How The World’s First Steel-Truss Bridge Spanned The Mississippi River

Written by Cindy Rasmussen
Updated: July 19, 2023
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A truss bridge is a bridge that is made with a series of triangles connected together to provide a strong, sturdy structure, often used in bridges to span a long distance. Trusses, the triangle pieces of the bridge, can be built out of various materials, with early truss bridges built using wood. However, the first-ever steel-truss bridge was built in the United States. Let’s find out how the World’s first steel-truss bridge spanned the Mississippi River.

What is a Steel-Truss Bridge?

The Eads Bridge was built to connect the east and west through St. Louis, Missouri.

©iStock.com/Jon Rehg

A steel-truss bridge is constructed using an engineering technique where large triangles made from steel beams are welded together in the shape of triangles and connected in an alternating point-up, point-down facing to form a strong structure. These bridges can hold a lot of weight and are used in railroad bridges, covered bridges, and military bridges. Think about the weight of 10 tanks and military equipment!

Where is the Mississippi River?

Mississippi River

The Mississippi River twists and turns down the middle of the United States.

©RaksyBH/Shutterstock.com

The Mississippi River runs right down the middle of the US, and it starts in the north in Minnesota, about 150 miles south of the Canadian border, down to Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico. The river is fed by a system of rivers, including the Missouri, Arkansas, and Ohio Rivers.

The Eads Bridge was built in St. Louis, Missouri, and connected the city’s two sides with the first-ever bridge across the Mississippi River in St. Louis.

How did the World’s First Steel-Truss Bridge Span the Mississippi River?

The St. Louis Bridge and Iron Company built the first steel-truss bridge. It was called the “Eads Bridge” after the mastermind engineer that designed and coordinated the project. James Buchanan Eads didn’t have an amazing resume for the job because he had never built a bridge before! But he did have the respect of Washington when he was hired to build ironclad gunships for the Civil War. He impressed Washington because he completed the gunship project in only 65 days. His reputation was upheld when the bridge project was an amazing success.

Where Was it Located?

The Eads Bridge was built in St. Louis, Missouri. It connected the city’s two sides with the first-ever bridge across the Mississippi River in St. Louis.

How Long Did it Take to Build?

It took seven years to build the first-ever steel-truss bridge in the World. Not just the first ever on the Mississippi, this was new technology the World had never used before. So you can imagine how the process was met with challenges and successes. Eads was hired in 1867 to start the project, and the bridge was officially dedicated on July 4th, 1874.

How Much Did it Cost?

When the bridge was complete, the total cost to build the bridge was close to 10 million dollars!

Why Was the Eads Bridge Constructed?

The Eads Bridge was built in the late 1860s, so this was before automobiles. The bridge was primarily a railroad bridge built after the Civil War to bring goods across the Mississippi River. The St. Louis Bridge and Iron Company was made up of businessmen and bankers that wanted to profit from an alternative to the shipping industry. It was a success!

Has the Bridge Ever Collapsed?

No. The Eads Bridge is the oldest standing bridge on the Mississippi River and has never collapsed.

Has the Bridge Ever Been Repaired Since 1874?

Yes. Regular maintenance is important for all structural bridges, even ones made of steel. The bridge has been maintained over the years with regular maintenance. Today the bridge is managed by Bi-State Development. In 1992, the bridge was closed to undergo extensive repairs to prevent any future wear. It took 11 years to update the bridge and get it ready to re-open. In honor of the first bridge opening, they held the re-opening ceremony on July 4th, this time in 2003. Hundreds of people joined the celebration ceremony.

Has the Eads Bridge Gotten Any Awards for its Construction?

  • The National Park Service awarded the Eads Bridge the National Historic Landmark award in 1964 due to the remarkable engineering feat.
  •  The American Society of Civil Engineers designated the bridge a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark in 1971.
  • In 1971 the city of St. Louis dedicated it as a City Landmark.

Did Charles Lindberg Fly His Plane Under the Eads Bridge?

No. But Charles Lindberg performed in his plane to show the wonders of flight over the bridge on February 14th, 1928. Nearly 60,000 people watched the incredible Spirit of the St. Louis plane. Lindberg “wowed” the crowd with flips and dips and death-defying tricks. Lindberg flew to the event all the way from Havana, Cuba!

What Kind of Fish Lives Under the Eads Bridge?

The fishing near the Eads Bridge is lucky, with one resident reeling in a 112-pound blue catfish on July 3rd, 2020. Wade Kaminski caught this giant just south of the Eads Bridge. Although it was a “big one,” it was about 20 pounds shy of the state record. Other fish in the Mississippi in the Eads Bridge area are bluegill, crappie, and bass (large and smallmouth bass).

Is the Eads Bridge Open Today?

Yes! Today you can drive, walk, jog, bike, skate, or even eBike across the Eads Bridge! If you are visiting the famous Gateway Arch in St. Louis, the bridge is just a tad north of the Arch. The Gateway Arch Celebrates the importance of the city of St. Louis as a bridge between the eastern and western US.

How Long is the Eads Bridge?

lake itasca 2

Compared to the headwaters of the Mississippi River, the Eads Bridge is 6,444 feet long!

©Tomaz Kunst/Shutterstock.com

The bridge is 6,444 feet long across the Mississippi River, and that is around 21-and-a-half football fields long. Did you know the widest point on the Mississippi River is 11 miles wide? The narrowest point on the Mississippi River is only 20-30 feet (yes, feet). Both points are in Minnesota. The widest point on the Mississippi River is on Lake Winnibigoshish near Bean (the city), and the narrowest point is on Lake Itasca at the headwaters. You can walk across the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca and get your photo by the Headwaters Monument, a popular tourist destination.

How Long is the Longest Bridge in the World?

The longest bridge in the World is the Danyang–Kunshan Grand Bridge in China. It is a rail bridge connecting Shanghai and Nanjing. The bridge is 102.4 miles long! It was opened in 2011 and cost way more than the $10 million for the Eads Bridge. The price tag for the longest bridge in the World was $8.5 billion. We have come a long way since the World’s first-ever steel-truss bridge across the Mississippi.

The photo featured at the top of this post is © RaksyBH/Shutterstock.com


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About the Author

I'm a Wildlife Conservation Author and Journalist, raising awareness about conservation by teaching others about the amazing animals we share the planet with. I graduated from the University of Minnesota-Morris with a degree in Elementary Education and I am a former teacher. When I am not writing I love going to my kids' soccer games, watching movies, taking on DIY projects and running with our giant Labradoodle "Tango".

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