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Eads Bridge


Eads Bridge

structurae: Eads Bridge

Secrets of a Master Builder
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Slideshow photos of Eads Bridge


Rebuilding of Eads Bridge deck took four years, cost $35 million



Completed in 1874, "this is one of the great American masterpieces, and it's virtually unknown." Designed to allow trains across the Mississippi - and assure St. Louis' dominance as a trading hub - it was the first major bridge to use steel and cantilevered construction. Now a car crossing (the last train rumbled over in 1974), it's finished a $25 million restoration in 2003.

Photo: Eads Bridge, St. Louis

Eads Bridge

The St. Louis bridge, a massive structure, was completed in 1874 at a cost of over $10,000,000. It consists of three spans, the center one being 520 feet long, and the other two 500 feet each. The piers upon which these spans rest are built of limestone carried down to bed rock. The main passage for the accommodation of pedestrians is 54 feet wide, and below this are two lines of rails. The merchant's bridge, 3 miles N., was completed in 1890 at a cost of $3,000,000. The latter is used exclusively for railroad traffic.

From Everybody's Cyclopedia, Vol. IV., Syndicate Publishing Company, New York, 1912.


James Buchanan Eads

Eads, James Buchanan (1820-1887), a celebrated American engineer. He was born at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, May 23, 1820. He died at Nassau, Bahama Islands, March 8, 1887. Perhaps no other American engineer has been connected with more notable enterprises. In young manhood he won a reputation by devising some barges for raising sunken steamers. In 1861, at the call of the Federal government, he constructed eight ironclad steamers inside of one hundred days. He also built other gunboats and mortar boats, all of use in opening up the Mississippi and its tributaries. In 1867-74 he built the famous Eads Bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis. It is a mammoth steel arch structure of three spans, resting on stone pillars sent down to bed rock far below the bottom of a treacherous river. It cost $6,500,000. The last great work with which he was connected was the improvement of the mouth of the Mississippi. He designed the system of willow mattresses and stonework by which the water was confined to a narrow passage through which it scoured a deep channel.

From The National Encyclopedia for the Home, School and Library, Vol. III., National Encyclopedia Company, Chicago, 1927.


Eads Bridge Reopening Celebration

The grand re-opening of the Eads Bridge was on Friday, July 4, 2003. Prior to this celebration, the bridge had been closed to traffic since 1991. During the ceremony, dignitaries from both states will participate in a ribbon cutting and marching bands from Illinois and Missouri will march to the center of the bridge at the state line to play patriotic music, there will be daytime fireworks display and patriotic music. The Veiled Prophet Parade will then begin from the east side of the bridge and proceed west into the downtown area finishing with the traditional parade route down Market to 20th.

Celebrating the re-opening of the Eads Bridge on the 4th of July is significant because the bridge originally opened on the 4th of July in 1874.


Click on picture for larger verstion.

Eads Bridge, Spanning Mississippi River at Washington Street, St. Louis, County, MO

Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Detroit Publishing Company Collection

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bridge to the past and future

Come Independence Day morning, about 1,200 men and women will gather together in the middle of an old bridge over the Mississippi River at St. Louis. This bridge, when completed, was the world's largest, and the technology used to anchor it to the riverbed and to construct its three willowy arches was the last word.

It opened officially on July 4, 1874.

The starting horns to fracture the morning on Friday signal the start of two races beginning on the bridge and also herald the reopening of its long closed (and for a while, long gone) upper deck. From this starting line, the runners head into the city of St. Louis to finish at the Gateway Arch.

This bridge and the nearby Arch are not only geographically adjacent but also are connected inextricably by their engineering, their appearance and their roles as civic symbols.

Both spring from a fundamental geometric expression.

Historically, they represent the courage of individuals and a community to gamble - after a certain period of dithering and conflict.

Each articulates a pushing of engineering to its physical and metaphorical limits.

Both aimed to use the art of architecture as a means not only to beauty but also toward commercial and civic revival.

Bridge and Arch share international prominence. Each is monumentally affecting. Life here would be different without them in quantifiable and qualitative ways. Both in their time have said "St. Louis": They identify us. And even in a careless age, we cherish these structures with something resembling love.

Eero Saarinen created the Gateway Arch, and he is acknowledged as a modernist genius and a visual magician. An aesthetic progenitor of Saarinen is Capt. James Buchanan Eads.

In the 19th century, following the end of the Civil War, Eads designed, helped to finance and essentially willed a bridge across the Mississippi. It was the first such span at St. Louis and the one by which all later bridges here are judged.

Eads, more than likely, would be puzzled by the display of exuberant amateur athleticism, not to mention all the publicly exposed flesh, initiating new life for the crossing.

Yet you must imagine he'd be pleased also, to see his bridge evolve and adapt with the times, to welcome runners in shorts and singlets as it originally welcomed strollers in buttoned up dresses that swept the ground, to again accommodate automobiles and buses as it originally accommodated horse-drawn vehicles and trolley cars.

Once known as the St. Louis Bridge, it is called by the name of its creator now. On July 7, it will resume its role as a versatile, multi-modal interstate passageway. By the early 1990s, traffic on it had dwindled to about 4,000 cars a day. In 1991, it closed. For a while, it was unused altogether and looked to be cloaked in the gloom of desuetude.

But in 1993, it came to life again. MetroLink, the region's new light rail system, began to speed back and forth on the lower, train deck, which originally served passenger and freight train traffic.

After years of delays and frustration, the upper deck is opening again to buses and automobiles, walkers, runners and cyclists. A new lane for pedestrians and bicyclists on the south side of the bridge also provides a place to look at the river and the skyline of the city that is peerless.

The fact that we will be able to walk, jog, skate or cycle across the bridge, or to simply stand still and take in the spectacular view, is due largely to a collaborative effort of the Regional Chamber and Growth Association, the state of Missouri and the city of St. Louis, under the leadership of Trailnet. Trailnet also raised $1 million to make changes to the bridge that would assure its availability to pedestrians and cyclists.

On July 6, the entire bridge will be open to the public as a grand promenade. Ted Curtis, executive director of Trailnet, said his organization hopes that next year, the entire bridge will be closed to motorized traffic on selected weekends. "The long-term objective is to close the bridge to cars every weekend," he said. St. Louis 2004 has special events planned for the bridge as well.

With all this various individual and vehicular traffic, the Eads Bridge's destiny will be fulfilled again.

A poet's fixation

Louis Daniel Brodsky is a businessman and proprietor of Time Being Books in St. Louis, but if you ask him what he does, more than likely he will tell you he is a poet. Poets draw inspiration for their work from all sorts of sources, real and fantastic.

A source for Brodsky is the Eads Bridge. He is in good company. The bridge has been the subject of countless artistic representations. Paintings and drawings, good and bad, have had the bridge as their focus. As Howard S. Miller wrote in his and Quinta Scott's valuable book, "The Eads Bridge," "Architect Louis Sullivan drew lifelong inspiration from its 'sensational and architectonic' wedding of idea to actuality, form to function." Sullivan is architect of another St. Louis architectural treasure, the Wainwright Building at Seventh and Chestnut streets.

Week before last, Brodsky wrote new a poem called "The Soul of Eads." Its concluding triplets go like this:

Tonight, I've inherited the soul of James B. Eads.

I am science, civil engineering,

That grand tributary, the Mississippi River,

The forces of nature tamed by his mathematics,

The colossal Eads Bridge itself,

Spanning the rapid currents of my imagination.

As well as serving as muse, the Eads Bridge has contributed to satisfying an acquisitive streak that distinguishes Brodsky. In the past, it has manifested itself in his collecting of books, letters and other material produced by or about novelist William Faulkner.

Now Eads - man and bridge - are his quarries. There is no escaping this when you visit him in his offices off Clayton Road in St. Louis County. One room is lined with lighted cases filled with objects that generally go by the name "souvenir," and some of them are the stylistic ancestors of the snow globe: cups of all sizes and descriptions (including a 19th-century mustache cup that protected a gent's mustache from the contents of the cup); dinner plates; and silver spoons - all bearing the image of the bridge. On other walls hang images of various descriptions, including a painting of the span that hangs from a ceiling.

There are many works on paper: photographs of all sorts, including views of the bridge under construction and completed; sheet music with covers illustrated with the bridge; postcards; a fascinating book filled with the technical drawings for the bridge; and architectural renderings.

Brodsky also collects images of Eads. His collection includes one from Mathew Brady's National Portrait Gallery in Washington as well as images by noted St. Louis photographers of 19th-century prominence.

One affecting possession is a letter by Eads, written in his firm, fluent, legible hand. It is revealing in several respects. First is its lyrical use of English. Second is its revelation of his humanity and loyalty. Third is its capsulation of an incredibly rich and varied life. All this appears in the space of two pages of foolscap.

It was written on January 24, 1880, about seven years before Eads' death at 67.

The return address is JAS. B. EADS, CIVIL ENGINEER, 314 CHESTNUT ST. It is addressed to Professor William J. Harris.

My dear sir

I feel a great interest in the admission of Miss Zoe R. Nelson into the Central High School, and have ventured to trespass upon your time in this way, in the hope that I may be able to enlist your sympathies in her behalf, and thus secure for her such favor as you can consistently extend to her. She is between 15 and 16 years old and is now attending the branch High School in the northern part of the city. She is the daughter of Capt. W. T. Nelson, many years ago my partner in the wrecking business; afterwards Superintendent of my ship yard at Carondelet during the building of the gun boats. Subsequently he was employed in the construction of the bridge; and still later he was employed in the building of the jetties, where he contracted the yellow fever with which disease he died, leaving his widow and two daughters (one only 10 years old) almost entirely destitute. Anything you can do to aid her admission to the High School will place me still under greater obligation to you.

With sincere regard I remain your friend

Jas. B. Eads

Eads, born in 1820, got his start and built his first fortune as a "wrecker" - one who salvaged wrecks of boats from the bed of the Mississippi River. Sustained by a diving bell, he made precarious descents to the bottom of the river, where he set out on foot, looking for wrecks. His scavenging was not only lucrative but also deeply instructive, for it was on these walks that he learned the scouring effects of the river currents, knowledge he would put to valuable use later.

The reference in his letter to the building of the gun boats at Carondelet is treated almost in passing, a mere incident in a life, when in fact it was a milestone in American military history. Eads was convinced that the Union must be master of the Mississippi and he pleaded his case to Edward Bates, President Lincoln's attorney general. Eads was summoned to Washington. As Miller wrote, Eads discovered that Lincoln understood the strategic importance of the river, and that "his (Eads) reputation as the leading expert on the western rivers had preceded him and that the president wanted him to devise a plan."

Devise he did.

Miller wrote, "Eads proposed a fleet of ironclad, steam-driven gunboats. When the government invited competitive bids, he submitted an audacious proposal to construct seven six-hundred-ton ironclads of his own design and have them ready to arm within sixty-five days. Within two weeks, Eads and his old salvage partner, William Nelson, had a shipyard in operation at Carondelet ... The first gunboat was ready in forty-five days."

The foundations of a bridge

After the war, as Miller observed, St. Louis began to understand the folly of its prewar, foot-dragging opposition to a bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis. A bridge had been opposed fiercely and successfully by the riverboat industry, which regarded bridges as obstacles to navigation. The ferrymen who controlled trans-Mississippi commerce between what was then a collection of small communities called collectively Illinois Town, now East St. Louis, and St. Louis, were opposed as well. A bridge would diminish the ferry business dramatically.

Before the war, Miller wrote, Eads hadn't been particularly interested in bridge building: "His lifelong interest had been in removing river obstacles, not adding one." But as he began to understand the grave economic consequences of Chicago's commercial strangling of St. Louis by connecting itself, to the east and west, with uninterrupted railroads, he took up the cause of a Mississippi River bridge between Missouri and Illinois at St. Louis. He also realized, as many civic leaders understood belatedly, that the reputation of St. Louis as one of the great cities of the nation was slipping badly.

Eads the person defines genius. His Mississippi River bridge is a physical manifestation of his extraordinary brilliance. He was largely self-taught, and as autodidacts often do, he took learning extraordinarily seriously. He demanded perfection, often driving himself to emotional and physical exhaustion in the process. Like all good scientists, he learned by looking and investigating, by going to primary sources, by trial and by error.

He was also a canny businessman. In a telephone conversation, Miller said a new book on the bridge - Robert W. Jackson's "Rails Across the Mississippi" - reveals just how capable a capitalist Eads was. In a jacket blurb, Miller wrote that the book is "a local study of national import."

"Whereas previous books on the Eads Bridge have treated it as an artifact of innovative technology ... Jackson treats it primarily as an artifact of innovative economics, using the bridge to reveal the financial mechanics of emergent industrial capitalism in the Gilded Age. The writing is lucid, the research staggeringly thorough."

And there was trust in the divine, too. As Miller wrote, Eads believed "the true, the useful, and the beautiful were equally manifest in the harmony of creation. Machines that worked right looked right because utility and taste were one in the mind of God."

The Eads Bridge, this machine for transportation, worked right and looked right. Eads designed a bridge with four massive abutments and piers with foundations on bedrock. He devised an intricate scaffolding that allowed constructing the bridge without riverboat-obstructing falseworks. Those graceful, poetic arches you see today - 502 feet, 520 feet, 502 feet respectively - were landmarks of engineering, an intricate new technology of steel construction.

The bridge was begun about two years after the Civil War, in 1867, and completed in 1874. As the runners reinaugurate it on Friday, the bridge also will celebrate the 129th anniversary of its first grand opening on a long ago Fourth.

The bridge "looked right" as well, and continues to be one of the three or four most visually affecting and satisfying buildings in the region, and among the greatest built achievements in the entire United States. The reason: an early application of the modernist creed of less being more. Although the eminent St. Louis architect George I. Barnett had in mind something like the Ponte Sant'Angelo in Rome, a span picturesqued with sculptures, and one dressed in Victorian-era decorative excesses, the garb du jour. Eads decided to allow the essential beauty of stone and steel and form to carry the aesthetic load without adornment.

Eads triumphant

The Eads Bridge was the penultimate triumph in James Buchanan Eads' career. He would go on to design the South Pass jetties at New Orleans, jetties that constricted the channel of the river at its mouth. The narrowed channel employed the scouring effect Eads had observed walking on the bottom of the river in his youth to remove accumulations of silt blocking ships' passage into the Port of New Orleans.

But what has become a visible, emotion-rousing, functioning member of our regional personality, a structure that hovers in the memory of pilgrims to it and ignites the passions of artists - and a monument in the rich history of the architecture of the world - is the bridge that bears the noble name Eads.

Long Island's great gray poet Walt Whitman was a visitor to St. Louis. In 1879 he wrote this about the Eads Bridge:

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