Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

Ralph Modjeski seemed destined­ – even at the age of seven – for an accom­plished, if not celebrated, career as a concert pianist. After years of intense training and practice as a music student, he dramatically changed his course of studies at the age of twenty in favor, oddly enough, of a career in civil engineering. He did not, however, abandon his talent and practiced several hours at the piano daily – in spite of his full-time profession as one of the twentieth century’s most famous designers and builders of bridges. But his keen sense of artistry shows in the broad spans that reveal not only an understanding of engineering, but a deep feeling for simplic­ity and harmony which reflected his classical music training.

The Polish-American immigrant is one of the famous civil engineers in Pennsylvania history. Hailed as “the world’s leading bridge builder” in his obituary in The New York Times on June 28, 1940, Ralph Modjeski designed bridges which are characteristically American. His career, unlike those of his contemporaries, encompassed two distinct eras of bridge design: the steel truss railroad bridge and the modern suspension bridge. In Pennsyl­vania, Modjeski and his associates designed the Market Street Bridge, Harris­burg, and the Clark’s Ferry Bridge, just north of the capitol city, over the Susque­hanna River and the Clarion River Bridge on interstate 80, the Keystone Shortway. Ralph Modjeski was also the chief engineer in charge of the construction of the Benjamin Franklin Bridge and the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge linking Philadelphia and southern New Jersey.

Born in Bochnia near the city of Krakow on January 27, 1861, and given the name Rudolphe, Ralph Modjeski grew up in a glittering milieu of literary and artistic genius. His mother, Helena Opid Modrzejewska (1844-1909), was a glamorous, opulent actress. She starred in Shakes­pearean roles, was acclaimed for her part in Mary Stuart and Adrienne Lecouvreur and appeared in the first production in English of Henrik Ibsen’s The Doll House. By the time that Rudolphe was fifteen, his mother had become the leading performer of the Polish stage.

Rudolphe was born during Poland’s turbulent nineteenth century when the country was divided among its neighboring powers of Russia, Prussia, and Austria. He was an unusual, precocious child – quick at mathematics, skilled in gymnastics, and fluent in several languages. He began the study of the piano during his boyhood and his mothers’ autobiography contends that the child prodigy learned four of Kohler’s etudes by heart and almost the entire sixth sonata of Mozart in only seven lessons. He was a fellow piano student with Ignace Jan Paderewski (1860-1941), the great Polish statesman and composer.

Helena Modrzejewska, a fervent nationalist who deliv­ered a speech denouncing Russia at the World’s Colum­bian Exposition at Chicago in 1893, refused to allow the repression in her native land arrest the development of her theater career. She escaped with her son to the United States where they planned to live in a utopian artists’ colony in California that was the dream of their Old World compatriot, Henryk Sienkiew­icz (1846-1916).

These Poles – Helena Modrzejewska and her son, with others like Henryk Sienkiewicz and Wlodzimierz Krzyzanowski (1824-1887)­ – sought refuge and found success in the United States. They were decidedly not the working-class immigrants characterized by historian John Bodnar in Immigration and Industrialization: Ethnicity in an American Mill Town, 1870-1940. These unusual expatriates were the intelligentsia: Modrzejewska, the actress; Sienkiewicz, winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1905; Krzyzanowski, a Civil War brigadier general. Young Ralph Modjeski was to follow in their footsteps.

Helena and Rudolphe sailed for New York in July 1876. After visiting the Centennial Exhibition in Philadelphia, they continued by way of the isthmus aboard a steamer from Panama to San Francisco, and then to Anaheim. When Sienkiewicz’s plan for an artists’ colony failed, Helena and her teenage son returned to San Francisco. As they earnestly struggled to learn English, and with Helena about to make her debut on the American stage, John McCullough of the California Theater shortened her surname. In addition to their name change, Rudolphe changed his Christian name to Ralph because, he thought, Americans disdained lengthy foreign names. Ralph remained in San Francisco for two years and served as stage manager for his mother’s troupe while on tour in the United States. Later he accom­panied his mother on a tour through England. ft was about this time that Modjeski decided to pursue a career as an engineer.

He initially failed the selec­tion for one of only twenty­-five places at the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees. During the next year, until he took the examination again, he contin­ued his music lessons. He entered the Ecole des Ponts et Chaussees in 1881 and gradu­ated at the top of his class in 1885 with a degree in civil engineering. He returned to the United States that summer with a better training in engineering than he could have received in this country. Ralph Modjeski became an American citizen two years later.

The evolving designs of steel truss railroad bridges, massive structures which were a symbol of the booming steel industry in the United States, helped Modjeski to establish his reputation. His association with two experts in bridge engineering at the turn of the century, George S. Morison and Alfred Noble, led to the development of a set of standard designs for steel bridges used by the Northern Pacific Railroad. The bridges used the Warren and Pratt systems of trusses. They evidenced a belief in the pursuit of excellence during an era known for its low politics and the artless extravagance of the nouveau riche.

Following a stint as inspec­tor in the shops for bridge work from 1887 to 1889 at Athens, Bradford County, Modjeski worked with George S. Morison (1842-1903), who guided him in the erection of the Union Pacific Railroad Bridge spanning the Missouri River at Omaha. Modjeski also served as Morison’s chief draftsman and on-site engineer for the design of the Memphis Bridge over the Mississippi River.

The work that catapulted Modjeski to the top of his profession was the construction of the Thebes Bridge over the Mississippi River at Thebes, Illinois. This work was a collaboration with Alfred Noble (1844-1914), who had served as a president of the American Society of CiviJ Engineers. This bridge spans nearly twenty-eight hundred feet with five alternating through cantilever and anchor spans. The Thebes Bridge was opened in 1904 and freight trains still use it, even though the trusses are connected with pins.

Connecting trusses with pins greatly reduced the work of assembly of the bridge in the field. The pin-connected truss system was state-of-the­-art in the construction of bridges throughout the United States built during this era. The first major bridge in North America to abandon pin­-connected trusses in favor of rivet -connected trusses was a Modjeski bridge that he later wished he had never been called to work on. The Quebec Bridge over the St. Lawrence River attracted worldwide attention on August 29, 1907, when it collapsed during construction. Seventy-five workers were killed and nine thousand tons of steel lay in wreckage.

Distressed Canadian officials appointed a three man commission in 1908 to advise on the reconstruction of the Quebec Bridge. Modjeski had become so well-known from his design of railroad bridges over the Mississippi River that he was selected and remained a member until the final completion of the bridge ten years later. The Quebec Bridge is the great cantilever bridge of North America; one of its significant features was the use of K-bracing in the trusses which offered greater safety, economy and rapidity in erection.

Modjeski’s design of suspension bridges in Pennsylvania also helped to secure his reputation. Although the prototype of the steel suspension bridge in the United States is the Brooklyn Bridge, which opened on May 24, 1883, it was Modjeski’s Delaware River Bridge, his first suspension bridge, which played a significant role in the evolution of the modern suspension bridge. Principles of bridge construction which had previously confounded engineers in designing suspension bridges were resolved in the erection of the Delaware River Bridge. Renamed the Benjamin Frank­lin Bridge in 1956, this bridge has been characterized as “the first distinctly modern suspen­sion bridge built on a grand scale.”

Proposals for a bridge linking Philadelphia and Camden were discussed as early as 1818. Design propos­als by John C. Trautwine, Sr., in 1851 and T.S. Speakman in 1868 never progressed further than the drawing board. Finally, a century later, in 1919. the legislatures of Pennsylvania and New Jersey approved legislation creating the Delaware River Joint Commission. Ralph Modjeski, George S. Webster and Laurence A. Ball were selected in 1920 for the board of engineers to prepare the plans and estimates for the bridge. The board submitted its report to the commission and Modjeski was retained as chief engineer until the opening of the bridge on July 1, 1926, three days before the United States Sesquicentennial.

A Philadelphia Inquirer edito­rial on July 1, 1926, pronounced the opening of the Ben Franklin Bridge as “the beginning of a new era in the development of the metro­politan area of Philadelphia.” Ralph Modjeski was joined in speeches given by Philadel­phia Mayor Freeland Kendrick and U.S. Senator Walter Edge of New Jersey during the dedication day ceremonies.

The bridge was important in the evolution of the modern suspension bridge for several reasons. The pneumatic caissons which were used for the first time in building the Brooklyn Bridge were improved by 1920 for the building of the Ben Franklin Bridge. The improvement in the design of the caissons, compressed air foundations used to secure the bridge on bedrock beneath the river floor, led to a decrease in the incidence of “the bends,” a disease affecting those working under pressure. Physicians were on call for emergencies and the laborers were given stringent physical examinations before they were permitted to work in the caissons. The caissons were used to build the piers, on which the towers were constructed.

The towers of the Ben Franklin Bridge supporting the cables that hold the roadway in place were a vast improve­ment over the towers of the Brooklyn Bridge. John A. Roebling designed the Brook­lyn Bridge with rollers at the top of the towers to permit the cables to shift under varying loads. During the course of years the rollers rusted, causing the cables to slip. This condition was avoided on the Ben Franklin Bridge by using steel towers and making them flexible so that they could actually bend to accommodate the changes in the movement of the cables. The diagonally braced towers, a Modjeski hallmark, rise nearly four hundred feet above the river. The towers were fabricated by the Bethlehem Steel Company plant in Steelton, Dauphin County, of silicon steel, which was fifty per cent stronger than the ordinary grade of bridge steel available at that time.

Cables used on the Ben Franklin Bridge reflect the advances in the knowledge of stresses which had occurred during the forty years since the opening of the Brooklyn Bridge. Instead of four main cables as Roebling employed on the Brooklyn Bridge, Modjeski used only two cables. Each cable on the Ben Franklin Bridge is thirty inches in diameter, comprises eighteen thousand strands of galvanized wire, and has a strength of more than two hundred thousand pounds per square inch. Conversely, each cable on the Brooklyn Bridge is fifteen and one-half inches in diameter, composed of nearly fifty-three hundred strands, and has a strength of one hundred and seventy­-seven pounds per square inch. More than twenty-five thousand miles of wire are contained in the two cables, which weigh sixty-eight hundred tons.

The great strength of the wire used in the cables was developed in the process of drawing. The steel was received at the wire mill as rods three-eighths of an inch in diameter. It was first treated to remove mill scale and to assist the drawing. Drawing into wire consists of pulling the metal through a series of dies, each of which reduces the size a given degree. Each draft must be taken at carefully regulated speed to produce the proper degree of working of the metal. Heat treatment follows the drawing to develop the structure of the steel. Five separate drafts were used in producing the cable wire from the three-eighths inch billets.

The building of the Ben Franklin Bridge was a coopera­tive effort of Modjeski the engineer and Paul Cret, the architect. Modjeski did not design the cables, piers, and anchorages without the collab­oration of Cret, whose job was to mollify the effect of the tension of the gargantuan structure. From the catenary curve of the cables – the perfect form taken by the cables suspended from the towers which hold the roadway in place – to the two granite anchorages, the artifi­cial mountains which hold the cables in place, the bridge is a harmony of opposite forces.

At the time of its comple­tion the bridge was the longest suspension bridge ever built­ – seventeen hundred and fifty feet in the main span and a total length of ninety-five hundred and seventy feet, including the highway approaches. The total cost of the bridge was thirty-seven million dollars. In 1927, its first full year of operation, the bridge was crossed by eight and a half million vehicles, seventy-six percent of the total vehicular traffic across the Delaware River. Three ferries carried the remainder.

Ralph Modjeski was also the chief engineer for the Tacony-Palmyra Bridge in South Philadelphia. The central feature of this span, which opened on August 29, 1929, is the tied-arch. The tied-arch has a tension member, a tie, which connects the ends of the arch when effective arch abutments are not available to take up the thrust. By 1950, the thirty-six hundred foot long Tacony-Palmyra Bridge carried twenty-one percent of the total traffic across the Delaware River between Phila­delphia and New Jersey. the Benjamin Franklin Bridge carried seventy-eight percent, and the Pennsylvania Railroad Ferry carried one percent. The advent of these two bridges was the swan song for the Pennsylvania Railroad Ferry.

For his work on these bridges, Modjeski received the John Fritz Gold Medal, the highest American engineering award, in 1929. The judges in the competition were sixteen former presidents of the national societies of civil, metallurgical, mechanical, and electrical engineers. The announcement of the award proclaimed:

Streams and chasms are barriers to travel and transportation. Consequently, the building of bridges, one of lite older engineering arts, has had profound politi­cal and social as well as economic importance. With the development of civilization and the increase of ways for transportation, highways and railroads have become obsta­cles one to the other at places of crossing, demanding still more bridges.

In recognition of the increasing contribution of bridge builders to the progress of humanity, and in appreciation of the distinguished scientific and industrial achieve­ments of Dr. Modjeski as one of America’s foremost bridge build­ers, this award was made.

Gov. Gifford Pinchot also honored Modjeski by signing an act authorizing a special commission ” …to procure a suitable medal and scroll properly engrossed for presentation, with appropriate ceremonies, on behalf of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to Ralph Modjeski… ”

Modjeski’s partnership with Frank M. Masters of Somerset County led to work on two bridges over the Susquehanna River in Harris­burg. The Clark’s Ferry Bridge, a concrete arch bridge designed by Modjeski and Masters in 1925, replaced the old Clark’s Ferry towpath bridge. The partners’ project was the sixth bridge erected at the site since the first span was erected in 1828. Harrisburg’s Market Street Bridge, opposite the Dauphin County Courthouse, measures more than thirty-six hundred feet from the East Shore to City Island. Completed in 1928, the four lane bridge features sixteen stone-faced concrete deck arch spans. Both bridges typify Modjeski’s elegance and style in design.

Besides his association in numerous professional organi­zations, Modjeski was awarded honorary doctor of engineering degrees by the Pennsylvania Military College (now Widener University in Chester) in 1927 and the Polytechnic Institute of Lwow in 1931. France made him a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1926, and Poland honored him with the Grand Prix Medal at the Exposition of Industry and Science in Poznan in 1929.

Ralph Modjeski is remem­bered as a bridge builder, not as a pianist, but his training in music imbued in him the artis­tic temperament which was his sustenance and his success. The symmetry of the nocturnes of Chopin finds visual expression in his bridges. His spans are landmarks of civilization’s capacity to master the forces of nature. They are triumphs of perseverance and signs of confidence in the human spirit. Every year millions of motorists in Pennsylvania and the country cross his bridges. The legacy of Ralph Modjeski are his many beauti­ful bridges which span not only rivers and valleys, but which marry artistry and practicality, a rare union spawned by a genuine genius.


For Further Reading

Carswell, Charles. The Building of the Delaware River Bridge. Burlington, N.J.: Enterprise Publishing Co., 1926.

Coleman, Arthur Prudden and Marion Moore Coleman. Wanderers Twain. Cheshire, Conn.: Cherry Hill Books, 1964.

Delaware River Port Authority. Report to the Legislatures of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the State of New Jersey on an Additional Vehicular Crossing of the Delaware River from North­east Philadelphia to New Jersey, August 17, 1955.

Modjeska, Helena. Memories and Impressions. New York: Macmillan and Company, 1910.

Plowden, David. Bridges: The Spans of North America. New York: Viking Press, 1974.

Shank, Willinm H. Historic Bridges of Pennsylvania. York, Pa.: American Canal and Trans­portation Center, 1974.


Thomas Duszak was raised in Wilmington, Delaware, where, as a boy, he played basketball in a hall used for athletics and dramat­ics named, coincidentally, Modjeska Hall. He received his bachelor’s of arts degree from the University of Delaware and his master’s of science degree from Columbia University. He currently serves as the Senate Librarian at the State Capitol in Harrisburg.