Eads Bridge stands test of time; historic span still in use 140 years later

News-DemocratFebruary 6, 2014 

Sketch of Eads Bridge, 1875.

Within sight of the new Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge sits one of the most historically significant spans in the world.

When the Eads Bridge opened in 1874, just south of where the new bridge is set to open Sunday, it was considered an architectural marvel -- a creation that required the invention of new tools and of construction techniques never before used.

It was built by the Keystone Bridge Co., a business founded by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie. It was said that Carnegie essentially built the modern steel industry in response to the difficulty he had getting steel to build the bridge connecting St. Louis and Illinois.

The Eads Bridge, prior to the construction of the Gateway Arch in the 1960s, was so renowned that it was for a time the symbol of the city of St. Louis. It was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1964.

According to the book "Hidden Assets: Connecting the Past to the Future of St. Louis," famed American writer Walt Whitman was fascinated by the span. During a visit to St. Louis in 1879, Whitman found himself repeatedly heading down at Laclede's Landing to marvel at the beautiful bridge.

"I have haunted the river every night lately, where I could get a look at the bridge by moonlight," Whitman wrote at the time, according to the book. It is indeed a structure of perfection and beauty unsurpassable, and I never tire of it."

Explore Eads Bridge with interactive graphic below

The legacy of the Eads Bridge served as an inspiration to builders of its newest neighbor.

"We've had many school and engineer groups that have come down to see the construction and that's one of the things we talk about," said Randy Hitt, Stan Musial Veterans Memorial Bridge project manager for the Missouri Department of Transportation.

"It's amazing to me in that era how they could build something like that, when you think about how skeptical the public was. It's a great testament to design and construction engineering."

Engineering marvel

While its reputation eventually proved it to be designer James Eads' engineering masterpiece, a lot of people thought it, the longest arch bridge in the world at the time of construction, couldn't be built. Previous efforts to construct a span over the river at St. Louis had simply been swept away by the current.

According to news reports of the day, in 1867 Eads took his plans to St. Louis city engineers for approval and was initially rejected because the project was deemed too difficult to construct.

"Must we admit that, because a thing has never been done, it never can be, when our knowledge and judgment assures us it is entirely practical?" Eads argued at the time, according to the Missouri State Historical Society.

After making dives into the Mississippi to explore the bottom, Eads agreed to place his bridge's foundation on bedrock deep beneath the river bed and plans were reluctantly approved.

The Eads Bridge was the first alloy steel bridge to be built anywhere in the world, according to the International Council on Monuments, as most up to that time were built of timber and iron. It was also the first to depend entirely on cantilever construction of the superstructure -- the first to use pneumatic caissons in its construction and the first to use tubular cord members.

In order to make the bridge stand up to the Mississippi River's strong current, the Eads Bridge's foundation piers, built to channel passing water down deep to scour the river bottom of silt, had to be sunk to bedrock up to 103 feet below the surface of the river. This, in a time before electricity was available -- was accomplished by sinking a metal box, called a caisson, to the riverbed and pumping it full of pressurized air to keep out the water and to let workers breathe.

Since caissons had never before been used so extensively, there was nothing available for Eads to purchase for the construction of the bridge that would bear his name. A ship builder during the Civil War, Eads acquired the USS Milwaukee, a double-turretted ironclad ship that he designed and manufactured, and used its hull to make a custom caisson.

The men toiled in the dark, deep beneath the river's surface. And they were confronted with the first instances of a condition, decompression sickness, that would become known as "the bends."

According to reports at the time, 15 workers died during construction, two were permanently disabled and another 77 were seriously injured.

Despite the risks, the construction techniques used to build the Eads Bridge were adopted by bridge builders around the world, including the famous Brooklyn Bridge, which started construction three years after the Eads.

In addition to standing up to nearly a century and a half of the Mighty Mississippi's current and floods, the Eads Bridge weathered a direct hit from a tornado in 1996 and survived.

Hitt said the Eads is built to last for decades to come. His biggest fear for the historic span is a major earthquake.

"Our new bridge has a 100-year design life," Hitt said. "I hope it will be prominent in the St. Louis skyline for a long, long time. It's awe inspiring to see the Eads Bridge in the background as the new bridge has gone up."

Eads passes the test

While people take bridges for granted today, when the Eads was completed, it was such a novelty that some people were afraid to use it.

When the bridge was completed in 1874, builders arranged one of the great publicity stunts of the era, borrowing an elephant from a traveling circus to lead a parade across the bridge. According to legend, elephants have a keen sense of what's stable and what's not. So the theory was that if a giant pachyderm wasn't afraid to cross the span, a relatively small human shouldn't have any concerns. The crowd on hand cheered wildly as the elephant made its way from St. Louis to the Illinois side of the river. But, just to make sure the last ounce of skepticism was drained from potential toll-paying customers, builders arranged a few days later to have 14 steam locomotives cross the bridge at the same time to prove its strength.

Apparently folks were impressed. When the bridge officially opened on July 4, 1874, Hitt said the parade of people waiting to cross it stretched for more than 13 miles.

The top deck was designed to handle street car tracks with room for pedestrian and carriage traffic. The lower level had tracks for steam trains. The street car lines were abandoned in 1935 and removed in 1942 to make room for car and truck traffic.

The last locomotives crossed the Eads Bridge in 1974, according to the Missouri Historical Society. But its rails were brought back to life in 1993 when the MetroLink light-rail system was installed on the Eads Bridge's lower deck. A $25 million renovation of the bridge, which restored its upper traffic deck, was completed in 2003.

Today the bridge is restricted to two lanes as it undergoes maintenance work on the car deck. But Illinois Department of Transportation spokesman Jeff Church said there's no reason the Eads Bridge won't continue to do its job of carrying people back and forth across the Mississippi River for years to come.

"It's amazing that a bridge that was built some 140 years ago is still in use today," Church said. "We can only hope that the bridge we've just built will last that long."

Contact reporter Scott Wuerz at swuerz@bnd.com or call 239-2626.

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