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Why Rockford's Historic South Side Is Important

Susan Stephens

The following is an essay by Rockford City Manager Jim Ryan, delivered at the ceremony at City Hall for the Morgan Street Bridge ribbon-cutting, December 17th, 2013. Thank you to Jim Ryan for permission to publish his remarks.   

I want to thank my family for being here today, for all the sacrifices they have endured for me and my vocation.  My father and best friend died this Fall, and he would have loved to have been here, as he always taught me to fight for what I believe in, and to never give up.

In the Spring of 1999, I had just returned to my hometown to work for the City of Rockford, and I was tasked with developing a plan to rehabilitate the Morgan Street Bridge, which was originally built in 1889, replaced in 1916, and now rapidly deteriorating.  Even though I was from Rockford, I really wasn’t familiar with the area.  I remember being told, “Don’t go inspect that bridge by yourself, it’s the most dangerous area in the City.” And they were right.  It was an area of high crime, blight, neglect, homelessness, and hopelessness.  But I went to look at the bridge by myself anyway, several times over the course of the years, and something about that area always struck me.  I didn’t see the crime, blight, and neglect.  Rather, I saw the absolute beauty of the meandering and rolling streams of the Rock River, with the cascading water falling from the dam that was built in 1853 on top of the rock bottom that was referred to as the “rocky ford” by early settlers from which this City would get its name.  I saw the mouth of Kent Creek, where Germanicus Kent and Thatcher Blake would claim as the first settlers in the area, a land that would include the land at the Tinker Estate and water power district all the way south to Montague’s Addition.  This land would eventually be sold to Richard Montague, Isaac Cunningham, and Abiram Morgan, the man for which this bridge is named. 

I saw the lands to the northwest of the Morgan Street Bridge that formed the Water Power District, where Duncan Forbes built his iron works in 1854, the founder of what we know today as Gunite Corporation, Rockford’s longest running company and one of the longest continuous running foundries in the nation.  I saw the lands where a young man named John Manny invented a reaper so advanced that the goliath industrialist Cyrus McCormick sued him for patent infringement.  It was on the banks of the Rock River where a little known lawyer named Abraham Lincoln sat on a log and discussed with Manny his patent fight defense over his reaper invention against McCormick.  The Manny-McCormick case had a profound impact on Lincoln, and altered his view of law and what it would take to succeed. 

I looked over the lands that produced inventors like William Burson, who was a pioneer in the invention of grain and twine binders, who teamed up with John Nelson, who had patented the first practical automatic knitting machine, and who produced the world’s first sock with an automatic machine in Rockford in July of 1870.  That same year a young Amos W. Woodward would receive a patent for the mechanical waterwheel governor and began selling these devices throughout America.  We know now that Woodward Governor would evolve over time and is now a world leader in the aviation and energy industry.  I saw the lands where Rockford Milling Machine and Rockford Tool Company made machines for the burgeoning furniture industry, a company that would be consolidated into Sundstrand and ultimately evolve into a world-renown aerospace firm called United Technologies.  It was through these early companies where a young inventor named David Sundstrand would patent the modern 10-key keyboard design for adding machines.  The Sundstrand design became the de-facto standard for mechanical calculators worldwide, as well as handheld electronic calculators that appeared in the market at the beginning of the 1970's. 

I saw the lands to the northeast of the Morgan Street Bridge, and I looked at what is now known as Haight Village, the only section of the original square mile settlement to remain intact as a residential area.  I gazed at the land where the Ingersoll Building sits, and the Rockford Watch Factory on the bluff.  The Ingersoll property was first occupied by W.F. & John Barnes Co. and the Ward Pump Company.  The W.F. & John Barnes Company revolutionized the human pedal-powered wood-working machine industry, supplying furniture factories all over the nation.  By the turn of the century, they had turned their efforts to metal-working machines, and by the 1940s and 1950s, had made significant contributions in the development of atomic energy applications for both military and medical applications.  Think about that, from the power of human energy to the atomic age, in the span of 50 years.

I saw the lands to the south and east of the Morgan Street Bridge, where Rockford Female Seminary (now Rockford University) was founded.  On that river bluff 132 years ago, this educational institution graduated a young woman named Jane Addams who would become a champion for social equality and fairness, and a champion for hope and peace.  She was instrumental in fighting for the woman’s right to vote and a United States constitutional amendment to do just that.  Her work in social justice led her to be the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Price. 

And, finally, when I looked south of the Morgan Street Bridge, I saw the hulking, sprawling campus that is known as Barber Colman, founded in 1894 through an initial investment by W. A. Barber and the creative genius of Howard Colman.  Everyone wearing a shirt today has Howard Colman to thank for his invention of the warp-tying machine that automated knots for weaving cloth.  It revolutionized the textile industry across the world.  From textile machinery, to the oscillating fan, to the first radio operated electric garage door opener, to HVAC temperature controls, to small motors and gear motors used in products such as vending machines and automobiles, Howard Colman had 149 U. S. patents to his credit, and was one of the most prolific inventors of the 20th century. 

There are too many other stories of individuals and companies just like the ones I mentioned to do the story of this area justice.   

So for me, and for many that worked on it, this bridge represented something much more than just replacing old concrete and steel.  It symbolized not only the epicenter and birth of a great American city, but it also symbolized what happens when a great American city doesn’t honor history and reinvest in an area that is tired and worn from neglect, abandonment, and disinvestment.  We cannot turn away and run from our challenges.  Place matters.  People matter. 

There were many obstacles and doubters to replace this bridge.  Some said just tear it down.  Others said just spend a minimal amount of money.  I was once asked, “Why are you working so hard to build such a beautiful bridge in such a run-down area?”  I answered that it is in precisely such an area where we need beauty and hope the most.   Even though this project has been difficult, fortunately there were more supporters than doubters, and this project could only have been possible by everyone coming together towards a common goal. 

Many of the founding fathers and companies I mentioned today had nothing when they started but hope and a dream--a dream that they could hand future generations a world that was better than when they found it.  That bridge sits at the heart of where this whole idea called Rockford began.  History is important, and it must never be forgotten, for it shapes who we are today, and who we will become tomorrow.  That bridge cannot alone be the end.  If we want to transform this community, it must be the beginning.  The bridge spans east and west to connect us physically, but I submit that the bridge must span and transcend our fears and our doubts to connect us as one community with one common purpose.  We cannot abandon a place or run from our problems, but attack them with the same courage that it took Jane Addams to get the right for women to vote, the same tenacity and fearlessness that it took for Manny and Lincoln to take on an industrial giant like Cyrus McCormick and triumph, and the same methodical determination and faith like Howard Colman to create an automatic knotting machine that changed the world.  

Today, my hope and dream is that this steel tied archway called Morgan Street Bridge will serve more than carrying pedestrians and vehicles.  My hope and dream is that when people view this towering steel tied arch, it will serve as a tribute and symbol of where Rockford began and for the contributions of its founding fathers.  My hope is that this magnificent archway bridge will serve as an inspiration for further public and private investment to wake up the echoes of the past that once made this the most innovative and prosperous area in northern Illinois.  My hope is that when people drive or walk by those glimmering archway of lights of the Morgan Street Bridge, it will be an inspiration for the hopes and dreams of our community just as this Rock River was the inspiration for our founding fathers to leave a legacy of production and innovation on this world—my hope is that those glimmering lights will be a beacon of light for the rebirth of southwest Rockford and our Rockford community, that it will stand as a symbol of strength and hope for our community--that despite our problems, despite our fears or troubles, we will persevere and work together as one community to not retreat, to not give up, but rather work together as one--with the same hope, the same dream, the same determination, the same faith, and the same vigilance that our Founding Fathers had to leave this community better than when we found it.