Rudolf Modrzejewski (1861–1940) – building bridges

An average American found his surname impossible to pronounce. To get around this problem, he would always introduce himself as Ralph Modjeski. Even so, this famous constructor never denied being Polish, and always signed his letters home with his real name.

Rudolf Modrzejewski At 15, he and his mother, the celebrated actress Helena Modrzejewska, emigrated to the United States. While the mom continued her career and won acclaim, the son was reluctant to follow in her footsteps. Even as a child, he knew he wanted to be an engineer. He was fascinated by the construction of the Suez Canal, and dreamt of digging the Panama Canal. In those days, American universities lagged behind those on the Old Continent. So to receive a quality education, Modrzejewski had to return to Europe, where he spent several years in Paris. He was top of the class at the École Supérieure des Ponts. With an engineer’s diploma in his pocket, he moved to Chicago for a short traineeship, after which he went freelance. His company established excellent reputation, linking the banks of some of the widest rivers with bridges that were perfectly designed and great to look at. Modrzejewski built more than 40 such bridges. The Mississippi River alone was spanned by six. The Polish engineer also became a sought-after specialist in suspension structures and had no equal in all of the United States.

Modrzejewski made friends with Alfred Nobel. Together they designed the two-track Thebes Bridge, which is hailed as a classic example of bridge engineering. The Benjamin Franklin Bridge in Philadelphia is another interesting design by the Pole. Its span is 533 m long, and the pylons stand 110 m tall. Dating back to 1926, this exceptional engineering feat was the first in a series of suspension bridges which became true 20th century landmarks across the globe.

The name ‘Modjeski’ began to outshine ‘Modrzejewska.’ This remarkable success was down to a little quirk. In his blueprints, Modrzejewski would pay as much attention to technical parameters as to the beauty of design. An engineer will praise Modrzejewski for solid, durable and practical solutions. Meanwhile, an art lover will marvel at the breath-taking beauty of the designs of the outstanding Pole. Few people can combine exact mathematics with refined aesthetics. Civil engineer Modrzejewski could. Was the sense of aesthetics something he inherited from his mother? Helena Modrzejewska was a woman of striking good looks. Her admirers included Norwid, Witkiewicz and even Oscar Wilde. But few people realize that one of those who fell in love with Helena Modrzejewska was Henryk Sienkiewicz. Six years her junior, he was himself very popular with ladies. As the actress and her son were leaving Poland in 1875, it was the infatuated Sienkiewicz who was accompanying them. He was travelling as a correspondent of the Gazeta Polska magazine. However, the writer did not bring himself to settling in America for good. Luckily for the Polish nation, he returned home to build up our self-confidence with his Trilogy of historical novels. He certainly would not have been able to write them in America.

Fordon Bridge in Bydgoszcz - memorial plate The first Mississippi crossing was laid out in New Orleans in the 1930s. Difficult terrain had made it impossible before. No engineer dared to take on this assignment. The Americans knew, however, that despite his old age Ralph Modjeski was the one designer capable of just that. And that is the story of how the world’s longest railway bridge was built in 1935. Its clearance made it possible for ocean-going ships to move freely. On the day of inauguration, the designer was 74 years old. Modrzejewski’s design office exists to this day as Modjeski & Masters. It still designs bridges.


In 1907, the world’s longest cantilever bridge with a span length of 545 m collapsed in Quebec, Canada. It had been regarded the eight wonder of the world. The disaster claimed 75 lives. Wiser after the event, the Americans asked Modrzejewski for a redesign. In 1919, the Prince of Wales, who would later become King Edward VIII, officially opened the new imposing bridge which had the longest truss span in the world. As a memento of that catastrophe, to this day North American engineers wear stainless steel rings on their right little fingers.


A German American called Joseph Strauss cut his teeth at Modrzejewski’s company. He would later design the famous Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco.


Rudolf Modrzejewski paid many visits to Poland. The saddest one was when Helena Modrzejewska’s body was taken to Poland in 1909. She was laid to rest at Rakowice Cemetery in Krakow.


Helena Modrzejewska dreamt that her son would one day become a famous pianist. Rudolf did play the piano, but he was no virtuoso. He treated playing as a diversion from work. But his fingers remained nimble till the end of his life.

/ National Technology Museum in Warsaw