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Ralph Modjeski - Bridge Builder

by Peter J. Obst

The Quebec City Bridge, 1917
San Francisco Bay Bridge, 1936
Ralph Modjeski with Philadelphia's
1926 Benjamin Franklin Bridge

After the car crested the rise called "Furniture Hill" going south on I-95, my Polish visitor was able to see and marvel at the Philadelphia skyline in its nighttime splendor. Since the 1970s the city-scape had undergone some dramatic changes, especially after the unwritten rule of keeping building height below that of the city hall tower had been broken. Actually, Philadelphia benefitted from not having tall buildings built during the glass-box office building era. The office towers of recent
Franklin Bridge
Franklin Bridge at night
vintage have a true architectural style with spires and details that would make a resident of the Emerald City in the Land of Oz twinge with envy. Still, thanks to clever city planning, the old familiar landmarks remain unobstructed. The huge yellow eye of the city hall clock glows serenely in the darkness at mid-town while to the east, over the dark waters of the Delaware River, is a spectacular view of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, illuminated by a lighting system especially installed to show off the best features of the suspension span.

-- Do you know who built that bridge? -- I asked, not expecting a real answer, and not being surprised when he said no.
-- It was a Polish engineer named Ralph Modjeski - Rudolf Modrzejewski - son of the actress Helena Modrzejewska."
-- I certainly heard about her but I never knew she had a son... -- he replied.

Young Ralph

Ralph Modjeski (Rudolf Modrzejewski) was born on January 27,1861 in Bochnia, in the Galicja area of Poland, during a time when Poland was divided among the partitioning powers of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. Galicja was in the Austrian zone, whose government was regarded as the most liberal of the foreign occupying powers, allowing the Polish residents some liberties. His father was Gustav Zimajer who used the stage name Modrzejewski, a theatrical promoter who was also Helen's manager and patron, having made her the star of an acting troupe which toured the provincial towns. Tired of the constant relocation and conscious of her talent and potential, Helen fled to Krakow to develop her career, becoming a well respected actress and eventually appearing on the Polish national stage in Warsaw.

While in Warsaw, Helen with a group of friends from the intellectual circles, decided to immigrate to America and start a communal farm in California. The year was 1876 and on the way to California the group stopped in Philadelphia to view the great Centennial Exhibition. No doubt this had a great impact on the 15-year-old Ralph. He had already demonstrated a musical talent in mastering the piano, but now confronted with the emphasis on
Thebes Bridge
Government Bridge, Rock Island, IL
progress and technology, a desire to become an engineer came to the fore. Despite the fact that his elementary education had been frequently interrupted, he was praised as an exceptionally good student, his mother writing "Ralph is in Krakow at school, and is as wise as a rabbi, or at least his grandmother thinks so..."

Despite valiant effort the communal farm was not a success. Helen went on the American stage in San Francisco, gained renown and started a second career as an actress, becoming a major star of the American theater. Meanwhile, Ralph was sent to Paris to study at the Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees, a top civil engineering school. On his first try for admission he placed 27th on the exam, narrowly missing being one of the 25
Thebes Bridge
Mississippi River near Thebes, IL
students admitted that year. He spent the following year on intensive study and was accepted. In 1885 he graduated with distinction among the top students of his class. Returning to America he obtained a position with George Morison, a leading bridge builder and engineer in the United States. The apprenticeship lasted seven years and allowed him to learn all the phases of bridge building, from design to actual assembly, in close proximity to the work. By 1893 Modjeski had set up his own design bureau and was at work on his first major contract - a bridge over the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. This was followed by another bridge over the same river at Thebes, Illinois, a pioneering construction that used reinforced concrete as the main material for the approach spans. In the wake of these successes came membership in the leading civil engineering organization - American Society of Civil Engineers (ASCE) - and professional recognition as Engineer of the Year 1903, and Man of Illinois.

Quebec Bridge
Quebec Bridge

The Magnificent Modjeski

Ralph Modjeski
Modjeski at 53

The list of completed bridges continued to grow, and Modjeski became regarded as an authority on the construction of large steel structures. This led to his being appointed to serve on an international three-man commission to analyze the disaster at Quebec Bridge, over the St. Lawrence River. This ambitious bridge had collapsed during construction in 1907. With him served the Canadian engineer H. E. Vautelet and Englishman Maurice F. Fitzmaurice. Modjeski later remarked that the American was actually a Pole, the Canadian was French, and the Englishman was Scotch. After
Franklin Bridge
Benjamin Franklin Bridge
linking Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ
the analysis was completed, Modjeski took on the job of creating a new design and supervising its construction. Work on the new massive cantilever bridge progressed smoothly until the mounting of the center span. This 640 foot steel section, a single unit weighing 4,710 tons, was built on the river bank and then transported into place at the center of the river's navigable channel by a system of barges. From there it was lifted into place high above the water.
Mid-Hudson Bridge
Mid-Hudson Bridge
As the segment neared its final position one of the lift points gave way and the huge steel construction twisted and plunged into the water, crumpling on impact. The accident put Modjeski's reputation on trial, yet in a year a new center span was built and, with extreme care, raised into place as originally intended. Modjeski was totally vindicated and praised for his innovative construction techniques. The new bridge on the St. Lawrence River became the longest cantilever span in the world, a distinction it still holds today.

The next major project to challenge Ralph Modjeski was the construction of a road and rail bridge to link the cities of Philadelphia, PA and Camden, NJ across the Delaware River. To keep construction costs down, and recognizing the limitations of cantilever construction, this was to be a suspension bridge with a center span of 1,750 feet - larger than any of the big bridges then spanning the Hudson - Manhattan, Brooklyn, and Williamsburg. Modjeski's proposal proved to be a milestone. It used several types of alloy steel, selected for additional strength at specified places, including silicon steel for the graceful towers that support the main cables. The clean functional lines and a deck stiffened with a Warren truss, set a new standard in suspension bridge design.
Mid Hudson bridge opening
Poughkeepsie, NY: Opening of the (Roosvelt) Mid-Hudson Bridge
Aug 25, 1930: from the left: Eleanor Roosevelt with L-R: Col. Frederick Stuart Green, Ralph Modjeski and David E. Moran, designers of the bridge.
Whereas later bridges were collaborative works undertaken by the Modjeski and Masters engineering firm, this bridge was conceived and executed by Ralph Modjeski, as chief engineer. More bridges followed, including three in the Philadelphia area, one of which, the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge (Charles Modjeski, Ralph's son, was the chief engineer) was built as a steel arch span combined with a double bascule drawbridge section. Another, a road bridge on Henry Avenue over the Wissahickon Creek, is an eye pleasing steel reinforced concrete arch faced with stone, whose beauty can best be admired from the bottom of the ravine which it traverses.

Other suspension bridges were built under the supervision of Modjeski's firm - the Ambassador Bridge at Detroit, the Mid-Hudson (Roosevelt) Bridge at Poughkeepsie, NY, and a highway bridge at Maysville, KY. The Mid-Hudson Bridge would later be called one of America's most beautiful bridges. The high banks of the Hudson required the deck to be placed high above the ri:ver, and this gave the cross-braced towers, a Modjeski trademark, a slender and pleasing appearance.

Ambasador Bridge
Ambassador Bridge
Maysville Bridge
Maysville Bridge

The last great suspension bridge project in whose construction Ralph Modjeski took part was the Oakland Bay Bridge joining Oakland and San Francisco. In 1933 President Franklin Delano Roosevelt turned over the first shovelful of earth, and aptly called the project the "largest bridge to be built by man." It consists of a four tower suspension bridge from San Francisco to Yerba Buena Island, where the roadway enters a tunnel, then emerges onto a cantilever bridge, truss spans, and a long causeway to Oakland. When the bridge was completed in November 1936 Modjeski reached age 75 and had already turned over many responsibilities to his partners, C. H. Purcell and Frank Masters. After the completion of the Oakland Bay Bridge he retired from professional life. He died in 1940 having completed nearly 40 major bridges in the United States, leaving a lasting legacy of accomplishment and technological achievement.

Bay Bridge
San Francisco Bay Bridge

Over the years, his work was recognized by fellow professionals through the many awards that were bestowed upon him. Among these were the John Fritz Medal, two medals from the Franklin Institute of Philadelphia, three honoris causa doctorate degrees, and the Washington Award - the highest award that could be given an engineer in the United States. It is also worthwhile to mention that he received the annual prize for the most beautiful bridge from the American Institute of Steel Construction, not once, but three times.

The Blue Bridge

Opened on July 1, 1926, as part of the American Sesquicentennial celebration, the Philadelphia-Camden bridge was a record setter. Not only was it the longest suspension bridge to date, its width of 78 feet (8 lanes) was a bold step in anticipating the volume of automobile traffic that it would handle. In addition it had two outboard rail tracks, one of few suspension bridges to be built this way. The expectations proved to be true, in 1931 over 12 million vehicles crossed the bridge.

More than twenty-five thousand people gathered for the official opening ceremony presided over by Pennsylvania Governor Gifford Pinchot and New Jersey Governor A. Harry Moore. After the ceremony 100,000 people (including an 87-year-old Civil War veteran in full uniform) walked across the bridge before it opened to vehicular traffic. On the following day President Calvin Coolidge came to dedicate the bridge.

This bridge over the Delaware River - now known as the Benjamin Franklin Bridge - is now in its 77th year. It is nice to know that it also is getting a new coat of paint, a light shade of blue that has become its official color. Painting will continue for several years and cost 7 million dollars but is a necessary part of maintaining the bridge which promises many years of service to come.

Franklin bridge cable
Section of the main support cable from the Benjamin Franklin Bridge displayed in front of the Franklin Institute.

It is a remarkable and durable structure. One only needs to take a stroll on the high pedestrian walkways mounted on the sides of the bridge to get a fair impression of its presence and significance. Because of the placement of these sidewalks a person is not overwhelmed by the tremendous size of the bridge.

It is possible to look down on the traffic and electric trains crossing over to Camden and look up at the towers and supporting cables with no interfering structures. All the while one is subliminally aware of the fact that this is a flexible structure which is undulating to the rumble of traffic, yet as stable and strong as the bedrock upon which its weight rests. A sunny day with a slight breeze on the bridge is an experience to be savored. Little wonder that the bridge walkway is a favorite with Philadelphia's joggers who get a fine workout by running up its gentle arching slope.

Ralph Modjeski's Bridge Celebrates 75th Anniversary

On July 1, 2001, the Benjamin Franklin Bridge, joining the cities of Philadelphia PA and Camden NJ celebrated its 75th Anniversary. To mark the event the Delaware Valley Port Authority decided to close the bridge to motor traffic and allow pedestrians to walk on the roadway. This walk on the bridge was also a part of the opening ceremonies 75 years ago. At that time over 100,000 people crossed, including a Civil War veteran in uniform. This time around the press was able to ferret out a few people who, as youngsters, made the walk with their parents before a single automobile made it through the toolbooths.

Franklin bridge 75 anniversary clebrations
Ralph Modjeski Pattison (left) his wife Cynthia and children Alex and Dana, stand on the podium with the Ben Franklin impersonator, and Michael Blichasz (right) president of the Polish American Congress for the Philadelphia Area.

Since the bridge is a vital link in the local highway network the closure could only last from 3 am to 1pm on Sunday, but many took advantage of this rare opportunity and walked the bridge. Just before noon a ceremony took place which in essence was a re-dedication of the bridge in the new century. At its start loud and bombastic Ben Franklin impersonator welcomed one and all to "his" bridge. Later, Ralph Modjeski Pattison, the great-grandson of Ralph Modjeski, the true creator of this marvel of civil engineering - which set the standard for future bridges of this type - spoke about Ralph Modjeski's contribution to the United States, underlining the important and still continuing role of immigrants in our society.

As a final gesture, four freshly restored and re-gilded "Winged Victory" statues, more commonly known as "Angels" were unveiled. At one time these stood on columns on the bridge approaches, but were removed in the 1940s when the roadways were rearranged to facilitate traffic flow. They will soon be placed at the entrances to the cross-river overhead tram transport that is being built just a mile down river from the bridge.

So the venerable bridge continues to occupy its position as a local landmark, bearing testimony to the genius of Ralph Modjeski, whose foresight and ingenuity gave us a bridge that will continue to serve well into the 21st century, if not beyond. So that we may better remember his achievements, a 75th anniversary edition of this great engineer's biography is being published by the Philadelphia Chapter of the Kosciuszko Foundation. You can learn more about it at:

Page design and construction: Peter K. Gessner

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Note: Peter J. Obst has provided many of the visuals on this page, including the photo of the Mid Hudson Bridge by Edward Pinkowski. The remaining visuals are linked directly to the original websites posting them. This information may include copyrighted material and is to be used for educational and research purposes only.


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