I’ve told you before about the first railroad bridge to span the Mississippi River, connecting Davenport, Iowa, with Rock Island, Illinois. (Read about how Robert E. Lee, Jeff Davis, and Abe Lincoln all had their hands in the project.) But you’ve got to read the Chicago Press report of the first crossing, on April 22, 1856, to get a sense of how a big a deal this was. For instance, the paper begins its coverage with, of all people, Julius Caesar (excuse, if you can, the garbled syntax):
When Caesar with his legions crossed the Rubicon, which divides Cissalpine Gaul from Italy, he was well aware of the greatness of the work he was engaged in; and although many attempted to dissuade him from such an undertaking, yet nothing daunted he landed his array on the plains of Italy, astonished the world by his deeds—and left mankind an instance of bravery and enterprise worthy of record.
Et tu, Davenport?
We, too, however, have crossed the “Rubicon”—the great “Father of Waters”—which for centuries has rolled on into the bosom of the mighty ocean without a pier to mar its progress. To-day has the mighty deed been accomplished at which the world has so often smiled in derision. Yes, the Mississippi is practically no more. It is spanned by the mighty artery of commerce and enterprise—the railroad. Science has stretched its arms across the ever-flowing Mississippi—and along its fine-knit muscles has the “iron horse” bounded with a heavy snort as it scent from afar the sluggish waters of the Missouri. The mission of Caesar of old was to conquer; so that of the Caesar of the nineteenth century; but the latter is one of peace and plenty. The “war horse” of civilization may have fiery nostrils, but it has an olive branch, the seeds from which it scatters as it flies.
The New York Daily Times, which ran a story on April 28, was not given to such melodrama. It lopped off those two grafs from the Press’s coverage and began here:
That such an event should have occurred without an assemblage of spectators from all quarters of the globe to witness it, is only another instance of the mighty progress which has been made within the last fifty years in the science of bridge building. As we approached Rock Island there were rumors afloat that we would cross to Iowa on the bridge. “Cross the Mississippi on a bridge!” cried an intelligent looking gentleman. “On a bridge?” simpered a feminine voice from a young lady to her parents, bound for Council Bluffs; “why, Pa, I thought the Mississippi was a great river, larger than the Hudson.”
The Times went on to provide specs of the bridge, blah blah blah, but cut the big moment—when train meets bridge! So back to the Press:
Swiftly we sped along the iron track—Rock Island appeared in sight—the whistle sounded and the conductor cried out, “Passengers for Iowa keep their seats!” There was a pause—a hush, as it were, preparatory to the fierceness of a tornado. Tho cars roared on—the bridge was reached—“We’re on the bridge—see the mighty Mississippi rolling on beneath”—and all eyes were fastened on the mighty parapets of the magnificent bridge, over which we glided in solemn silence. A few minutes and the suspended breath was let loose. “We’re over!” was the cry, “we have crossed the Mississippi in a railroad car.” “This is glory enough for one day,” said a passenger, as he hustled his carpetbag and himself out of the cars.