Lincoln and the Boy on the Bridge

Lincoln with Boy on Bridge by Jeff Adams 2016 “Lincoln with Boy on Bridge”, a 2016 sculpture by Jeff Adams, stands on the riverfront in Davenport, Iowa. The sculpture commemorates Abraham Lincoln’s encounter with a boy named Benjamin Brayton, a footnote to history that was new to me.

The Arsenal Bridge, seen in the background of the photo, spans the Mississippi River from Davenport to Rock Island, Illinois, on roughly the same spot as the first railroad bridge ever to cross that mighty waterway. The Chicago and Rock Island railroad bridge opened in 1856 to cheers from supporters of rail travel and boos from the riverboat owners. Though the bridge was built with a rotating span to allow river traffic through, the riverboat interests still cried foul. Soon after the bridge opened, a riverboat collided with it in a questionable nighttime incident. The boat caught fire, setting fire to the bridge, which burned down. The riverboat owner filed suit against the railroad, and the railroad retained an experienced attorney named Abraham Lincoln to defend the case.

“A little less opinion, a little more fact”

Lincoln had a reputation for thorough preparation of court cases. For this case, he traveled to Rock Island to see the bridge for himself, and met a boy sitting on one of the spans over the river. The boy was Benjamin R. Brayton, son of bridge engineer B.B. Brayton, and he later told of his encounter with the future president.

Upon learning that young Brayton knew a great deal about the bridge and the river, Lincoln said, “I’m mighty glad I came out here where I can get a little less opinion and more fact. Tell me now, how fast does this water run under here?”

Together, Lincoln and Brayton estimated the speed of the river current under the bridge by timing how fast a log traveled from the island to the bridge.

Lincoln collected other information while in Rock Island, which he used to present his closing argument in defending the case. A hung jury resulted in the case being thrown out, which amounted to a win for the railroads. The case confirmed Lincoln’s reputation as a great trial lawyer.

Sources: Bridging the Mississippi, David A. Pfeiffer, Prologue Magazine, 2004, www.archives.gov . New Abraham Lincoln Statue Dedicated in Davenport Park, Amanda Hancock, Quad City Times, January 8, 2016, www.qctimes.com

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