When I created the picture of the Eads Bridge for my calendar, I was struck by the fact that everything in it – from the horse and buggy to the steamboat to the bridge itself – looked pretty much the same as it had a century before. I never once thought of it as nostalgic. I only thought of it as timeless. James Eads’ signature project was – and is – one of the greatest engineering feats of all time.
Which is impossible if you consider the odds. The Mississippi River has always been known for ice floes in the winter, which had to make passage and bridge-building problematic during the seven years it took to build the Eads. The Mississippi also had a wicked current of 3.8 meters per second, which was pretty much off the charts. And then there was the fact that the chief engineer on the project had never built a bridge in his life. But someone said YES to James Eads.
Eads was 13 when his family lost everything in a steamboat fire. His dad suffered a business failure soon after and left the family. So young James dropped out of school to work at a dry goods store and was given access to the owner’s library, where he read everything he could get his hands on about physics, mechanics, and engineering.
When he was 22, Eads designed a salvage boat and presented it to two ship builders. He had no experience in building ships, and he had no capital for the project, but they said YES. Let’s do this thing.
Eads’ knowledge of the Mississippi earned him the nickname “Captain Eads” among river men. He built diving bells from wine barrels and special boats to retrieve goods from sunken ships. He himself did most of the diving, having studied the currents for half his life. He really knew the river.
But a bridge. Really?
YES. Despite the fact that Eads did not hold a high school diploma, it was his design that would first cross the Mississippi to connect Missouri to its eastern neighbor. It was his design that would change the course of the industry, replacing wrought iron with steel as a primary load-carrying material. And it was his design that would earn him distinction as one of the top five engineers of all time, alongside Leonardo da Vinci, James Watt, Ferdinand de Lesseps, and Thomas Edison.
The accolades have continued for almost 150 years since the Eads Bridge was dedicated in July of 1874. But there were players beside Mr. Eads who made it happen: the shop owner who tapped his curious brain, the ship-builders who adopted his plan, the city of St. Louis, which chose a rookie for this world-class project.
I don’t know about you, but that’s the part of the story that makes the Eads Bridge such an icon for me. Patience and hard work can get you there, but it really helps when someone gives you the opportunity to up your game. The yea-sayers in the James Eads story were also heroes. I’ve been lucky to have a few of my own.
The Eads Bridge is the subject of my July 2020 calendar page. For prints of Eads Bridge and other St. Louis attractions or to buy the new 2021 A YEAR IN THE CITY calendar, please visit ayearinthecity.com.