Steamboats traveling up and down the mighty Mississippi had brought St. Louis great prosperity. By 1860, however, the city was losing business to Chicago, which was served by eleven rail lines and had “overturned the sovereignty of the rivers.” Stranded by the very river that had put it on the map, St. Louis had no alternative but to build a bridge across the Mississippi.

James Buchanan Eads (1820-1887) ultimately triumphed with a proposal for a bridge like no other: a three-arched span that would be taller and longer than anything yet built in the United States. The bridge would be made of steel, a new material that had never been used on the scale proposed. Most radically of all, Eads had never built a bridge.

Eads’s knowledge of the capricious Mississippi was unsurpassed. He first got to know the river as a steamboat clerk. Steamboats and their cargo regularly sank, victims of fire, boiler explosions, or river debris. To recover this sunken treasure, Eads began a salvage business. Equipped with a jerry-built diving bell, Eads kept at this hazardous work, literally walking the turbulent river bottom, sometimes for miles. Along the way, he built a fortune and a national reputation as the river’s leading expert. [Eads’s] career had been a succession of bold innovations marked by technical daring and founded on a unique and intimate knowledge of the Mississippi River.



Work on the bridge began in 1867. Based on the Roman arch, and not on more common truss or suspension systems, its design and construction were revolutionary. The spans were built by extending the halves of each arch outward while supporting them with guy wires, until they met in the middle. Riding on the closure of the first span by September 19, 1873, was a half-million-dollar loan.

September’s extreme heat had so expanded the metal arches that they could not be joined. Panicked, Eads’s chief assistant, Henry Flad, tried to shrink the metal by packing it in 60 tons (54 tonnes) of ice, to no avail. But the foresighted Eads had developed a means of raising the arches so they could be closed with the insertion of a screw mechanism. On September 17 the arches were closed. Calvin Woodward’s classic text, A History of the St. Louis Bridge (1881), chronicles the whole of Eads’s heroic endeavor.

At a July 4, 1874, gala, General William Tecumseh Sherman drove the last spike, completing the bridge and joining Missouri and Illinois. The first major Mississippi crossing, it was extolled by many, including Walt Whitman, who said it was “perfection and beauty unsurpassable.” A plaque on the bridge simply read: The Mississippi discovered by Marquette, 1673; spanned by Captain Eads, 1874.

The central arch spans 520 feet (158 meters) and two side arches each span 502 feet (153 meters); with the approaches, the bridge has a total length of 6,442 feet (1,964 meters) and a clearance of 50 feet (15 meters) above high water.

Less than a year later, the bridge was bankruptovercapitalized and underused. Eads was not present in 1878 when his visionary structure was sold at public auction. The last train crossed the bridge’s lower deck in 1974. It became a dingy haunt for pigeons, and most drivers were unaware they were crossing an American original. Its fortunes were revived in 1993, when the MetroLink light rail opened on the lower level. A major rehabilitation of the iconic bridge was completed in 2016.

Ingenious and indefatigable, Eads famously asked: “Must we admit that because a thing has never been done it can never be?” Civil War photographer Mathew B. Brady made this portrait in 1865; earlier, at President Lincoln’s request, Eads had designed a fleet of ironclad gunboats to defend the Mississippi during the Civil War.

Eads used pneumatic caissons to plant the bridge’s piers underwater. The caisson’s open, knifelike bottom cut into the riverbed. Laborers worked inside, shoveling buckets of debris, which were hauled out on pulleys. Others built stone foundations on the caisson’s closed top, forcing it still deeper. Extreme air pressure inside the caissons temporarily paralyzed some workers and made others bend over, unable to stand. Fifteen men died from “the bends,” or decompression sickness, which is caused by a too-rapid decompression.

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