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Ralph Modjeski

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Ralph Modjeski
Rudolf Modrzejewski

(1861-01-27)January 27, 1861
DiedJune 26, 1940(1940-06-26) (aged 79)
Los Angeles, California, United States
OccupationCivil engineer
AwardsHoward N. Potts Medal (1914)
Franklin Medal (1921)
John Fritz Medal (1930)

Ralph Modjeski (born Rudolf Modrzejewski; January 27, 1861 – June 26, 1940) was a Polish-American civil engineer who achieved prominence as "America's greatest bridge builder."

He pioneered the use of suspension bridges and oversaw the design and construction of nearly forty bridges that spanned the great rivers of North America, as well as the development of new rail lines. In addition, he trained succeeding generations of American bridge designers and builders, including Joseph B. Strauss, chief engineer of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge (which was completed six months after Modjeski's San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge).

Formative years and family


Modjeski was born in Bochnia, in Galicia, on January 27, 1861, to Gustav Sinnmayer Modrzejewski and actress Helena Opid Modrzejewska (best known outside Poland as Helena Modjeska). In 1865, his mother left Sinnmayer, and in 1868, she married polish nobleman Karol Bożenta Chłapowski. In July 1876, they emigrated to America, where, as a matter of convenience, the boy's mother changed her name to Helena Modjeska and her son's name to Ralph Modjeski.[1]

He was a classmate of Ignacy Jan Paderewski in Poland and was a formidable pianist in his own right.

The son returned to Europe to study at l'Ecole des Ponts et Chaussées (the School of Bridges and Roads) in Paris, France. It was in 1883, while studying at Paris, that he obtained American citizenship; however, he always maintained contact with Poland, wrote much in Polish, and emphasized his Polish origins.

In 1885, he graduated from the School of Bridges and Roads at the top of his class. That same year, he married a cousin Felicie Benda; the couple had three children. They divorced in 1931 after a sixteen-year-long separation. That same year, the now seventy-year-old Modjeski married Virginia Mary Giblyn.

Ralph Modjeski, 1914



After completing his academic training, Modjeski returned to America to begin his career, working first under the "father of American bridge-building," George S. Morison. In 1893, Modjeski opened his own design office in Chicago. Joined in 1924 by Frank M. Masters Sr., the firm still exists as Modjeski & Masters.[2]

Modjeski's first project as chief engineer was the railroad bridge across the Mississippi River at Rock Island, Illinois. During his career, he served as chief or consulting engineer on dozens of bridges across the United States.

He took over the mis-designed Quebec Bridge after the 1907 disaster that killed seventy-five workers, and succeeded in creating the longest truss span in the world (though a construction accident killed another thirteen workers). It is still the longest cantilever bridge in the world.

Modjeski was the recipient of numerous awards and honorary degrees. He received a doctorate in engineering from Illinois State University in 1911, the Franklin Medal in 1923, a doctorate honoris causa from the Lwów Polytechnic in 1929, and the prestigious John Fritz Medal in 1930. He was elected to the United States National Academy of Sciences in 1925 and the American Philosophical Society in 1926.[3][4] In Modjeski's obituary, Frank Masters considered him "one of the world's leading bridge engineers."[5] A PHMC Historical Marker was dedicated in 2007 in commemoration.



He died June 26, 1940, in Los Angeles, California, nearly 80 years old.

Notable projects

Benjamin Franklin Bridge
San Francisco–Oakland Bay Bridge
Blue Water Bridge
Ambassador Bridge

See also


Further reading

  • Glomb, Jozef (2002). A man who spanned two eras: The story of bridge engineer Ralph Modjeski. Peter J. Obst (trans.). Philadelphia: Kosciuszko Foundation. ISBN 978-0-917004-25-4.


  1. ^ Durand, W.F. "Biographical Memoir of Ralph Modjeski" (PDF). National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America Biographical Memoirs. XXIII (10th memoir). Retrieved 7 November 2023.
  2. ^ "History". Modjeski and Masters. Retrieved 2023-11-07.
  3. ^ "Ralph Modjeski". www.nasonline.org. Retrieved 2023-08-10.
  4. ^ "APS Member History". search.amphilsoc.org. Retrieved 2023-08-10.
  5. ^ Masters, Frank (1941). "Memoir of Ralph Modjeski". Transactions of the American Society of Civil Engineers. 105 (1624).