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Figge Art Museum Presents Crossing the Mississippi The Quad Cities, the Railroad and Art

The Figge Art Museum presents Crossing the Mississippi: The Quad Cities, the Railroad and Art on view

The arrival of the railroad in the mid-nineteenth century sparked a period of tremendous economic growth that transformed the social and physical landscape of the Quad Cities.

Image Courtesy of the Davenport Public Library

Plans for a railroad connecting the Mississippi River to the Atlantic developed as early as 1828 but came to fruition only in 1851 when, under the direction of Henry Farnam and Joseph Sheffield, construction of the Chicago and Rock Island Railroad (CRI) began. Within three years and amidst great fanfare, the first train from Chicago reached Rock Island. Similar plans to introduce the railroad to Iowa were set into motion in 1853 when the Iowa legislature approved the charter for the Mississippi and Missouri Railroad (M & M). Two years later steam engines linked Davenport with Muscatine and Iowa City but when the M & M suffered the effects of the Civil War, they merged with the CRI in 1866 to form the Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railroad Company (CRI&P RR).

Building a bridge across the Mississippi to connect the Iowa and Illinois railroads however proved to be far more controversial. Steamboats had previously monopolized the transportation of goods across the country and the threat posed by the railroads prompted the steamboats to file multiple lawsuits. Despite this, work was begun in 1854 and the bridge completed by 1856. Stretching between Davenport and the Rock Island Arsenal Island, the bridge consisted of stone piers supporting five fixed wooden spans and a swing span that offered unobstructed passage to the steamboats. Additional support became necessary in 1858 to compensate for the weight of the locomotives and cars, but the improvements were not enough, and in 1866 the bridge spans had to be replaced with a more solid construction. Soon thereafter, the U.S. government decided to assume control over the entire island and the bridge had to be moved to a different location. The original bridge was removed and a new iron bridge anchored by piers of masonry was completed in 1872. Poor planning, however, demanded yet another new bridge to be built. This fourth and final bridge opened in 1895 and featured a double deck bridge that accommodated trains on the upper deck and vehicles on the lower one.

The development of railroads in Iowa and Illinois offered industries and businesses access to broader geographical markets. Coupled with a natural abundance of raw materials, the Quad Cities became the ideal location for large machinery manufacturers that specialized in railroad equipment and materials like the Bettendorf Axle Company and Davenport Besler Company, established in 1895 and 1901 respectively. The Bettendorf Axle Company invented railroad truck side frames that, cast from a single sheet of steel, improved the safety and speed of trains, while the Davenport Besler Corporation (previously called the Davenport Locomotive Works) specialized in locomotives that were transported all around the world. In addition to these railroad manufacturing companies, businesses specializing in agricultural production sprouted along the Rock Island Lines. Railroads allowed industries to ship grains and produce to their processing plants and deliver their finished products to markets outside of the Quad Cities.

The railroad, however, did not only boost the economic growth of communities but also radiated an aura of glamor and romance. Railroad companies offered a variety of amenities to their passengers who sought to travel longer distances. Comfortable sleeping cars featured foldable berths, bathroom facilities and even private sitting rooms while dining cars, first introduced on the CRI & P, offered meals on elegant place settings. Celebrities and political personages often took advantage of trains when appearing to the public. During the movie premiere of the 1950s film about the CRI & P called the Rock Island Trails, Hollywood stars including Roy Rogers, Dale Evans, John Wayne and Rock Island native June Haver made their grand entrance by the train.

The importance of the CRI & P waned increasingly after 1953 when trucks and later airplanes replaced railroads as the primary means of transporting goods. As businesses turned away from railroads, the already precarious finances of the CRI & P became increasingly under pressure and by 1980 the railroad line was shut down.

This exhibition will include works on loan from the Rock Island Arsenal Museum, the Richardson-Sloane Special Collections Center of the Davenport Public Library and the Putnam Museum.

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