These days, St. Louisans on their way to Illinois have a figurative smorgasbord of bridge options compared to the travelers of yesteryear. When the Eads Bridge opened in 1874 after eight years of construction, it finally brought with it the ability to easily transport trains across the Mississippi River in St. Louis. Learn more about this historical marvel in the latest installment of the #mySTL 5 Photos/5 Facts series.
The First of its Kind…
What was the first St. Louis bridge crossing the Mississippi River? The Eads Bridge—and it was the first steel truss bridge as well. (However, it was not the first railroad bridge across the river, which was opened in 1856 near Chicago.)
…But It was Supposedly Impossible
From the size to the support system to the mud under the water, building a railroad bridge above the Mississippi River at St. Louis was largely thought of as impossible. “Many prominent engineers and industrialists of the age said this bridge could never be built,” says an article from Washington University Libraries’ Off The Shelf. “A bridge of that size—with enough clearance for riverboat smokestacks, enough strength to support fully loaded railcars, and enough distance between the supporting pillars to avoid obstructing river traffic — was impossible.”
Think driving around bridge construction is a nightmare now? The bridge had to be built with allowance for steamboats to fit underneath during changing water levels, but that wasn’t the only boat-related challenge. While under construction, says the Riverfront Times, the river itself could not be blocked.
And speaking of water, those building the bridge obviously had to work underneath it. But how? “Though he had never designed a bridge before, [James] Eads used his underwater experience to inform the design and construction of the bridge,” explains the Missouri History Museum. “Eads invented a waterproof chamber that would deliver oxygen to men who were working below water on the east abutment and the piers. The chamber became a curiosity that attracted tourists and locals to the construction site.” While the chambers were considered successful, says the Museum, bubbles in the bloodstream (called “the bends”) occurred in 119 workers, killing 14 during construction.
A Brilliant Creator
James B. Eads, the man behind the bridge, is widely known as a genius in his field but was largely self educated. To help his struggling family, teenage Eads sold apples and, after realizing that would not be sufficient, found a job running errands for a local businessman. His boss, Barrett Williams, noticed his intelligence and lack of education; Williams allowed Eads to utilize his library, and Eads used those books to learn his craft.
An Elephant “Tested” the Bridge
Talk about a PR stunt! To highlight the safety of the bridge, an elephant from a passing circus was walked across it. While this was not the only safety test, according to the History Channel it was believed at the time that an elephant would not cross a bridge unless it was safe due to its instincts.