Built to Last – the Oldest Working Bridge on the Mississippi
Missouri History Museum – St. Louis, MO
Eads Bridge in St. Louis is a feat of engineering that remains the oldest bridge crossing on the Mississippi River, at over 145 years old, people still cross it today. As much as it was a marvel, it was also a deathtrap for many of the workers. The Missouri Historical Society dug into what happened (pardon the pun).
James B. Eads, ca. 1884. Missouri Historical Society Collections.
In the 1860’s when project engineer and designer, James B. Eads, began building the bridge many people thought it was an impossibility. To build a bridge across an active river that saw a million people a year in and out of St. Louis, without disrupting the river trade, seemed unlikely. In addition Eads needed workers to dig 50 feet below the bed of the river to hit bedrock.
Dr. Alphonse Jaminet, 1870. Missouri Historical Society Collections.
Eads utilized a form of a diving bell, called a caisson, to allow workers to dig into the Mississippi River bed. But to hold back the river, the air pressure in the caisson had to be increased to 40 times what it is on the surface. Workers talked about squeaking voices and the strange way the candles burned. Three years into the construction of the bridge, worker James Riley emerged from the caisson gasping for air. Within 15 minutes, he was dead. By week’s end, four more workers had died.
Works in the caissons were dealing with decompression sickness, or the bends. Nitrogen was becoming trapped in their bloodstream and boiling as they climbed the stairs to the surface. Workers were spitting up blood, having excruciating pain in their limbs and stomachs, or having their legs go numb. In total 119 workers were affected by the illness and 14 died. What was happening to them was a mystery and Eads brought in his own physician to set up a floating hospital at the pier site.
Although Eads’ doctor, Dr. Alphonse Jaminet never quite understood what was happening to the workers, he did discover that gradual decompression was vital and his principles are still used today by divers. Eads Bridge was built to stand as long as St.Louis believed it to be of use to the city and cars still drive over the bridge, the metro train clambers along on the lower level, and walkers and bicyclists traverse the bridge for a unique view of the St. Louis skyline.