Mr. Eads Spans The Mississippi

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In London, Eads knew nothing of Flad’s difficulties. Confident that his screw-plug would work in any weather, he had the audacity to go off to Paris for a holiday, leaving Morgan himself to open the expected cable from Flad. It arrived on schedule, September 19; the arch was closed. Flad had finally given up on his ice-cooling and had used Eads’s screw connection.

Eads returned to the United States to find his bridge menaced from another quarter. The steamboat companies, competing for speed records, were feeding their fires with a draft from chimneys one hundred feet high. Since the clearance under Eads’s bridge was only fiftyfive feet at high tide, the boat operators were badgering the War Department to order a canal built around the bridge, at the bridge company’s expense. This preposterous demand received favorable support from Secretary of War William W. Belknap, a worthy who three years later was impeached for accepting bribes. Eads appealed to President Grant, who quieted Belknap in short order. The steamboat companies resigned themselves to the simple and obvious solution of hinging their smokestacks for passage under the bridge.

Shortly afterward Grant visited St. Louis and accompanied Eads and Flad on a tour of the bridge, walking the precarious plankway laid from arch to arch as coolly as he had ever reconnoitered Confederate lines, and joining Eads for brandy and cigars at the bridge office.

Early in 1874 Eads visited New York to reassure the bondholders and bankers that the job was nearly finished. He had just retired to his hotel room when a bellboy appeared with a telegram. It was from Theodore Cooper, the young engineer in charge on the site. The arch ribs had begun to break. Two tubes in the recently completed first span had ruptured.

On the eve of a very important financial meeting, this was truly stunning news. Refusing to panic, Eads sat down under the gaslight and thought. Finally he figured out the problem. The steel cantilever cables, which were scheduled to be removed all at once within a few days, were contracting in the cold and pulling the ribs up and back. He dashed off a telegram to Cooper: loosen the cables. Next morning he addressed the investors with his usual confidence.

It was the last of Eads’s construction problems, though not quite the last of his troubles. Carnegie’s men lagged at their work on the roadway over the completed span until they were encouraged by a bonus, and a farcical confrontation took place when Carnegie barricaded the bridge entrance to make sure of collecting his money. The final cost of the bridge was figured at $6,536,729.99.

The roadway was opened for pedestrians on May 24, 1874; ten days later carriages could cross. Shortly after, at the grand opening, a locomotive proceeded across the lower deck bearing Eads, company officials, and General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Army’s Chief of Staff, who drove the last railroad spike on the Illinois side. On July 2 Eads demonstrated the bridge’s strength by packing the structure with fourteen locomotives, which was as many as he could borrow. On the Glorious Fourth, a hundred rounds from Simpson’s Battery signalled a parade of floats and costumed marchers—the St. Louis brewers, bakers, stove-makers, buggy manufacturers; temperance clubs, German singing societies, the U.S. Cavalry from Jefferson Barracks, and all the local fire departments—a fifteen-mile-long procession to a triumphal arch near the bridge portal, which was topped by a medallion portrait of Eads and the somewhat partial inscription, “The Mississippi discovered by Marquette, 1673, spanned by Captain Eads, 1874.” The President applauded from the reviewing stand as steamboats, hung with bunting and formed in a rainbow arc, blew their whistles.

The elaborate pageantry was justified, for the Eads Bridge was more than the world’s first steel-arch bridge and the biggest bridge ever built up to that time. It was the first important steel structure of any type in the world, and as such it prefigured a revolution in construction. It involved the first significant use of compressed air in America; even in the twentieth century, sand hogs have seldom labored at greater depths.

Eads might now have rested on his laurels. Instead he embarked on another highly controversial project—creating a permanent channel through the Mississippi delta. The river, which flowed deep and swift past New Orleans, widened, slowed, divided, and crawled through three long “passes” in the delta before creeping over a huge sand bar into the Gulf of Mexico. Ships by the score congregated inside and outside the passes waiting for deep enough water to permit them to be towed over the bar. Any number of solutions had been proposed, including, in 1872, the recommendation of a commission of army engineers that an expensive canal be cut through the left bank of the river. Eads argued that one of the passes, properly jettied, could be made navigable at far less cost. A violent controversy followed in Congress and the press. Ultimately Eads was given congressional approval, but with the stipulation that he must work in the small South Pass rather than the large Southwest Pass. Despite this handicap, Eads accepted the job, damming up a bayou to increase the flow in South Pass and constructing a pair of curving two-mile-long jetties of willow-brush mattresses and river mud. At the end of four years he had produced a channel thirty feet deep and two hundred feet wide. The New Orleans Times-Democrat admitted that “New Orleans can never forget … that it ridiculed the idea that any man could bridle the current of the Mississippi.”