The term “America’s greatest bridge builder” may be misleading because it was supposed to be about Poles… and it will be, trust me.
It all started with a Polish actress, who despite being a celebrity in Poland, always dreamt of playing Shakespeare in English. That actress was Helena Modrzejewska (1840-1909). Following her dream she arrived in New York in August 1876. She didn’t step on American ground alone – she was accompanied by her 15-years old son, Rudolf.
Rudolf was born on 27th January 1861 in Bochnia, near Krakow. If he didn’t come to America, we would be probably talking about famous pianist, as Rudolf was a very talented musician, and Ignacy Jan Paderewski was his close friend.
Right after arrival Rudolf with his mother visited the Centennial International Exposition held in Philadelphia to celebrate the 100th anniversary of signing the Declaration of Independence. As Helena mentioned in her Memoires, Rudolf was very happy to visit the Exposition, and he was interested in all kinds of machines represented there.
In 1877 Helena changed her name to Helen Modjeska and Rudolf became Ralph Modjeski. It was impossible for Americans to pronounce the full Polish name.
In 1885, two years after obtaining American citizenship, Ralph graduated from the School of Bridges and Roads in Paris at the top of his class. He returned to America, where he worked under “father of American bridge-building” George S. Morison. Later on he opened his office in Chicago. In 1894 he got his first contract, followed by others.
In 1907 Modjeski became a member of a commission investigating the Quebec Bridge disaster that killed 75 workers (including over 30 Mohawks). Later on him and another architect were commissioned to complete the bridge. The Quebec Bridge (based on Firth of Forth in Scotland, next to which I lived for 2.5 years) is still the longest cantilever bridge in the world.
Ralph’s biggest achievements were Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia and Bay Bridge in San Francisco. In total he built over 40 bridges. One of Modjeski’s students was Joseph B. Strauss, a man who designed the famous Golden Gate in San Francisco.
He was the recipient of numerous awards and degrees like a doctorate in engineering from Illinois State University, or a doctorate honoris causa from the Lwów Politechnic.
In March 2008 a Fordonski Bridge in Bydgoszcz, Poland was named after Rudolf Modrzejewski.
Until the end of his days Rudolf spoke and wrote in Polish, he stayed in touch with the country and with Poles. The letters he wrote to his friends in Poland were always signed with his full Polish name. People who knew him said he always emphasised his Polish roots. He followed the tradition, spent Christmas the “Polish way”, at the table on Christmas Eve, with traditional dishes and Christmas tree. Surely it was influenced a lot by his mother, Helen.
Ralph Modjeski died in Los Angeles on 26th June 1940.