The historic Government Bridge between downtown Davenport and Arsenal Island is much more than a rail and motor vehicle traffic conduit over the Mississippi River.
The iconic structure with its swing span is a one-of-a-kind engineering feat whose builder, Ralph Modjeski (1861-1940), was as equally talented at the piano as at designing bridges.
Such little-known facts will be revealed March 27 at the 12th annual Quad-Cities Henry Farnam Dinner at Jumer's Hotel and Casino in Rock Island.
The program will be led off by filmmakers Basia and Leonard Myszynski, who will show clips of the Government Bridge from their new documentary, “Bridging Urban America: The Story of Master Engineer Ralph Modjeski,” which is scheduled for release this summer.
Next, Jeffrey W. Newman, a registered professional engineer and senior project manager at Modjeski and Masters, the bridge-building firm founded by Ralph Modjeski, will offer a historical perspective and behind-the-scenes look into the operation of the Government Bridge as well as an insider's view of other bridges designed by Modjeski.
The Myszynskis, the founders of sOlar Eye Communications in Irvine, Calif., have created a variety of promotions, television commercials and documentaries that include the award-winning “Modjeska-Woman Triumphant” on the life of Ralph Modjeski's actress mother, Helena Modjeska.
Newman , a mechanical engineer and 23-year employee at Modjeski and Masters, has worked on hundreds of movable spans, or drawbridges, around the world and was the lead engineer on all upgrades of the Government Bridge that were completed between 2001 and 2011.
They all agree that the Government Bridge, functioning as well as ever since its completion in 1896, is a one-of-a-kind structure created by a gifted and prolific engineer.
It was Modjeski's first project after he established his own business in Chicago during 1893. Often referred to as “America's greatest bridge builder,” the Polish immigrant went on to design some 40 bridges in North America. They include the Quebec Bridge, the San Francisco-Oakland Bay Bridge and the Interstate 74 bridge in the Quad-Cities. (That bridge's replacement, scheduled for completion in 2020, is also a design by Modjeski and Masters, in association with Alfred Benesch & Co.)
Basia Myszynski said the Government Bridge gave Modjeski self-confidence that propelled him on to his stellar career. She said he often took risks by crawling out on structures with his workers.
“He would not ask them to do anything he would not do,” she said.
Newman said the Government Bridge can swing 360 degrees in any direction to allow river traffic to pass through.
“I know of no other swing bridge in the world that can do that,” he said. The bridge rotates on two large chains, one on each side, that engage a fixed sprocket on the center pier. Unlike most swing bridges that use gearing, he said, the Government Bridge operates like a bicycle chain.
He credits the bridge's longevity to the intense pride that Arsenal Island workers have in maintaining it. The Arsenal's most recent traffic count shows that 20,000 vehicles use the bridge daily. Fatigue caused by rail traffic, which would cause the most stress on the bridge, is minimal, he said.
“If properly maintained, it will last another hundred years.”