200 Years of Illinois: Eads and elephants

eads bridgeThe Eads Bridge, named for its designer/builder James B. Eads, materialized  in 1874 amidst a blizzard of superlatives. At 6,442 feet, it was the largest arch bridge on earth, and the world’s first major bridge project of entirely steel construction. The long bridge, one of the first to span the Mississippi River, connected St. Louis and East St. Louis. The supports sunk into the river bottom remain among the deepest ever attempted, so deep that decompression sickness killed 15 workers and injured 79 others. Citizens, wary of the bridge’s newfangledness, awaited proof of its safety. They call it the Show Me State for a reason. Eads delivered in Barnum-esque fashion. On June 14, 1874, the designer led a test elephant across the span without incident. The choice of an elephant reflected more than a need for the animal’s weight or Eads’ knack for showbiz. Folklore of the time had it that an elephant could sense unsafe ground. That the test elephant loped from the Mound City to the Illinois side seemed quite an endorsement. For good measure, Eads did the same with 14 locomotives (one at a time) at the end of June. The bridge opened on Independence Day with President Ulysses Grant and war hero William Tecumseh Sherman overseeing the festivities. It became synonymous with St. Louis until the Arch took its place on tourism brochures. For a time it looked like the bridge had peaked early. Indeed, everything about the project went awry, save for Eads’s artistic and engineering vision. Railroads found it hard to connect to the bridge. Wthout their tolls it went broke, causing the largest bank failure in US history up to that time. But the bridge remained standing—it even proved stronger than even Eads predicted—and, though a historic landmark, it still handles automotive traffic, and would have no problem with an elephant, if one presented itself.