The Polish Bridge Builder

by Kaya Mirecka Ploss, PhD

 

The Change of Name

In the history of bridges in the United States Ralph Modjeski's name will always be remembered. He was born Rudolf Modrzejewski in Krakow in the year 1861. Early in his American career, Modrzejewski changed his name to Ralph Modjeski. He found that Americans had great difficulty pronouncing, spelling, or remembering his complex Polish name. His mother, the famous Polish Shakespearian actress, Helena Modrzejewska, who brought her family to the United States in 1876, had the same problem. Upon the earnest advise of her friends she changed her name from Helena Modrzejewska to simply Madame Modjeska.

Engineering Won

Ralph Modjeski's European education, in addition to languages and mathematics, included musical studies under Kazimierz Hofmann, son of the world renowned pianist, Joseph Hofmann. Curiously, during that same period Modjeski's fellow student, was the illustrious, Jan Ignacy Paderewski. Ralph Modjeski was an extremely proficient pianist; in seven lessons he had learned four of Kohler's etudes by heart and almost the entire sixth sonata by Mozart. If Ralph Modjeski had chosen a career in music instead of engineering the world might have gained a famous concert-pianist, but would have lost one of the finest bridge designers.

Engineering won and Modjeski completed his education in his chosen field at the Ecole des Ponte et Chaussees in Paris. He graduated in 1885 leading his class with a degree in Civil Engineering. With his mother, the famous Helena Modrzejewska,already in America, Ralph returned to the United States and began his engineering career in Chicago where he worked for seven years with one of the leading bridge builders of that time, George S. Morison.

The First Bridge

In 1893, Modjeski decided to embark on private practice in the bridge design field. He obtained his first major project - the design and construction of a seven-span combined railway and highway bridge over the Mississippi River, at Rock Island, Illinois.

Later Modjeski developed a set of standard bridges designs for the Northern Pacific Railroad. From this point he rapidly progressed, designing an almost unbelievable number of this country's finest major bridges.

Frank M. Masters of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, was employed by Modjeski in 1904. Twenty years later in 1924 Modjeski and Masters formed a partnership. Today this firm continues to operate from offices in Harrisburg, New Orleans, Chicago, and Washington, DC.

The Bay and Ben Franklin Bridges

Time does not permit listing the many bridges in which Modjeski and his partners were involved. It is also significant to note that Ralph Modjeski was often called upon as a consultant and adviser. After several disastrous failures in the construction of the worlds longest cantilever-truss rail bridge in Quebec, Canada, Ralph Modjeski was called upon and brought the project to a successful conclusion in 1918. Modjeski was also chairman of the board of consulting engineers in charge of the design and construction of the great eight mile long BAY BRIDGE in San Francisco, which was finished in 1937.

In Pennsylvania, Modjeski designed what at that time was the longest suspension bridge in the world - the present BEN FRANKLIN BRIDGE in Philadelphia. Excitement reigned in that city on the day President Calvin Coolidge, assisted by the Army corps of Engineers, opened the bridge across the Delaware River.

He Helped Build America

Only a few years later Modjeski designed the unusual, tied-arch Tacony-Palmyra Bridge further upstream on the Delaware. Some of Pennsylvania's most interesting bridges have been designed by Ralph Modjeski and his partners. Many of them won national awards for their artistry of design. Graceful lines, arches, and staunch utility have always characterized Modjeski's work. Almost all of the bridges that Modjeski and his partners designed are still in use.

Rudolf Modrzejewski, a.k.a. Ralph Modjeski, was almost 80 years old when he died in 1940. He was one of the many illustrious men that were born in Poland and helped to build America.


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