James Eads made his fortune by finding ways to rig barges to salvage sunken steamboats on the great river. During the Civil War, he built a fleet of 8 iron warships for the US Navy in just 100 days. After the war, he joined a group attempting to charter a corporation to build a bridge across the Mississippi River at Saint Louis.
Opposed to Eads was a powerful lobby consisting of ferry boat operators, steam boat companies, and investors from Chicago who did not wish to see Saint Louis grow faster than the windy city. Eads went to Washington DC and ended up having a formal charter established by Congress. Rather than solving the problem, the law only seemed to cause more trouble. Finally, Eads and his investors bought out the interest that their rivals held in the bridge project. That gave Eads the signal he needed to start building.
The first phase of the project was building the huge piers. High pressure caissons were used to allow workers to work below the surface of the river. The caissons eventually went 100 feet below the river bed to find solid bedrock. Eads required a bedrock foundation as a key feature in the bridge design.
Once the piers were in place, Eads tackled the ironwork. The iron was self-supported a short distance away from the piers. But once they ventured any further from the piers, the iron needed support until the arches could be joined in the middle. Eads built structures on top of the bridge to act like cranes to hold up the iron. This allowed river traffic to flow without being blocked by bridge construction. Once the two sides of an arch were joined, the crane structures were removed.
The bridge has a number of innovative features. Eads patented many of those features. For example, the bridge was designed so any one support member could be removed for repair without having to build falsework to support the bridge.
The Eads has two levels. Dual rail lines run on the lower level through the metalwork. The upper level was built as a walkway and carriageway for horse and buggy traffic. Later, the upper deck as reworked to be a highway crossing for automobiles on the upper level, again, with trains on the lower deck.
By the late 1990's, the Eads fell into disrepair. It was traded with the City Of Saint Louis for the MacArthur Bridge. The City rebuilt the bridge, first to support the Metrolink light rail project, and later the upper deck for highway traffic. Completed in 2003, the bridge should be good for at least 50 years before the next major update. And the ferry company that was so worried about the bridge? Well, the bridge no doubt hurt the ferry traffic. But the ferry stayed for 30 more years as a passenger ferry offering upgraded accommodations that were out of the direct sun and with free ice water. The ferry operated into the late 1920's carrying railroad cars. In the long run, the ferry was too inefficient to beat the automobile, and had to shutdown for the winter months, so the ferries eventually stopped running. But the Wiggins Ferry Company, which operated at the site of the Eads Bridge, still exists today as a real estate company that holds much of the waterfront property used by the TRRA.
The following seven photos show a typical crossing of the Eads Bridge by automobile from Illinois heading west into Saint Louis. The crossing begins by climbing up a ramp to reach the traffic deck. As we cross the railroad level, we can see a glimpse of a light rail train exiting from the bridge on our left.