Abraham Lincoln is the only president with a patent, and that patent was inspired by a steamship ride. But an incident involving a side-wheeled steamship was even more important because it set the stage for modernizing America.
In 1857, Lincoln took on one of the most important cases of his career; it was also critical to America’s future. The trial of Hurd v. Rock Island Bridge Company, better known as the Effie Afton case took place in Chicago. The Effie Afton was a side-wheeler steamship plying the Mississippi River until it ran into a railroad drawbridge crossing the river from Rock Island, Illinois, to Davenport, Iowa. Within minutes, both the steamship and the bridge caught fire and were destroyed. The captain of the Effie Afton, John Hurd, sued the railroad company for obstructing navigation on the river. The railroad company called in Lincoln.
The case was critical because this was the first railroad bridge built across the Mississippi River. It had been opened to rail traffic for only fifteen days before the Effie Afton hit it. Prior to the bridge all commercial traffic ran north to south via the river. Railroads were being built at a rapid pace, and the bridge represented the ability to quickly ship commercial wares east to west, which was a major threat to the steamship business. This was the battle of the steamships versus the railroads, with the result hanging on this precedent-setting trial. Lincoln spent a week on location examining the currents and geography, then gave a persuasive closing statement explaining technical aspects to the jury. As a result, many on the panel were persuaded the bridge was not an obstruction and the crash was caused by operator-error of the steamship’s pilot. Officially the trial ended in a hung jury, but in practice it guaranteed that railroad companies could build bridges across the river without fear of being sued as obstructions. Lincoln had set the stage for opening up the West.
[The above is adapted from my new book, Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due in stores July 31.]
David J. Kent is the author of Lincoln: The Man Who Saved America, due out in late July 2017. His previous books include Tesla: The Wizard of Electricity (2013) and Edison: The Inventor of the Modern World (2016) (both Fall River Press) and two e-books: Nikola Tesla: Renewable Energy Ahead of Its Time and Abraham Lincoln and Nikola Tesla: Connected by Fate.