Abraham Lincoln is listening to a young man seated on a railroad track. Lincoln’s deep-set eyes look outward, not returning the gaze of the young man. His left hand rises to his face in a speaking gesture, but his smile seems to have frozen – cut off as if by a sudden realization.
This 13-foot-tall cast-bronze sculpture by Jeff Adams, Lincoln with Boy on Bridge, is the visual centerpiece of Bechtel Park, a pleasant landscaped respite on Second Street in downtown Davenport between the traffic on River Drive and the Arsenal bridge. The sculpture was installed on January 6.
The two people are positioned over the outer railroad ties in the sculpture’s base – leaving an open space between the figures in the artwork’s compositional center. The placement of Lincoln off to one side emphasizes that he was not yet a towering historical figure in 1857, when he spoke with the boy on the bridge.
The bridge is part of the sculpture’s narrative, but it is also used as a symbol of transition. Through this symbolism (the figure in Edvard Munch’s The Scream is also standing on a bridge) and the sense of revelation conveyed by Lincoln’s face, the sculpture subtly expresses that the prairie lawyer stands at a pivotal point in his life.
In only three years, he would be elected president – and would be guiding the nation through a cataclysmic civil war soon after. A foreshadowing of this leadership is expressed in the back of the sculpture, where Lincoln’s figure is clearly seen to be in a classical contrapposto pose (with his weight on one leg and the shoulders and arms turned slightly off-axis from the hips and legs) – similar to the heroic stance of Michelangelo’s David.
Significantly, the rail tracks on the Arsenal Bridge are directly behind the sculpture. The current bridge is the fourth in a succession of bridges that crossed the Mississippi from Arsenal Island to Davenport. The original bridge, finished April 21, 1856, was the first railroad bridge to cross the Mississippi. Its construction pitted the railroad against the steamboat, Chicago against St. Louis, North against South. Jefferson Davis, then secretary of war and previously a senator from Mississippi, tried to stop the bridge’s construction when he realized it would provide a direct transportation route from East to West, bypassing the South.
Just 15 days after its completion, the wooden bridge was badly damaged when a newly built steamboat, the Effie Afton, crashed into its piers. As reported in the Chicago Democratic Press:
“The upper works of the boat struck against the bridge with so much violence as to knock all in pieces; smoke pipes, stoves, and the like were thrown down. The boat was set on fire in two or three places. (The hull of the boat was in the meantime pressed under the bridge by the force of the current.)
“The flames, however, were soon communicated to the bridge. The outer end burned off and fell upon the burning steamer; the other end of that span was cut away, and bridge and steamer floated down together, a sheet of flame. In the meantime the excitement had spread through the two adjacent cities, and thousands from Rock Island and Davenport stood upon the shores watching the sublime spectacle.”
The boat’s owner and operator, Jacob S. Hurd, brought suit in the federal circuit court in Chicago, claiming obstruction of commerce and seeking $200,000 in damages from the railroad company that built the bridge. Hurd hoped that the high amount of damages would make bridges across the river unprofitable – compelling the railroads to unload freight on one side of the river and use ferries to transport it to the opposite shore. The St. Louis Chamber of Commerce raised money for Hurd’s legal fees, as the steamboat trade was paramount to the city’s stature as the “Gateway to the West.”
The railroad would choose an Illinois lawyer, Abraham Lincoln, to lead its defense. Although Lincoln had more than 5,000 trials under his belt, Hurd V. Rock Island Bridge Company would be his most important. His significant role in the landmark trial would bring Lincoln to the nation’s attention for the first time.
In September 1857, shortly before the case began, Lincoln traveled to Rock Island to see the site firsthand. He talked with Benjamin Brayton, then 15 years old, after first talking with the bridge master and engineer. According to Brayton’s recollection in 1905, Lincoln approached him after he wasn’t satisfied with the explanations given to him by others. The two of them walked out to the head of the pier, where Lincoln asked questions about the river’s current. He remarked that he understood the situation after their talk and thanked Brayton before leaving.
Based on his observation with the young man of the river’s current, speeds, eddies, and traffic, Lincoln convincingly argued in the trial that pilot error and mechanical failure, not the bridge, caused the destruction of the Effie Afton. He also put the case into a national context – pointing out that there was a need for “travel from East to West, whose demands are not less important than that of the river.”
The 14-day trial ended in a hung jury. Yet the 9-3 jury vote against Hurd was, effectively, a victory for Chicago and the railroads. The case was brought before the Supreme Court in 1862, where the bridge owners’ victory was affirmed.
The case also was instrumental in creating the first transcontinental railroad; construction on this northern route began in 1863. By then, Lincoln was the president of the United States, and Davis was the president of the Confederacy.
Bruce Walters is a professor of art at Western Illinois University.
This is part of an occasional series on the history of public art in the Quad Cities. If there’s a piece of public art that you’d like to learn more about, e-mail the location and a brief description to BD-Walters@wiu.edu.