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Hurd v. Rock Island Railroad Company
A Turning Point in Abraham Lincoln's Legal Career

Jay Shultz
Washington School, Peoria

On the night of May 6, 1856, the Effie Afton, the fastest sidewheel steamboat on the Mississippi River, ran into the Rock Island Railroad Bridge, thus causing the owner of the boat to sue the Rock Island Railroad Company for Fifty thousand dollars. Abraham Lincoln was retained by the railroad to defend it against the charges brought by the owner of the Effie Afton. More than the loss of a steamboat was at stake. If the railroads could not span the Mississippi River with bridges, then they would not be able to connect the railways in the east to the railways in the developing western United States. Hurd v. Rock Island Railroad Company proved to be a dramatic turning point in the career of Abraham Lincoln as a lawyer.

People were angry when talk of building a bridge across the Mississippi River first began. The Rock Island Railroad Company planned to build a structure from Rock Island, Illinois, to Iowa to make it possible for trains to cross the river. It was to be the first railroad bridge ever to span the Mississippi River, and it was to connect a railway in Illinois with another in Iowa. Despite the objections, construction of the bridge was approved in 1854, thus escalating the controversy. At one point, public protests were so strong that an appeal was made to Jefferson Davis, the Secretary of War, not to break ground on a federally owned island that was needed for the bridge's construction. Steamboat captains despised the bridge because they feared that railroads would overtake them as the principal means of transportation. Railroads needed the bridge to create a transcontinental railway system to carry out the nation's rapid westward expansion. Some people suspected that the collision was an intentional attempt to topple the bridge.

On the fateful night when the Effie Afton crashed into a pier of the railway bridge, the boat caught fire and burned to cinders in less than five minutes due to a small coal stove on board. John Hurd, the boat owner, claimed that the boat sustained fifty thousand dollars in damages. In addition to the loss of the boat, a portion of the bridge was knocked into the river. By the following day, the rest of the bridge caught fire and was completely destroyed. Steamboat captains blew their boat whistles in delight to celebrate the burning of the bridge.

Hurd, the steamboat owner, filed a lawsuit in federal court in Chicago, Illinois, to recover the fifty thousand dollars value of the boat from the owner of the bridge, the Rock Island Railroad Company. Although the boat owner claimed the bridge was a hazard to navigation, the railroad claimed that the lawsuit was a deliberate effort by the boat owner and his supporters to have the bridge destroyed. Chicago bustled with news that a forty-four-year-old trial lawyer from Springfield, Illinois, was about to try a case for one of the biggest railroad and bridge companies in the state. The trial was held in a small Chicago courtroom nicknamed "The Salon." Indeed, it was so small that only the judge, lawyers, clients, and a few spectators could fit into it. The trial was a bitter battle between the two sides. Lincoln's closing argument was so persuasive that the jury was incapable of reaching a decision in favor of either side, so the judge dismissed the case.

Abraham Lincoln was selected by the Rock Island Railroad Company to represent it because of his trial capabilities combined with his previous knowledge of railroad cases. Lincoln mastered all of the facts about the river, the bridge, the steamboat operation, and the crash, and prior to the trial Lincoln visited the crash site. He was brought into the case only four weeks before the trial began. Although Lincoln had many assistants, he took charge and tried the case himself. Hurd v. Rock Island Railroad Company was a pivotal case in Lincoln's career and solidified his reputation as a great trial lawyer. The notoriety he received spread his name across Illinois, and the lessons he learned in this trial and others served him well during his presidency.[From J.J. Duff, A. Lincoln; F. T. Hill, Lincoln the Lawyer; J. Key, "A. Lincoln," ABA Journal, (Feb. 1994); S. B. Oates, "Abraham Lincoln, Illinois Lawyer" American History Illustrated; F. G. Saltonstall, "Recollections," American History; R Selby, Stories and Speeches of Abraham Lincoln.]


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