Monday, July 4, 2011

Happy Birthday, Eads (and America, too)!

It’s the Fourth of July and the birthday of our nation – Happy Birthday, USA!

During this country’s first century, work was under way on a structure that would span the Mississippi, connecting St. Louis to its neighbors to the immediate east in Illinois. The Eads Bridge was officially dedicated on July 4, 1874.

Here she is. (With the spans of the infinitely newer Martin Luther King Bridge visible in the background.)

Construction on the mile-long bridge, at a cost of $10 million, had started in August 1867. The three-span, ribbed steel, deck arch design was the brainchild of Capt. James B. Eads, a hydraulic river engineer who had built iron clad gunboats for the Union during the Civil War. It would be his first and only bridge Eads was obsessed with the perfect foundation, convinced that the foundations should reach bedrock. This obsession was no doubt encouraged by an 1868 trip to Europe. The result: the Eads Bridge foundation is 136 feet below high water on the east pier, the deepest pneumatic caisson ever constructed.

Quite a feat for the time. Because he was familiar with the depths below the river from recovering sunken warships, Eads knew a lot about diving. But not everything.

During the caisson construction, 14 men died of the bends.

Things got off to a rocky start once consruction finshed, too. While the first train through its tunnel had been adjusted, the body of the train remained a few inches wider, causing it to scrape the sides and assault its passengers with smoke and an unpleasant smell. But that would be the least of its worries.

Initially serving a single railroad, other lines boycotted the new bridge. It created an untenable financial situation, forcing the bridge into receivership and to be auctioned in 1878. In 1889, the Terminal Railroad Association (TRRA) assumed ownership.
The bridge was the first major structure constructed with steel as its primary metal. It had the largest spans of any bridge at the time and in total length it would remain unrivaled until 1932. (In the photo above, from the University of Missouri archives, youngsters aboard the Admiral in 1941 peer out onto the Eads.)

The bridge became a National Historical Landmark in 1964 and was listed on the National Register of Historic Places four years later. By the 1970s, it had been displaced as a railroad bridge and the tracks were removed around 1974.

The bridge was closed for more than a decade, starting in the mid-‘90s. When the Eads finally did reopen, my beloved McKinley Bridge was still closed so it was such welcome relief.

A lot of people didn’t know it had reopened so for a long time it was a well-kept secret that made my occasional drives to work a breeze.

Today, the bridge is a throwback to its history, once again carrying both cars and train traffic. This time though the train is the MetroLink, St. Louis’ version of the subway.

And it’s just as beautiful now and I never miss a chance to catch a glimpse of it and marvel at it.

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