The Eads Bridge was dedicated in 1874, the longest bridge in the world. It was the first to use cantilevered steel construction and considered an engineering wonder.
From the steps beneath Missouri’s St. Louis Arch, travelers can see the Eads Bridge stretching gracefully across the Mississippi into Illinois. The Eads Bridge separates the West from the East, and at the time of its dedication on Independence Day 1874, it was the largest bridge in the world.
The St. Louis Bridge, as it was originally named, was also the first to use steel and cantilevered construction. The two outer spans are 500 feet long, and the central one stretches 520 feet. The limestone piers are anchored down into the river’s bedrock.
The Eads Bridge and Andrew Carnegie
Eads Bridge was a combination road and railway bridge; these days it carries St. Louis’ light rail. By the time its cornerstone was laid in 1878, so many restrictions had been put on its design, so much political finagling had been perpetrated, that it seemed impossible the project could complete.
Keystone Bridge Company, headed by Andrew Carnegie, won the contract. Much as he wanted the bridge, Carnegie found the perfectionism of his engineer, Captain James Buchanan Eads, difficult. According to Rails across the Mississippi: a History of the St. Louis Bridge by Robert Wendell Jackson, Carnegie complained that “The St. Louis Bridge is one out of a hundred to Keystone while to Captain Eads it is the grand work of a distinguished life.”
In 1871, Carnegie sold his stock and left the project. Eads, however, would not give in. He danced between the red tape and created a bridge of such technical wonder and physical beauty that, when it was officially opened, it was earned a 15-mile parade, fireworks and speeches. Though trains had already been crossing the bridge for a month, an “inaugural” train ride was scheduled.
The Eads Bridge Changed Hands When Keystone Went Bankdrupt
The next spring, the Keystone Bridge Company went bankrupt. The delays in income from passenger trains finished them off. According to the article “Wiggin’s Ferry Company last active years” on the Illinois State Museum website, at the end of 1878, Eads Bridge was auctioned off to the St. Louis Bridge Company for $2 million, a fifth of its construction costs. It later passed to Jay Gould.
The Rescue of the Eads Bridge
In 1974 the last Amtrak train crossed the Eads Bridge, and piece by piece it fell into disrepair. The bridge was closed entirely in 1991, seemingly doomed. But in 1993 the city’s new light rail started to use the lower deck, and the renovated upper deck opened to road and foot traffic on Independence Day 2003.
The Eads Bridge is a National Historic Landmark and also a National Civil Engineering Landmark.
- PBS.com American Experience: “Secrets of a Master Builder”
- Rails across the Mississippi: a History of the St. Louis Bridge: Robert Wendell Jackson