EADS BRIDGE

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 THE EADS BRIDGE

 

Officers of both the Wiggin's Company and the East St. Louis Transfer Company, as well as the city of East St. Louis, watched with growing interest the plans for connecting East St. Louis with St. Louis by a bridge spanning the Mississippi River. Since 1836 engineers had been telling a skeptical public that the bridge was technologically feasible, though the undertaking would have required an enormous amount of capital, and thus was never seriously considered until after the Civil War (Bond 1969:51).

An attempt to charter a bridge company in Illinois was successfully blocked by the Wiggin's Ferry Company in 1865. However, in 1867 a company was organized in Missouri called the St. Louis and Illinois Bridge Company with Charles Dickson, president; J.C. Cabot, secretary; and J. H. Britton, treasurer (Bond 1969:52-54). The job of chief engineer went to James B. Eads, a former officer in the Union navy and builder of the ironclad gunboats. The Eads plan consisted of arch bridge with two end spans of 502 feet and a central span of 520 feet.

Opponents to the Eads plan were quick to surface. A rival company, the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge Company, was formed in Illinois, and promoted by Chicago bridge contractor L.B. Boomer. The Boomer Company proposed a plan for a truss bridge with shorter spans, not exceeding 350 feet. The Illinois and St. Louis Bridge Company was soon backed by John Keokuk, president of the Northern Line Packet Company, who represented concerned steamboat, railroad, and merchant interests. The company was also joined by the city of East St. Louis, other river cities, and the Wiggin's Ferry Company in opposing the Eads plan (Eads Bridge Collection).

Some of the strongest opposition came from the steamboat companies who wanted a straight truss bridge with a minimum height of 50 feet above the high water mark of 1844 to permit safe passage of steamboats. Following a meeting of all concerned parties, Eads took the final plan to Washington to frame the law. However, once in Washington, Eads disregarded the compromise plan of the rival Illinois and St. Louis Bridge Company, and lobbied for a law that stipulated an arch bridge with a minimum height of 50 feet above the highwater mark of 1826, which was 711 feet lower than the flood of 1844.

In addition, the height was set for the center span rather than the end spans as requested by the steamboat committee. The steamboat coalition decried the Eads plan: "The damage to commerce in the next twenty years will be more than the entire cost of the bridge, for the reason that no steamboat of ordinary size can get below the bridge nor can go above it, therefore the cost of getting produce from the upper boats to the lower ones will almost be a prohibition to shipping produce from the Missouri, Mississippi, and Illinois Rivers to the south...the steamboatmen are determined to have an investigation ... the parties that passed the law-Congress are responsible... the Bridge Company does not answer the claim that they are obstructing traffic, they say they are building it according to the law" (Eads Bridge Collection).

Boomer's Illinois and St. Louis Bridge Company had a final ace in the hole. They had been awarded exclusive right to build a bridge within the next 25 years. If the Chicago investors built the bridge, they could drain St. Louis business for tolls and gain a stranglehold on the city's commercial future. If they sold the privileges to the Wiggin's Company, any bridge construction could be halted for 25 years (Reavis 1876:79).

Opposition quickly mounted and the fight was carried to Washington in an attempt to stop the bridge. Despite vocal opposition, the publicity served to win general public support for the Eads plan. Eads, fearing the consequences of a well organized movement against the bridge, worked out a compromise with the rival bridge company, and in 1867 they merged (Bond 1969:55). The merger apparently served mainly to give the Chicago-based bridge company a share of the company stock, since the Eads plan remained unchanged. However, it was enough to dampen the spirit of the special interest groups that had backed the Boomer Company, and so construction proceeded unhindered.

Construction began with placement of the channel piers. Caissons, watertight chambers inside which workman could perform underwater, were used to excavate the alluvial river bottom to bedrock. The work on the piers was proceeding smoothly until the setback suffered from a tornado on March 8, 1871. The tornado swept in from the southwest, descended aver the river, scattered scaffolding, derricks and engine boats, and swept Bloody Island's railroad yards: "lumber yards were swept clean, all frame houses in the ill. fated path were dismembered-and blown away. Not a stick was left to mark the station of the Belleville Railroad but the piles upon which the building rested ... a locomotive of the Wabash Railway weighing some 25 tons was actually lifted bodily from the track and thrown upon its back!' (Kirechten 1960:64, 65).

However, no serious damage was done to the bridge construction, and by 1872 the piers had all been laid to bedrock and the approach arches across the levees in East St. Louis and St. Louis completed (Plates 5 and 6). By early 1874 all that remained was construction of the supports for the 75 foot-wide carriage highway on the upper deck and the double railroad tracks on the lower level. On June 9, 1874, the first train crossed the Eads Bridge (Bond 1969:55-64).

The eastern approach to Eads Bridge was described as "a grand highway" that was carried "across a space of some sixty feet on immense steel column, which support great Iron girders." The road divided and descended with the carriage road dropping at a rate of about three feet to the hundred and the railway descending at a proportion of one foot to the hundred. The railway tracks of the bridge connected with the tracks of the St. Louis and Vandalia Railroad in East St. Louis, while the carriageway descended to Dyke Street (Broadway) on Bloody Island (Bond 1969:63). The Wiggin's Ferry Company fought hard in competition with the new bridge. This partisan newspaper story cam out shortly before the opening of Ead's Bridge:

"The Wiggins Ferry Company continues to make crossings and scoop in the dimes from an enlightened and generous public, to a limited extent, however, but intends to make a bold vigorous fight with the bridge for passenger travel, by putting on a handsome tug of some 54 tons, capable of carrying comfortably one hundred passengers. The landing will be immediately at the foot of Washington Avenue on the south side of the Bridge, at which point the company has reserved the promise of a location for a wharf-float with covered accomodations for the waiting public ... and when the debris of bridge rubble is removed from the rear of the bridge, the D.W. Hewitt will at once commence her regular trips to a convenient point immediately to the south side of the Bridge on the Illinois Shore and back up against the great Bridge for public patronage" (Eads Bridge Collection).

This new passenger ferryboat was a move in a different direction for the Wiggin's Company, who prior to 1874 treated passengers as of secondary importance, crowding pedestrians aboard with freight and transfer wagons. By the time the D.W. Hewitt was put into service, the rate had been dropped to a nickel per passenger. Wiggin's Ferry Company advertised that they would "spare the traveler the long tedious walk over the bridge during hot weather" (Baldwin n.d.). The bridge company countered these moves by offering pedestrians free ice water and drew publicity by staging free musical concerts on the bridge (Baldwin n.d.).

The strong competition for the passenger service between the Wiggin's company and the Eads Bridge was only a preliminary skirmish to the hot battle that would be waged over the freight transfer business. The Wiggin's Company was given a reprieve for about fifteen years after the bridge was opened while the necessary transfer and terminal facilities were constructed by the bridge company. To accomplish this, the Union Railway Company of Illinois was incorporated in 1874 to run the new St. Louis terminal facilities and to provide locomotives to transport trains from Illinois to St. Louis (Baldwin n.d.).

The Wiggin's Company used the borrowed time to consolidate the railroad transfer business by leasing the Madison County Ferry in 1885, then owned by the East St. Louis Transfer Company. To retain the wagon freight transfer business, the Wiggin's Company reduced freight rates from 9 cents per hundred pounds to 5 cents to match the rate set by the bridge company; as a further incentive, the Wiggin's Company provided a barrel of free whiskey for those transfer drivers who patronized the ferry company. Aside from some specialized ferry facilities relating to the transfer of marble, limestone, coal, and sand located south of East St. Louis near East Carondelet, the Wiggin's Company now controlled all railroad transfer operations from East St. Louis, Brooklyn, and Venice.

Things looked gloomy for the Wiggin's Company, however, with the formation of the Terminal Railroad Association in 1889 at the completion of the St. Louis terminal facilities. The association formed by the Wabash Railroad; the Missouri Pacific; the Cleveland, Cincinnati, Chicago, and St. Louis; the Louisville and Nashville; the Ohio and Mississippi; and the St. Louis, Iron Mountain, and Southern Railroads began to immediately cut into the ferry business. After having monopolized the transfer business prior to the opening of Eads Bridge, the total amount of ferry transfer of freight, counting both the Wiggin's Company and its ferry competitors, amounted to just under one-half of the total in 1882, with the complement going to the bridge company. It was down to one-third in 1885, a little more than one-fourth in 1888, back up to two-fifths in 1890, and then down again with only one-third of the freight transfer business in 1896 (Baldwin n.d.). That was the year of the tornado of May 27, 1896, when portions of St. Louis and East St. Louis were devastated (see Plates 4b, 7, 8, 9, and 10). The Wiggin's Ferry suffered a major setback, losing five ferryboats and their wharf, as well as every building they had on Bloody Island. They bounced back the next year, though, with a good record of 62,000 round trips including 673,275 passengers, 364,000 vehicles, 51,400 animals, and 123,011 railroad cars (Kirschten 1960:236).

The end of the Wiggin's Ferry Company came about not from competition, but by absorption of the company by the Terminal Railroad Association. It began in the early 1890s with the Rock Island Railroad. The Rockford, Rock island, and St. Louis, which originated in Rockford, had its terminus in Alton with connections to St. Louis via steam packet. Threatened with being shut out of the St. Louis market by the Terminal Railroad Association, the Rock Island sought to acquire control of the Wiggin's Ferry stock to enable an independent entrance to the city. The TRRA immediately began to compete for-the stock until finally the Rock Island Railroad was admitted to the Terminal Railroad Association. To prevent any further possibility of a competitor in the transfer business, the TRRA in 1902 solicited Festus Wade of the Mercantile Company to buy the Wiggin's Company in the name of "an unknown purchaser". After completion of the transaction, the assets of the company were transferred to the Terminal Railroad Association and the Wiggin's Company became a wholly owned subsidiary of the TRRA. The Wiggin's Company continued to transfer railroad freight across the Mississippi River into the 1920s, but by 1930 all Wiggin's Ferry Company services had ceased (Baldwin n.d.). The Wiggin's Company functions today as a holding firm for the large tracts of riverfront property used by the Terminal Railroad Association.

 

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