A Brief History of the Arch Part III: The Eads Bridge

“Among the most beautiful works of man.”

This is how Ada Louise Huxtable, a writer for The New York Times, described the Eads Bridge fifty years ago. Partly financed by Andrew Carnegie, Eads Bridge was the world’s first all-steel construction of any kind. When it was completed in 1874 it was the longest arch bridge anywhere. It runs for 6,442 feet; it took seven years to build at the unimaginable cost (in those days) of ten million dollars.

The bridge was designed and built by James Buchanan Eads. Born in 1820, he was named after his mother’s cousin, who later on became President of the United States. Eads’s father moved the family several times during his childhood, each time trying to succeed in business. He failed on each occasion. The family ended up in Saint Louis, where the father abandoned them. His mother and sister tried to make a living running a boarding home, and Eads, at the age of thirteen, helped them out by quitting school and selling apples, pencils, and whatever he could on the city streets.

He was unable to secure a formal education. One of his many jobs was at a dry goods store run by Barrett Williams. Williams liked Eads and appreciated his work. He allowed James to access his library during his spare moments. This is where James learned about physics, mechanics, and engineering. Much later on, when Mr. Williams was destitute and Eads had a sizable fortune, James made sure that his mentor was taken care of.

Eads became well acquainted with the Mississippi River. When he was in his early twenties he developed a salvage capsule that was able to dive and retrieve valuables from sunken riverboats. In those days there were no regulations that covered riverboat safety. Accidents were common and disastrous (Mark Twain’s younger brother died in one of these, an event that forever scarred the famous writer). Eads’s contraption involved diving to significant depths inside a barrel. James made sure that he was the diver, until he perfected the design to his satisfaction.

Eventually James was able to build many of these capsules, and he ran a thriving business. His boats roamed the Mississippi. His finances had a bit of a setback when he could not make a profit out of a glass factory, but he went back into the salvage business and again did well.

During the Civil War James convinced Secretary of State Edward Bates (who was from Saint Louis) to consider armoring riverboats to help control river traffic. Eventually many of these were made, becoming an important weapon that helped Union forces in their Western war effort.

After the Civil War the city of Saint Louis was in dire need of an economic boost. For years the owners of the steamboats and ferries that serviced the city had blocked construction of a bridge to allow railroads and foot traffic to ford the river. By contrast, Chicago welcomed railroads and new development. Chicago thrived (probably the main reason that it is still much larger than Saint Louis), and our city lagged behind. When the ferry owners were no longer able to justify their behavior, they prevailed on the local politicians to institute prohibitive requirements for a bridge. It had to be this long, and that tall, and so strong that you could place five trains on it. There was no way that, in those days, these requirements could be met.

Despite the fact that he had never designed a bridge, Eads took to the task. He insisted on reinforced steel as the main material. His requirements were exacting: many slabs of steel were sent back to Mr. Carnegie’s steelworks because they did not meet his rigid standards. He developed a system of pneumatic caissons to drill through the sand at the river bottom and into bedrock. Many workers developed decompression sickness, at that time known as “caisson disease;” fifteen died. Eads devised a system of cantilevered support that made it possible for river traffic to continue during construction. In all, he secured 47 patents during the seven years that it took for the structure to be finished.

On June 14, 1874, the last span of the bridge was completed. Despite Eads’s assurances that it was safe, nobody wanted to walk on it. He resorted to a bit of show business. He hired an elephant from a traveling circus that happened to be going through town. He popularized the (possible) myth that elephants never step on ground that will not hold their weight. He walked the elephant through, from Saint Louis into Illinois.

People were still a bit hesitant. Between Eads and Civil War General Sherman (who was in town for the opening), fourteen railroad locomotives were leased and placed end to end across the whole span of the river. They marched back and forth. That convinced all.

On July 4, 1874 President Grant formally inaugurated the bridge, the only bridge to ever be named after its builder. General Sherman drove the last (gold) spike. The parade was fifteen miles long.

The number of technical challenges that Eads faced were enough to discourage the most capable of engineers. The Illinois riverbank was a different height than its counterpart on the Missouri side. Bedrock was more than a hundred feet deep. Masonry had to be laid down through more than 70 feet of sand.

Eads triumphed in the technical arena, but not in the political one. For reasons not clear to me, railroads refused to use the new bridge. Within one year the bridge went bankrupt, leading to the largest bank failure (up until then) in the country. Soon after, the bridge was sold for pennies on the dollar to the Terminal Railroad Company, which owned it until they traded it to the city of Saint Louis (for the adjoining McArthur Bridge) in 1989. It is now used to carry Metro Link cars across the river; the upper level still carries automobiles.

Later on in life Eads designed a system of jetties that considerably eased the flow of river traffic around the Port of New Orleans. For this venture he took a risk: he would get paid only if his invention worked. He made millions. The Army Corps of Engineers refused to accept his suggestion to use jetties to prevent flooding in other parts of the Mississippi. They preferred to use levies. We know how poorly that system has worked.

Eads died in 1887 during a trip to the Bahamas. One of his daughters donated money to Washington University to erect a science building in his honor. This is where Dr. Compton did the research that earned him a Nobel Prize in Physics, a fitting sequel to the life of this extraordinary man.

The bridge has served as an inspiration to thousands of common and famous folk. Walt Whitman, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and many more have been inspired by its beauty. It remains and will always be a national treasure.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Cordell Webb

    Great history Doc. Please keep them coming.

  2. Loretta wishne

    I hope that you and yours are okay considering all the devistation in Puerto rico.,.

  3. Betty Townsend

    Wonderful history lesson. I didn’t know hardly any of this about Eads.
    Hope all of your family are safe and receiving all the help they need. I pray for all the people of Ruerto Rico.