one. It was the first railroad bridge to span the Mississippi River.and was important until the First Transcontinental Railroad was built. The planners envisioned a connection of two railroads–the Chicago and Rock Island Missouri Railroad was a new line and the first in Iowa.

Not everyone was in favor of the bridge or the railroads. Steamship companies objected to the bridge as a potential hazard to navigation. Up until that time the steamships had a hold of a virtual monopoly on river trade. This proved to be an important factor in the history of the bridge.

Jefferson Davis and Abraham Lincoln

The government bridge proved to involve two personages of the Civil War which was to come later. At the time the bridge was being built, Jefferson Davis, future President of the Confederate States, was secretary of War under President Franklin Pierce. He was involved in the bridge because the Department of War had an interest in the bridge because the island had been the home of Fort Armstrong, although it was no longer active. Davis gave initial approval on the basis of thinking the transcontinental railroad would go to Los Angeles, California through the South. Later, Davis opposed the bridge because he thought it might go through the North. He attempted to halt construction but failed to do so and the bridge opened April 22, 1856. Davis is best known as the President of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

Barges and tug boat
Barges and tug boat | Source

Rock Island line

Hurd vs. Rock Island Railroad Company was a lawsuit between the Rock Island Railroad company and the owner of a steamboat called the “Effie Afton.” Which was the fastest side wheel steamship on the Mississippi. When it hit the Rock Island Railroad Bridge, the owner of the ship sued the Rock Island Railroad Company. The steamship owner was suing for fifty thousand dollars, according to an article by Jay Shultz of Washington School in Peoria. The railroad retained future United States President Abraham Lincoln to defend them. It was an important case in Lincoln’s legal career.

There were some people who thought the ship hit the bridge deliberately. The steamer was destroyed by fire as a small coal stove must have set it off when the boat hit. The bridge also caught fire and burned after a portion of the bridge was knocked into the river. What was left of the bridge, burned the next day. Steamboat Pilots blew their whistles in celebration, according to Jay Shultz.

The Railroad argued that the lawsuit was an attempt by the steamboat owner and his supporters to destroy the bridge project. The case was dismissed because of a hung jury. Later, the case got to the supreme court in 1862, during the American Civil War. The decision went in favor of the bridge.

By 1866 the bridge was considered unable to handle the heavier loads being carried by the railroads and the current bridge was built in 1896. It is the fourth bridge crossing the Mississippi in the vicinity. Rail tracks are on the upper level and road traffic on the lower level.

Sources for this article are:

Wikipedia article on “Government Bridge”

article by Jay Shultz of Washington School, Peoria

Copyright 2011 Don Hoglund

A markerRock Island Arsenal -
Rock Island Arsenal, IL 61201, USA
get directions

Location of Rock Island arsenal


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    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for commenting, suziecat. Glad you found it interesting.

    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 5 years ago from Asheville, NC

      Though I've never been there, I enjoyed learning about the history behind this bridge. Thanks for the interesting read.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Vern,

      Arsenal Island has a lot of ties to history.The swing span, I think. is unique but a pain at traffic hour.Thanks for reading it.

    • profile image

      Vern 5 years ago

      Good history piece, Don. Neat old bridge! The tie-in to Davis and Lincoln is interesting. Thanks!

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      There are a lot of historical things in that area. I am glad you liked this little glimpse into one bit of it. Thanks for commenting.

    • drbj profile image

      drbj and sherry 5 years ago from south Florida

      I traveled on this bridge several times when visiting my son who was attending achool in Rock Island, but never knew the details about its fascinating history. Thank you, Don, for enriching my knowledge. Voted Up.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Hi Peggy,

      These are pictures I apparently took when we first got there or sometime in the early 1980s.I think everyone I knew there is either retired or been transferred to Warren, Michigan. I have been wanting to take a trip to the quad cities anyhow and get some pictures of other things.

      Thanks for linking to this hub, and your votes

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 5 years ago from Houston, Texas

      Hi Don,

      I really enjoyed learning more about this bridge especially since we drove over it and also took pictures of it. Thanks for including a link to my Rock Island's U.S. Army Arsenal hub. We found that entire area to be of great interest. Will link this hub to mine as well.

      Voted up, interesting and useful.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids


      Thanks for commenting. I tend to agree that everything has a history of some sort.

    • libby1970 profile image

      libby1970 5 years ago from KY

      Very informative! I love learning new stuff about the history of things! Everything has a history and it is so interesting. Awesome! Thanks for a good read.

    • dahoglund profile image

      Don A. Hoglund 5 years ago from Wisconsin Rapids

      Thanks for the first comment,Will. It is a place of history.

    • WillStarr profile image

      WillStarr 5 years ago from Phoenix, Arizona

      I love this sort of stuff, Don!

      Voted up.