St. Louis' landmark Eads Bridge eases back into business

Friday, July 4th 2003, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

ST. LOUIS (AP) _ Opened nine years before the better-known Brooklyn Bridge, St. Louis' Eads Bridge for more than a century did yeoman's work _ until age caught up with the span that ranks among the oldest Mississippi River crossings.

More than 11 years after it was closed for repairs, the 3,563-foot national landmark that once transfixed poet Walt Whitman marked its 129th birthday Friday as America celebrated its own.

The bridge, which connects St. Louis to Illinois, reopened on Independence Day, though only to pedestrians and bicyclists the first couple of days. The bridge will open to motorists Monday.

Friday's rededication melded holiday fare with all the trappings of a birthday bash. Dignitaries spoke of the bridge _ located not far from the towering Gateway Arch _ as a structural marvel also signifying the meeting of east and west.

``Isn't this a great bridge?'' East St. Louis Mayor Carl Officer said. ``Let us go forward at this time to join, on this day, in a new revolution of spirit.''

The span closed Dec. 15, 1991, and crews ripping off the deck to install train tracks and power lines found further repairs were needed.

Target dates for reopening the bridge _ from late 1996 to last fall _ came and went following several delays due to, among other things, property issues, design, and complications arising from having to deal with preservation agencies from two states.

The bridge was built by a self-educated engineer, James Buchanan Eads. It was his first.

Featuring three graceful arches 100 feet above the Mississippi's surface, the span was christened July 4, 1874 _ a post-Civil War time when steamboats ruled what Mark Twain would later dub ``that lawless stream.''

By some accounts, that hot summer's grand opening drew a remarkable 300,000 people.

In 1879, Whitman wrote of having ``haunted the river every night lately, where I could get a look at the bridge by moonlight.''

He went on to write, ``It is indeed a structure of perfection and beauty unsurpassable, and I never tire of it.''

In his 1995 book ``Engineers of Dreams: Great Bridge Builders and the Spanning of America,'' Henry Petroski _ a Duke University professor of history and civil engineering _ salutes the great bridges of America. Among them: the Eads.

As testament to its resilience, the Eads stood tough amid floods and accidents such as that the night of April 14, 1998, when a 14-barge tow being pushed upstream by a towboat struck one of the span's piers. Three loose barges drifted into the Admiral riverboat casino and about 70 people were treated for injuries.

The Bi-State Development Agency, which runs the region's Metro public transit system, has applied for a $20 million federal grant to paint the bridge and to do tuckpointing and metal work.