Thursday, July 19, 2007

Railroad Bridges of St. Louis in 1920

St. Louis, a shipping and industry center of the Midwest in 1920

This description of the city of St. Louis, Missouri, is from my 1920 geography book:

The largest city on the rivers, corresponding to Chicago on the lakes, is ST. LOUIS, the fourth in size among our cities. It has a very favorable position in the center of the Mississippi Valley, on the Mississippi River near the mouths of its two largest tributaries.

The railway bridges across the Mississippi at this point have also had great influence on the growth of the city. It is an important shipping point both by water and by rail.

Like Chicago, St. Louis is one of our leading markets for grain and live stock; but being so far south, it handles Southern products also, especially cotton and tobacco.

Besides this, it is a great manufacturing center. It manufactures immense quantities of tobacco, beer, flour, clothing, iron, steel goods, and is the greatest manufacturing center of boots and shoes in the United States.

Source: World Geographies: Second Book (pp. 125-126) by Ralph S. Tarr and Frank M. McMurry. Copyrighted in 1920 and published by the MacMillan Company, New York, in 1922,

It's hard to imagine a big city like St. Louis depending on ferry boats to bring goods across the river, but that was the case until the Eads Bridge was built in the 1870s. In those days, ferry and steamboat companies fought against river bridges, fearing that their business would suffer.

In 1866 (just after the Civil War), Congress passed a law that specified minimum bridge height and span requirements to insure that river traffic would remain unobstructed by bridges. One of the bridges authorized in the act was the St. Louis Bridge that later became known as the Eads Bridge for its builder, James Eads.

Eads Bridge, completed in 1874, was the world's first steel truss bridge, a masterpiece of civil engineering. Its foundations were set on bedrock, and the length of its three spans (two are 500 feet and one is 520 feet) were unprecedented. It could carry two trains simultaneously on its lower level, and it carried vehicular and pedestrian traffic on the upper level. The Eads Bridge has been renovated and is still in use today.

The Terminal Railroad Association (TRRA) acquired ownership of the Eads Bridge shortly after it was built. For about 15 years, TRAA enjoyed a monopoly over rail traffic across the Mississippi for about 15 years. Finally, Merchants Bridge was built by a group of merchants who were tired of exorbitant freight rates. It opened in 1890.

For a few years, freight rates were more reasonable. However, following the Panic of 1893, Merchants Bridge was acquired by TRAA, and freight rates regained their former heights. In fact, freight rates were so high that ferries remained an alternative method of getting goods across the river into the 1920s. (Source.)

Merchants Bridge and its approaches were renovated in 1998 and 2005 to accommodate the heavy, tall freight of today's trains. It remains in service.

The McKinley Bridge opened in 1910. It is named for its the president of the company that built the bridge. It joined north St. Louis and Venice, Illinois. Automobile lanes were added to it during the 1930s (for the famous Route 66), but it was built as a railway bridge. It remained an important railroad crossing over the Mississippi until rail traffic decreased in the 1960s. Currently, McKinley Bridge is closed for renovation, but it is supposed to reopen for highway, bicycle, and pedestrian traffic in late 2007.

These are some of the early bridges that enabled St. Louis, Missouri, to become an major Midwestern crossroads of shipping by rail as well as by water. The ability to ship goods encouraged the growth of industry, and industry fueled the expansion of shipping. This is why the geography book's authors wrote, "The railway bridges across the Mississippi at this point have ... had great influence on the growth of the city."

Interesting links:
McKinley Bridge
Merchants Bridge
Eads Bridge
The Eads Bridge
Antique St, Louis Bridge Company stock certificate
Bridging the Ohio, Mississippi, and Missouri
Library of Congress Exhibit on Eads Bridge
St Louis Fun Facts and Trivia at
Old Merchants Bridge postcard
PBS Video tour of the Eads Bridge in St. Louis

Interesting bit of trivia: The first bridge across the Mississippi at Hannibal, MO., was completed 3 years before the first bridge at St. Louis.

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(Author unknown)

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(Laura Ingalls Wilder, 1867-1957)

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