John McPhee has recently written two pieces for the New Yorker* that have made me feel much better about myself. The first word in one is “Block” – as in writer’s. The other begins (well a sentence or so in…): “I lay down on it (a picnic table) for nearly two weeks, staring up into branches and leaves, fighting fear and panic, because I had no idea where or how to begin a piece of writing…I had assembled enough material to fill a silo, and now I had no idea what to do with it…”
The project I’ve undertaken is a big one and the research part is fun. I greatly enjoy learning new stuff and meeting interesting people. The problem comes when I try to convince myself to to make something out of it all. As opposed to McPhee though, I don’t fight fear or panic, I just daydream, something at which my roommate will tell you I am very very good.
Above you see the view out the window of my office. Nice, huh? On the far side of the river is a ‘tow’** making its way through the lock and dam. It is interesting because the river’s high just now and I’ve noticed that there is an extra towboat out there to help ensure smooth passage of the narrow channel. I looked into it and found that the Corps of Engineers mandates the presence of auxiliary muscle when the river level is above a certain point. And that each nudge costs the barge line hundreds of dollars.
The bridge you see isn’t the original. The first railroad bridge across the Mississippi was up river just a hundred or so yards from there. Its development and construction were problematic and contentious with Jefferson Davis, Secretary of War under Franklin Pierce, preferring a span further to the south and the steamboat lines, fearful of competition, claiming that a bridge would impede efficient river travel. Litigation ensued but the project moved forward nonetheless with a survey by Robert E Lee.
The last rails were laid on the morning of April 21, 1856 and a steam locomotive pulled the first cars across soon thereafter. Fifteen days later disaster struck. On the evening of May 6 the nearly new Effie Afton, was making her way up river and several hundred yards after she passed through the draw, something caused one engine to fail, she heeled to starboard, and crashed into the bridge. The resulting conflagration destroyed both.
Hearing the news the next day, steamboats up and down river blew their whistles in solidarity. Capt John Hurd filed suit against the Railroad Bridge Company claiming that eddies created by the bridge’s piers had been the cause of the loss of his ship and cargo. The Rock Island Railroad Company held that the crash had been deliberate and hired Abraham Lincoln to defend their interests.
The case ended with a hung jury which was considered a victory for Lincoln, the Rock Island Lines, and Chicago over the steamboats and St Louis. It was crucial to his career as a lawyer and an important precursor to his first presidential campaign three years later… Lincoln? The Rock Island Lines? Steamboats and St Louis? Wait, uh, what were we talking about?
*1/14/13 and 4/29/13
** “Tow” is the term used to describe a floating means of transporting freight comprised of a towboat and as many as forty 200’ barges, though not so many this far north. Odd that they’re call ‘tow’boats because they don’t tow, they push.