A POLE WHO BUILT BRIDGES IN AMERICA

WITOLD IWAŃCZAK

He was the son of the worldly-famous actress Helena Modrzejewska. A courageous constructor of great knowledge and imagination, in 1903 recognized as the most prominent specialist in the area of building bridges. This great Pole built the biggest and the most important bridges in America (according to Polonicum Machindex Institut in Switzerland, there were even 47 of them), today used and still considered as modern.

Rudolf Modrzejewski was born on 27 January 1861 in Bochnia. His father was Gustaw Zimajer (in fact Sinnmayer), known in the actors’ branch from his nickname Modrzejewski, and mother was a 20-year-old actress Helena Misel. Helena took on the pseudo-name of her to-be husband and became Helena Modrzejewska. Rudolf had a younger sister Marylka who died suddenly at the age of only 4 during a very tiring theatre tour during which Modrzejewska was acting her roles. Helena, not being able to bear the burden of this tragedy, ran away with her son to Cracow.

Early childhood

Rudolf spent the first years of his life mainly in theatrical wardrobe and behind the curtain of other theatrical stages. In 1866 he was taken by his father and stayed abroad with him till 1869. What was helping in regaining her son was help from Helen’s step-brothers who were mediating in negotiations and passing over the ransom to Zimajer. On 12 September 1868 Helena got married to a Polish nobleman Karol Chłapowski. Rudolf was a student in junior-high school, did sport and took piano lessons. He had prominent music talents and was thinking about the career of a pianist all the time. After years he mentioned: ‘My mother played the piano very well and had a beautiful voice. I began to learn to play the piano when I was ten and since then I had never lost a contact with music’. His mother performed on stages in Warsaw and Cracow. She had contracts which she broke off when the boy was 14 years old. She was invited for a tour across America. The family – through France – there and decided to settle down there.

Journey to America

In America Helena Modrzejewska changed her stage pseudo-name into Modejska – significantly simpler to pronounce in the West. Whereas her son became Ralph Modejski. Having passed his secondary leaving school exam, in 1878 he and his mother arrived in Paris. He wanted to continue studies there. However, only after the second try, in 1881 he got to the famous Paris Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussees (The State School of Roads and Bridges), from which he graduated with distinction in 1885. During his studies in 1883 he received American citizenship. In the years 1884-85 he often visited his family and acquaintances in Cracow and Zakopane. At that time he got engaged with his distant-family line cousin Felicia Benda. Their marriage took place on 28 December 1885 in a Polish church under the invocation Stanisław the Bishop and Martyr in New York.

Having returned to America Ralph Modejski got the first work for a prominent constructor of bridges George Morison. He began with the function of a foreman and seven years later he became the main inspector of supervision and quality in the company. At that time he managed a drawing office during construction work of a bridge for the railway Union Pacific in Nebraska State and during construction work of a five-span bridge across the Missisipi in Memphis. From 1888 he was managing preparations of bridge constructions in metallurgical plants in Athens in Pennsylvania and then worked in the central of Morison’s company in Chicago where he got to know organization of project works and functioning of administration of the enterprise. It was when his third child was born – his daughter Marylka (later known as an artist). He also had sons Feliks (1886) and Karol (1890) – in the future both of them followed the career of their father and became engineers.

The first new bridges

In 1894 Modejski received the first longer contract. It was a project of building two-level, road-railway bridge across the Missisipi river in Rock Island in Illinois State. The most serious challenge was constructing a mobile span which was mantled at scaffolding based on the bottom of the river. Because of problems connected with his subcontractors, Modejski decided to build a temporary span which was ready in the mid of March, and the bridge with the target span was put into service in December 1896, according to a plan. In 1902 the constructor began works as the chief engineer of constructing a two-track railway bridge in Thebes in the south of Illinois State, across the Missisipi river. This is a cantilever type of bridge, the five-span lattice bridge, 839 m long, with two arched reinforced concrete viaducts. This construction brought recognition to Modejski also in the public survey of American press for the most prominent bridge builder in 1903. In 1905 he became the chief engineer of rebuilding work of a one-track railway bridge across the Missisipi river in Bismarck in Northern Dakota State. At the same time he was building a new two-track railway bridge in Portland in Oregano, across the Colombia river and Willamette. In 1906 he projected a one-track railway bridge in Peoria, across the Illinois river. He strengthened his position, by constructing an eight-span McKinley Bridge in Saint Louis in Missouri State; the main spans of the bridge were 210 m long.

A strong position

In the years 1905 – 15 Ralph Modejski was the chief engineer on all bridges of the Society of Railway Line Oregon between Celilo and Bend. In 1910 Portland city employed him as the chief engineer of construction work of the Broadway Bridge across the Williamette river. This is a movable, two-track railway bridge, which was the biggest movable bridge in the world at that time. In 1911 the constructor built the famous two-hinged arched bridge of 104 m length across a deep ravine of the so-called Crooked River, hung at 107 m above the river. This bridge was built with the cantilever method from both banks of the ravine. In 1914 he projected and supervised construction work of the Harahan bridge across the Missisipi river in Memphis in Tennessee State. In 1917 he worked out a project of a two-track railway bridge across the Ohio river in Metropolis in Illinois State. Construction of this bridge consists of seven spans, from which one was 220 m long and the longest one span of the bridge in the world. In 1922 the Polish engineer projected a one-track railway bridge for the government of the United States across the Tanana river on Alasca. Put into service in 1923, it was the last link of the railway line connecting Fairbanks with Anchorage on the shore of the Pacific. The success of construction work of this bridge was compared to the success of construction of Panama Canal. The freely supported span of this bridge of 214 m stretch has remained the longest bridge of Alaska till now.

The most famous and difficult to build

In 1922 Modejski became a designer and the chief engineer of construction work of the hanging bridge (Benjamin Franklin Bridge) across the Delaware river in Philadelphia. It was put into service on 4 July 1926 on the 150th anniversary of independence of the United States. At the time of finishing work it was the longest hanging bridge of the world of stretch and total length of 2918 m. It was the first one in the series of modern American hanging bridges, and also the most expensive public investment of those years. Another famous bridge of Modejski was the Ambassador Bridge in Detroit on the Detroit river, completed in 1929, having its world record of its span stretch (564m) for three years. In 1924 a company of investors addressed their request to Modejski to work out a construction work of a bridge across the Missisipi river in New Orlean. This is one-level road-railway bridge and highly placed for a flow of transoceanic ships. Fundaments of the bridge supports reach the depth of 52 m below the bottom of the river. The area close to the river is situated much lower than the flood level of the reservoir. It required suitably long accesses to the bridge of over 7 km length. The Huey P. Long bridge has remained the longest railway bridge in the world till today. In 1932 Modejski was nominated the chief engineer of construction work of a bridge in San Francisco Bay. He supervised a project of a double hanging bridge anchored in the middle of the bay. These two hanging bridges of 70 m length have cantilever spans of 354m length. Today this is the only connection consisting of two hanging bridges. The surface of the bridge at the height of 65m over the river makes it possible for a flow of oceanic ships. The middle pillar was the biggest bridge pillar in the world. It was the last project of Modejski.

Family tragedies of Ralph

He was not happy in his private life. On 8 April 1909 Helena Modrzejewska died. At that time the marriage of Ralph with Felicia got apart, although they got separation only in 1916 and divorce – in 1931. At that time, being at the age of 70, Modejski got married to a much younger woman Virginia Mary Giblyn. In 1936 Felicia Modjeskam, a famous sculptor in the United States, died. In the same year Rudolpf withdrew from running his company. He died in a garden of his villa on 26 June 1940. He was buried on a graveyard Inglewood Eternity Mausoleum. A few months later his son, Feliks, an engineer and an owner of a well-developing company Modjeska Electric Co. died suddenly. In 1944 his second son – Karol, an engineer of civilian construction works, died. His daughter Maryla Pattison (after her husband’s surname), who lived in Arizona, died in a car accident in 1966. Her son Karol had been a professor at the state university in Arizona, where he gave lectures in mechanics.

The company, which Ralph Modejski set up, still exists – it is called Modejski and Masters now - and has got its headquarter in Harrisburg in Pennsylvania state.

Translated by Aneta Amrozik

Niedziela 4/2018 (28 I 2018)

Editor: Tygodnik Katolicki "Niedziela", ul. 3 Maja 12, 42-200 Czestochowa, Polska
Editor-in-chief: Lidia Dudkiewicz • E-mail: redakcja@niedziela.pl