This month I am happy to guest blog for the Steampunk Hands Around the World event.
Today’s trip leads us to the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, MO.
If you were a steampunk coming into a real or imagined St. Louis from the Eastern United States in the late 1800’s, you would have undoubtedly crossed the Eads Bridge.
Eads Bridge is named for James Eads, a brilliant engineer and businessman who designed the bridge in 1867. At the end of the Civil War, St. Louis was fighting to become the continued gateway to the west. The booming city was still competing with large Midwestern cities like Chicago and fighting the steamboat industry for a piece of the national transportation pie. It was said a bridge over the Mississippi River would be imperative to St. Louis’ survival.
With support from Andrew Carnegie, construction began on the steel and stone bridge in February 1868. It was created in ways that had never been attempted before. Trains, horse and buggy carts and eventually cable cars would use the bridge. Two enormous pneumatic caissons sunk below the muddy Mississippi to bedrock. They were the largest ever built and sunk to depths never reached before. This resulted in the first mass outbreaks of “the bends” or decompression sickness. During the construction of the bridge, 15 workers died, 2 were left disabled for life and 77 injured.
But two massive stone piers rose from the river and became the base for a cantilever method of support. Massive arched beams soon connected the piers and the shorelines. Yet the steamboat industry and the Army Corps of Engineers still declared it unsafe even as the bridge was nearing completion. Eads called in a favor to President Ulysses S. Grant to overrule the Corp, and on June 14, 1874, an elephant strolled a “test walk” across the bridge to prove that it was safe. Two weeks later Eads sent 14 locomotives back and forth across the bridge at one time.
The bridge was completed before the famous Tower Bridge in London. It spans 6,442 ft. with a width of 46 ft. The center span reaches 520 feet and has been high and wide enough for planes to fly under its clearance of 88 ft.
Many businesses thrived and new buildings sprung up along the waterfront including the old Switzer Licorice Factory. Ironically the factory’s upper floors collapsed during a freak thunderstorm in 2006 and scattered bricks and mortar onto the bridge.
It has survived harsh winters where the mighty Mississippi froze over enough to allow people to walk across the massive span of water. Flood waters have risen around it countless times including the Flood of 1993. And it resisted the horrific tornado of May 27, 1896 which roared through St. Louis, Missouri and East St. Louis, Illinois, killing and injuring hundreds of people. Damage to the shoreline towers was sustained, but the bridge stayed strong.
Today, a modern steampunk can take the Metrolink Train, drive one of the four lanes, bike, or walk across the bridge. Several lookout points allow pedestrians to look over the water or watch the trains along the riverfront. Once arriving in St. Louis, one can venture into the Landing Entertainment District, see the oldest church west of the Mississippi, The Old Cathedral and the Old Courthouse made famous for the Dred Scott decision. And ironically, adventurous steampunk folk can still book passage on steamboats on the riverfront and take a cruise under the bridge.
Poet Walt Whitman wrote: “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.”
Photos courtesy of the Missouri History Museum and my own collection. More photos and video footage from the top of the bridge here:
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