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Archive for the ‘Eads Bridge’ Category

September 3rd, 2014 by Cameron Collins

And Finally, the Bridge (The Summer of Eads, Part IV)

Note: This is the final post in a four-part series I have written about the life and work of James B. Eads. Previous entries can be found here:  Part IPart II, and Part III
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James B. EadsFrom a distance, the Eads Bridge doesn’t really look like a big deal. It is, but its physical appearance doesn’t exactly tell the story. It doesn’t tower like the Brooklyn Bridge, it doesn’t stretch like the Golden Gate, and it doesn’t sparkle and look all space-agey like the new Stan Musial Veterans Bridge that now stands to the north.

Once the iconic structure of St. Louis, the Eads Bridge even had that distinction wrested away by the Gateway Arch nearly fifty years ago.  Everyone knows the Eads Bridge exists, but these facts can explain why many St. Louisans don’t realize what a landmark structure it is.

To help realize it, imagine what a radical change that bridge must have brought to St. Louis in 1874. Before the Eads Bridge existed, a booming city of 300,000 people was difficult to get to. Most of America lay to the east, and those wanting to come to St. Louis (or anyplace west of it) had no simple way to cross the biggest, nastiest river on the continent.

On a humid day in July 1874, all of that changed. Suddenly, a St. Louisan could walk, drive a carriage, or trot a horse over that big river in just a few minutes. Trains, no longer required to stop and load cargo onto ferry boats,  could chug right through on the bridge’s lower level. Ice, floods, and congested river traffic suddenly became afterthoughts to travelers wishing to cross. Even for the average family taking a Sunday stroll on the upper deck, the Eads Bridge provided an entirely new way to look at the city they lived in.

Eads Bridge Construction

And it was built by a man who had absolutely no experience building bridges. James Eads, nationally known for his work on or under water, had never built anything that stood above water. This may explain why Eads’s bridge design, unveiled to the public in 1867, was unlike anything that had been seen. When it was completed seven years later, it would stand as one of the most remarkable structures constructed in the 19th century. In its construction, James Eads would repeatedly make civil engineering history.

James Eads was undoubtedly a genius, but his story isn’t complete without also emphasizing the drive and determination the man possessed. As Robert W. Jackson details in his book Rails Across the Mississippi, Eads was simply relentless. His ability to garner support, financially and technically, for his vision of the bridge equals his ability to design one that wouldn’t fall down. In the years after Eads’s death, Emerson W. Gould, the captain of the Knickerbocker when Eads was a mudclerk, echoes this sentiment:

Emerson Gould Quote

Ingenuity and business acumen aside, Eads was also looking out for the future of his city. Already losing ground to Chicago in the race to tie the nation together with railroad tracks, the pieces finally came together for a St. Louis bridge in 1867. It’s a long story (read Jackson’s Rails Across the Mississippi for the extended version), but as contracts and bridge companies started bubbling to the surface, Eads became convinced that outside interests, primarily Chicago, were in control. He was probably right, but more importantly, Eads believed the competing bridge designs were vastly inferior to his. James Eads knew the Mississippi, and James Eads knew what it could do to a poorly designed bridge.

Biplane Flying Under Eads BridgeSoon surrounded by loyal business associates and hand-picked allies, James Eads pried his way into the discussion. In May of 1867, he was named Director of the St. Louis and Illinois Bridge Company. Shortly after, he was named Chief Engineer. As rival bridge companies began to lose ground, Eads unveiled his preliminary bridge design to the public in the summer of 1867. The plans were a hit. The St. Louis Democrat declared Eads’s design to be a “triumph for St. Louis!”

Despite his reputation and overwhelming public support, many had serious doubts about the feasibility of Eads’s design. After being urged to have an expert review his plans, Eads showed the initial design to Jacob Linville, a respected bridge engineer of the time.  His review was anything but glowing.

Jacob Linville Quote

Eads brushed off such criticism and continued finalizing his design. Inspired by the Koblenz Railroad Bridge in Germany, Eads settled on a ribbed arched design. Eads explained that it offered a “beauty and economy” over the standard truss bridge employed frequently at that time.

The Koblenz Railroad Bridge

It was just one way in which Eads was pushing the boundaries of bridge construction, but he was actually required by law to do so. Before Congress authorized the construction of several bridges over western rivers, the steamboat industry had lobbied extensively to limit or prevent railroad bridges from being built. As a result, several restrictions were put in place, making the construction of a railroad extremely difficult.

  • It couldn’t be made of wood
  • It couldn’t be a draw bridge or suspension bridge
  • It had to carry rail and vehicular traffic
  • The lowest part of the superstructure had to be at least fifty feet above the water
  • The bridge must have one span of at least 500 feet or two spans of at least 250 feet

James Eads embraced the challenge and then took it to another level. Up to that time in history, no arched bridge had ever been built with a span of more than 500 feet. Eads designed his bridge to have three. When complete, all three of the spans utilized in the Eads bridge would be longer than any ever built. To hold them up (as detailed in the Summer of Eads Part I), two massive pneumatic caissons would be sunk to bedrock. Each of them would also be the largest ever built and each would be sunk to an unprecedented depth.

Andrew CarnegieFinally, James Eads made his most daring decision yet. He opted to build the superstructure out of steel, a material that had never been used before on such a massive scale.

It was a landmark decision in the history of civil engineering. As Howard S. Miller points out, “In 1867, structural steel was a novelty.” In the age of iron, it was a “new and virtually unknown structural material.”

It was also expensive and difficult to make. However, advances in mass steel production, such as the Bessemer process, made steel a viable option. After studying its use in Europe on smaller projects, Eads decided to build a steel bridge. It would be the first time in history the material would be used on such a scale.

In 1867, many believed Eads mad to insist on using steel. Even Andrew Carnegie, a man who would one day become the richest man in America because of steel, repeatedly urged Eads to use iron. Carnegie was a director of the Keystone Bridge Company, which had won the contract to supply metal to the project.  The two men clashed repeatedly, especially over Eads’s insistence that the steel be of unprecedented quality.

Henry Flad

It must be noted that James Eads wasn’t a one man show. Aware of his own inexperience in the field, and looking to comfort cautious investors, Eads recruited several brilliant and experienced engineers to work at his side. Men such as Henry Flad, Charles Pfeiffer, and Benjamin Singleton would play pivotal roles in the design and construction of the bridge.

With much of the construction work in the capable hands, Eads was able to focus on bridge finances and improving his own health. Exhausted, overworked, and teetering on collapse, Eads even tried to resign in 1868. His resignation was refused, but Eads required extended periods of leave throughout the life of the project. During these periods of recuperation, bridge construction often ground to a halt.

Despite opposition to his design, poor health, and clashes with subcontractors, bridge construction commenced. On a cold and drizzled day In February, 1868, James Eads stood on the bank of the Mississippi River, gave a short speech, and watched the first limestone block settle into place. Bridge construction had finally begun.

Two years later, the massive stone piers that would support the bridge rose out of the water (as detailed in Part I). Construction could now begin on the steel superstructure. It would mark another moment in engineering history. The superstructure of the bridge was built using a cantilever method of support. Soon, arches of steel tubing stretched out from each pier without any support from below. Again, this method of bridge construction had never been done before on such a scale.

Cantilver Bridge Construction, 1873

Despite progress on all fronts, James Eads continued to be challenged by adversaries. As late as 1873, the steamboat industry hurled one final legal challenge.  Claiming the bridge would present a “serious obstacle to river navigation”, the bridge was deemed illegal by the Army Corps of Engineers. But since the bridge was nearly complete, they demanded Eads dig a channel on the Illinois side so river traffic could circumvent the bridge. Furious at the suggestion, Eads reached out to a friend that owed him a favor. As detailed previously in the Summer of Eads, Part III, Ulysses S. Grant, now President of the United States, had benefited greatly from Eads’s ironclad gunboats in the Civil War. When Eads asked Grant to weigh in on the matter, Grant bluntly overruled the Army engineers. Bridge construction could now proceed as James Eads wished.

Eads Bridge from Below

Bridge construction continued over the next three years. Supervised by Eads’s first assistant Henry Flad, the steel arches stretching out from each pier inched closer together. On September 15, 1783, the final steel tube was lifted from below and squeezed into place. Suddenly, the light at the end of the tunnel poked through. With the two largest construction hurdles cleared (the sinking of the piers and the successful spanning of the first arch), the structural integrity of Eads’s bridge was assured. Detractors of Eads’s vision were silenced, the last financial hurdles were cleared, and the road over the river unfurled.

In July 1874, the bridge was set to open. To prove it would hold, an elephant was marched across. After William Tecumseh Sherman drove in the final railroad stake, trains crossed for the first time. Finally, on July 4, 1874, on the day of the country’s 98th birthday, the city officially opened the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge.

Eads Bridge Entrance in the 1920's

Despite a sweltering 102 degrees, the city teemed with joy and celebration to mark the occasion. With visitors in town from near and far, over 300,000 people turned out to see a parade that stretched over fourteen miles. Rows of cannon were placed on each side of the river. As the cannon fired salutes, trains carried revelers across the river and dignitaries gave speeches. James Eads was at the center of it all.

His role in the project wasn’t lost on anyone. The St. Louis Republican proclaimed in print “James B. Eads stands today the foremost man of his time.” When James Eads was asked to weigh in on his creation, his response is one that only a man of supreme confidence could offer.

James B. Eads Quote

Eads Bridge

The Drink
Walt Whitman

My idea for an Eads Bridge drink goes all the way back to my friend that I introduced in The Summer of Eads, Part I. Amanda Clark, who runs Renegade Tours STL, is the guilty party in getting me to think non-stop about James Eads and his bridge.

She also gave me the idea of how to drink to them both. It’s this quote, written by Walt Whitman when he visited St. Louis in 1879. The bridge was only five years old a the time, and it mesmerized the famous poet.

“I have haunted the river every night lately, where I could get a look at the bridge by moonlight. It is indeed a structure of perfection and beauty unsurpassable, and I never tire of it.”

Whitman’s quote about the Eads Bridge is actually pretty well-known among St. Louis history nerds. It comes from Specimen Days, Whitman’s collection of daily observations published in 1882. Along with his description of the bridge, the reader  is treated to this description of St. Louis in the late 19th Century:

“The water of the west, in some places, is not very good, but they make it up here by plenty of fair wine, and inexhaustible quantities of the best beer in the world”

He’s got that right. With InBev (Budweiser) and the recent explosion of craft breweries here, St. Louis is undoubtedly a great beer town. Even better, the house where Whitman stayed during his visit (belonging to his brother Thomas), was located on Pine Street. If it stood today, it’d be a stone’s throw from Schlafly’s Tap Room.

Dry Hopped APA at Schlafly's Tap Room

It took Walt Whitman’s love for Eads’s masterwork to find a drink, but that’s good enough for me. Besides, I’ve always been a big fan of Schlafly. The first of the microbreweries in St. Louis, I have probably spent thousands of dollars over the years at their Tap Room and Bottleworks facilities. I know I’ll be back to both locations often to drink their good beer.

As for James Eads, I’m not done with him either. He has plenty of additional stories to tell, but it’s time to bring the Summer of Eads to a close. And as I’ve mentioned in the other posts in this series, Eads wasn’t exactly the easiest guy to drink with. With that in mind, it’s time to mix a cocktail and find some good St. Louis history.

July 29th, 2014 by Cameron Collins

Blood and Sand and Steam (The Summer of Eads, Part III)

Note: This is Part III in a series of Distilled History posts I am writing about one of the most remarkable St. Louisans to ever live, James Buchanan Eads. Part One, which details caisson disease during the building of Eads Bridge, can be found here. Part II, which gives a brief introduction to his life, can be found here.

Also, Distilled History now has a Facebook page. Please give it a “Like” to see the stuff that doesn’t make the blog, random St. Louis history tidbits, and of course, my own musings on drinking good cocktails.

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Eads Gravesite in Bellefontaine Cemetery

My delightful “Summer of Eads” rolls on.

Without a doubt, I have had a good ‘ol time getting to really know James Eads over the past few months. But I’ll also confess that he’s put me in one hell of a pickle. He’s an overwhelming subject to write about. Try as I might, I have struggled mightily trying to cram all of his accomplishments into a few boozy blog posts.

Furthermore, he’s a tough guy to drink with. I’ve scoured the streets near his bridge, where his glass factory stood, where his gunboats were built, and where his mansion sat. No bar or cocktail idea was born from any of these searches. Unless I devised my own “Eads Cocktail” (which would probably need to include river water), I was out of luck.

But I can always find a reason to drink. It’s just that I’ve never stumbled into one like I did for this post. It happened after picking up (several more) books about  bridges, gunboats, and diving bells at the St. Louis Central Library. I then settled in at one of my favorite barrooms to read about what else James Eads had his hands in. As I ordered my drink, I flipped open a book titled Guns on the Western Waters by H. Allen Gosnell. I searched the index to find out where James Eads shows up, and it directed me to a chapter that made me do a double-take. The title of the chapter was nearly identical to the name of the bar I was sitting in at that exact moment. Blood and Sand and SteamWhat a tasty coincidence that I found myself reading Blood and Sand and Steam while drinking a delicious cocktail in Blood and Sand. And there ya go, my drink problem was solved.

As I sipped my delicious cocktail (the “You in Your Were”), I dove into the next remarkable chapter of Eads’s life. I was excited, because before I became a big St. Louis history nerd, I was a big Civil War history nerd (just two of many reasons). I’m also solidly pro-Union. I have no patience for any of that pro-Confederate nonsense people spout these days, so I was thrilled to learn that James Eads felt the same way in his time that I do in mine.

At the outbreak of the war, James Eads was only forty-one years old. He was retired, extremely wealthy, and a well-respected man in St. Louis. He was done with salvage work, but innovation and the Mississippi were never far from his mind. From his stately Compton Hill mansion, he found himself free to brew up a few ideas in order to help the good guys win the Civil War.

Scott's Great Snake

James Eads knew the western rivers would play an important strategic role in the upcoming conflict. Notably, control of the Mississippi River was a key component of Winfield Scott’s Anaconda Plan, a naval strategy devised to blockade and squeeze the Confederacy like a coiled snake. Like General Scott, Eads believed that if the Union controlled the Mississippi from New Orleans to St. Louis, it would ultimately control the western theater of the war. If it succeeded, the Confederacy would be effectively severed in two.

Abraham Lincoln realized this as well, referring to the Mississippi as the “backbone of the rebellion” and the “key to the whole situation”. Just days after Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861, James Eads received a letter from Edward Bates. A former Missouri Congressman and friend of Eads, Bates had recently been named as Attorney General in Lincoln’s cabinet.

Letter from Edward Bates to James EadsIt was the letter he’d been waiting for. Prior to the war, Eads had already been lobbying politicians and war strategists to let him help. His reputation as a river man preceded him, so it wasn’t long before Eads found himself in Washington D.C. reviewing river strategy with Lincoln’s cabinet. While there, he enthusiastically backed a proposal to build a fleet of gunboats that could help conquer the lower Mississippi. Soon after, the plan evolved into building a flotilla of ironclad gunboats, a type of military vessel never before seen in the western hemisphere.

The Attack on Fort Donelson

Eads took full advantage of the opportunity. As bids for the project opened on August 5, 1861, Eads submitted a bold proposal, easily winning the government contract.  Two days later, he signed a contract stipulating that he’d deliver seven ironclad gunboats at a cost of only $89,600 each. Remarkably, he promised they’d ready to go in only sixty-five days. He was so confident in his plan that he even agreed to pay a hefty fine of $250 per boat for each day it was late.

With a due date of October 10, 1861, Eads went right to work. He contracted with foundries, sawmills, and forges in several states, instantly putting thousands of men to work around the clock. His primary base of operation was the Union Iron Works, a shipyard Eads leased to the south of St. Louis in the village of Carondelet. It was here, near the point where the River Des Peres flows into the Mississippi, that the first ironclad warships ever constructed in the United States came to be.

Union Iron Works in Harper's Weekly

The ships were built, but not designed by James Eads. Although Eads would make significant design improvements to ironclad construction as the war progressed, the first seven were designed by an engineer named Samuel Pook. Named “Pook’s Turtles” because of the resemblance they took in the water, the first ironclads were like nothing that had been seen before. At 175 feet long and 51 feet wide, the boats squatted low in the water. Each was armed with thirteen cannon poking out of sloped wooden sides covered with 2-1/2 inch iron plate. A crew of 175 manned each gunboat.

Due to financial delays and design issues, Eads didn’t meet his self-imposed deadline of October 10. It wasn’t for a lack of trying. Using his own wealth to finance the project, he nearly bankrupted himself while government financing lagged behind. Fortunately, financing was resolved, all late fees were repaid, and the seven “City-class” gunboats, as they were known, were delivered by mid-November. Each was commissioned into the War Department’s Western Gunboat Flotilla in January 1862.

The Attack on Fort Henry

The first was the Carondelet, which slid into the Mississippi River on October 12, 1861. It was the first ironclad built in American history, completed three months before the Monitor, it’s more famous cousin in the east. The St. Louis rolled off just a few days later, and it would plant its own stake in history. After engaging Confederate timberclad gunboats at the Battle of Lucas Bend in January 1862, James Eads boasted about the event in a letter he sent to Abraham Lincoln:

James Eads Letter to Abraham LincolnThe Carondelet and St. Louis were soon followed by the Louisville and the Pittsburg. To maximize production, Eads had the other three built at a second shipyard in Mound City, Illinois, located about 150 miles south of St. Louis. There, the Cincinnati, the Mound City, and the Cairo rounded out the fleet.

The Original Seven GunboatsIn addition to City-class gunboats, Eads contracted with the government to have several of his own salvage boats converted to ironclads. The Benton, previously known as Salvage Boat No. 7, was commissioned into the Western Gunboat Flotilla in February 1862. Weighing over 1,000 tons and armored with thicker 3-1/2 inch iron plate, the Benton was much larger than the original seven. It would become the most powerful boat in the western theater of the Civil War.

Each of the gunboats would make a significant impact in the western theater of war. Tough and reliable, the ironclads could fire away at close-range while the thick iron plating protected them from returning fire. Although the gunboats were slow and susceptible to mines, shells from Confederate shore batteries dealt minimal damage. The plating caused cannon fire to bounce harmlessly off the angled sides. Even before the boats were launched, Eads had the durability of iron siding tested at his shipyard in Carondelet. Successfully deflecting cannon fire from as close as 200 yards, Eads must have known that he was building the navy of the future.

Current Site of Union Iron WorksThe military success of Eads’s gunboats would be immediate, and they would help launch the career of the Union’s greatest general. At the Battle of Fort Henry in February 1862, the ironclads played a major role in the first significant Union victory under Ulysses S. Grant. Deemed “a victory exclusively for the gunboats” the bombardment from the Cairo, St. Louis, Cincinnati, and Essex (another converted Eads salvage ship) was so effective that the Confederate garrison surrendered before Grant’s land force  even arrived on the scene.

Soon after, the St. Louis, Carondelet, Louisville and Pittsburg aided Grant in taking Fort Donelson. With his famous demand for “Unconditional Surrender” in the aftermath of this battle, Grant’s reputation as a fighter soared. Furthermore, with the help of Eads’s gunboats, two major tributaries of the Mississippi (the Cumberland and the Tennessee) were now open to the Union.

It wouldn’t stop there. As the war progressed, Eads relentlessly worked at improving ironclad design. With his shipyards working around the clock building more ironclads, he included turrets like those found on the Monitor, built boats that drew less water, and continued to improve the effectiveness of iron armor. He also built lighter boats, including a series of “tinclads” that were faster and more maneuverable, but could still withstand musket fire. By the end of the war, his Union Marine Works in Carondelet would produce more armored warships than any other shipyard during the Civil War.

Finally, on July 4, 1863, the Anaconda Plan became a harsh reality for the south. Again aided by Union ironclads, the final Confederate stronghold on the Mississippi surrendered to Union forces. Vicksburg’s fall came just one day after victory at Gettysburg in the east. The war for the river had been won in the west.

The Confederacy was cut in half, and it was made possible by the gunboats James Eads built.

Eads's Drawing for the Milwaukee
The Drink
Blood and Sand CocktailsI’ve already mentioned the drink I found for this post, so there isn’t much else to say other than Blood & Sand is (again) one of the best places to drink great cocktails in St. Louis.

However, I want to mention a menu theme that I particularly enjoy.  They name their cocktails after songs. Even better, most of them seem to be named after bands and musicians I listen to often.

I may need to ask TJ and Adam at Blood and Sand (two of the friendliest guys around) to help me out if I ever write about the rich musical history of St. Louis. I’m sure a “Maple Leaf Rag” or a “Birth of the Cool” cocktail would fit nicely on their menu.

But before I get to thinking about Scott Joplin or Miles Davis, I need to close out my Summer of Eads. There’s a particular bridge that needs a closer look.

quote_lineSources invaluable to this post (other key sources also listed in Part I and Part II of the Summer of Eads):

  • Civil War St. Louis by Louis S. Gerteis
  • James B. Eads The Civil War Ironclads and His Mississippi by Rex T. Jackson
  • Guns on the Western Waters by H. Allen Gosnell
July 7th, 2014 by Cameron Collins

The Summer of Eads, Part II

Note: This is part two in a series I have titled “The Summer of Eads”. Dealing with a subject (James B. Eads) that is impossible to fit into a single Distilled History post, I’ve decided to write a few. Part one can be found here.

James Eads on the St. Louis Walk of Fame

A couple of weeks ago, I spent some time strolling through the Loop and taking note of the numerous stars and plaques embedded in the sidewalk as part of the notable “St. Louis Walk of Fame” exhibit.

The 137 names on the Walk of Fame, each signified by a brass star and descriptive plaque, stretch for several blocks on each side of Delmar Boulevard. These stars are actually a significant source of nostalgia for me. I don’t get to the Loop much these days, but when I first moved to St. Louis in 1995, I worked in a bookstore just a couple of miles away. The few measly dollars found in my paychecks were usually spent in bars that had one of these stars in front of it.

The Walk of Fame was established in 1988 by Joe Edwards. He’s also the guy behind the famous Blueberry Hill, a bar those stars have led me to more than any other. I’m sure that stopping to read the various plaques while heading into (or stumbling out of) Blueberry Hill is one of the many reasons I became interested in the history of this town.

I found the star for the subject of my summer, James B. Eads, outside a tattoo parlor on the north side of Delmar. One of the first names selected for Walk of Fame induction back in 1989, Eads deservedly went in alongside notable St. Louis names such as Chuck Berry and T.S. Eliot.

Dan Zettwoch PrintAs I took a long look at his plaque, I thought about how little I knew about the man before I began this project several weeks ago. I think most of St. Louis is in the same boat. We all know his bridge, but the story behind the guy who built it is largely unknown. With that in mind, I thought it would be fun to tell the story of James Eads before he became an internationally renowned engineer. Turns out it’s a darn good story.

Surprisingly, I couldn’t find much about his early life. Plenty of sources provide detail of his engineering prowess, but few provide more than a brief overview of his early years. Many of them rely on one source, a short biography written in 1900 by Louis How, Eads’ own grandson. It may have been fun to find to find some dirt on this guy, but I don’t think there’s any to find. As I gradually learned, James Eads was a indeed a special guy. He had it figured out from the start.

James Buchanan Eads

James Buchanan Eads was born on May 23, 1820 in Lawrenceburg, Indiana. He was the youngest of three children to Thomas Clark Eads and Ann Buchanan. Regarding Thomas Eads, Louis How asserts he was never “very prosperous”. So he moved his family to find stable income, first to Cincinnati in 1822 and then to Louisville in 1829. In 1833, Thomas Eads decided to uproot his family again, this time to St. Louis. At the age of thirteen, young James Eads boarded the steamboat Carolton. Along with his mother and two sisters (his father stayed behind to gather supplies for a store he planned to open), James Eads started his journey west, to the city where he’d make his mark.

Traveling on a steamboat was surely a wonder for the young, curious Eads. Fascinated by machinery and mechanics from an early age, his father supported his interest by building James a small workshop in Louisville. Four hours on end, he tinkered away in it, taking apart the family clock, building scale models of steamboats, and even constructing a functional steam engine. As Louis How recounts in his biography, a particularly boyish (and ingenious) moment during this childhood occurred when he produced a small wagon that mysteriously moved about the room. As his mother and sisters gaped in awe, it was soon revealed that the motive power was produced by a live rat hidden underneath.

Upon arriving in St. Louis, Eads would need every bit of ingenuity he had. As the Carolton approached the St. Louis riverfront on September 6, 1833, a chimney flue toppled over. A deadly fire broke out, killing eight people and severely injuring many more. Ann Eads and her three children emerged on the riverfront unharmed, but all of their possessions were lost. Save for the clothes on their backs, the Eads family suddenly found themselves alone and penniless in a mysterious new city.Sub Marine No. 7

James Eads responded to this adversity with the same hard work and determination that would be indicative of his later career. Discontinuing his formal education in order to help support his family, he started by selling apples on the street. Soon after, he caught the eye of a boarder in a house his mother rented, a mercantile owner named Barret Williams. After recognizing the talent of the young man, Williams offered Eads a job as a clerk in his store, a position that would ultimately provide far more than an income.

It’s during this time when the genius of James Eads really begins to take root. Along with a job, Williams gave James Eads access to his personal library. With no formal schooling past the age of thirteen, it was in this library where James Eads continued his education – on his own.Martha Dillon Eads

In the late hours after the mercantile closed, he poured through the classics, became a fan of poetry, read books about science and history, and most significantly, taught himself engineering and mathematics.

Eads began to apply his self-education in 1839, when he took a job as a mud clerk on the steamboat Knickerbocker. His family had moved again, this time to Iowa, but Eads opted to stay back and pursue opportunity in St. Louis. Among other responsibilities, a mud clerk was responsible for wading through the muck, clearing away obstacles, and securing a boat to shore. It was arduous work, but it offered the hands-on riverboat experience he wanted. And most importantly, it’s where he’d start to become fully acquainted with the river that would shape his brilliant career – the Mississippi.

James Eads would come to understand, as much as anyone in his time, the sheer power of the Mississippi. He lived it aboard the Carolton 1833, and he’d live it again when the Knickerbocker was ripped apart by a snag in 1839. For the second time in six years, Eads found himself shivering on shore and watching the boat that just carried him sink to the bottom of the river. But this time, James Eads had an idea.

The Mississippi, with its unpredictable currents, heavy sediment movements, and countless snags, sank boats on a daily basis. James Eads realized a profit could be made from the cargo that sank with them. In the 19th century, “wreckers” were paid handsomely by ship owners and insurance companies to salvage valuable materials from sunken boats. Additionally, laws of the time stipulated that anything sitting at the bottom of the river five years after it settled there became the property of anyone who could get it.

The Eads Mansion on Compton HillBut it was extremely dangerous work. Salvage boat and diving technology at that time was rudimentary, causing even the bravest of souls to pass on such work. But James Eads, already confident in his own ability, went to work designing a new salvage vessel of his own. After months of revisions and improvements, Eads presented his design to two St. Louis businessmen. Surely amazed by what the 22-year old had proposed, the two men agreed to provide financial backing. Before long, Salvage Boat No. 1 was under construction. James Eads was about to start the next chapter of his life at the bottom of a river.

The venture was an instant success. HisSub Marine found ample reward as it raced around western rivers raising lost cargo before competitors could get to it. At the same time, Eads invented a diving bell, weighted with lead, rigged to air pumps, and equipped with a small seat inside. Inside and submerged, a wrecker could move around the bottom of the river while withstanding fast river currents.

eads_glassfactory

As brave as he was ingenious, Eads did much of the diving bell work on his own. Henceforth known as “Captain” James Eads since he piloted his own boats and worked alongside his men, Eads displayed a remarkable personal commitment to his work. As Louis How writes, Eads boasted later in life that a stretch of fifty miles didn’t exist between St. Louis and New Orleans in which he hadn’t stood under his diving bell on the riverbed.

Eunice Hagerman Eads

This is indicative of the kind of man James Eads was becoming. As he grew into an adult, James Eads developed into a brilliant and profoundly thoughtful man. According to sources, he was inquisitive, generous, and supportive of those close to him. He loved nature, read poetry, and was a very skilled chess player. He enjoyed riddles and humor, but he was tactful and when necessary. Some viewed his confidence as arrogance, but even his detractors considered him an exceptional man.

A successful and respected man by his mid-twenties, Eads now turned his attention to family life. In 1845, he married his cousin, Martha Dillon, after a tenuous courtship (remarkably, Martha’s father didn’t approve of the young inventor). His love for Martha was profound; so much so that he looked to find work closer to home. To do this, he decided to sell his interest in the salvage business and find work where he could stand on solid ground.

The decision would mark the beginning of a difficult chapter in his life. After leasing a large building in St. Louis, Eads invested heavily to transform it into a glass factory. It was the first of its kind west of the Mississippi, but the business struggled from the start. Within two years, sales remained stagnant and his fellow investors pulled out. Suddenly, James Eads found himself with a warehouse full of glass and $25,000 of debt.

To pay off his creditors, James Eads had no choice but return to salvage work. Fortunately, the financial turnaround was immediate, but tragedy continued to darken his personal life. In 1849, James and Martha’s only son James died in infancy. Then in 1852, James Eads lost his mother. In a final devastating blow, he lost his beloved wife just a few months later to cholera.

The Eads House
In a letter to Martha before she died, James Eads wrote “‘Drive on’ is my motto”. Drive on he did, and despite personal adversity, his professional life flourished. The salvage business continued to boom during his absence, and he found no shortage of work when he returned to it. Any remaining financial questions were answered in 1849, when a devastating fire on the St. Louis riverfront sunk over twenty riverboats. Eads was contracted to salvage nearly all of them, and the profits put him over the top for good.

As his wealth multiplied, James Eads also discovered that life at the bottom of a river can catch up to a man. Battling various health issues, he decided to give up diving in 1853. After re-marrying in 1854, he purchased a mansion on Compton Hill just west of Lafayette Square. Then in 1857, with a fortune of $500,000 in the bank (about 12 million in 2014), James Eads retired from salvage work for the last time.

He was just thirty-seven years old. And he was just getting started.

Stay tuned for the Summer of Eads Part III, in which James Eads goes to work for the Union in the American Civil War.

The Drink

Eads in a Barrel

Once again, I found myself at the end of a post coming up a drink to connect to the life of a subject that died long ago. This seems to happen often with what I call “the biography posts” (other examples include Homer G. Phillips, Elijah P. Lovejoy, and T.S. Eliot). Not able to find a bar or drink that I could connect Eads to, I almost copped out and simply drank from a flask in front of his bridge again.

But at the last-minute, I remembered a great story I read about James Eads when he was first getting started in the salvage business.

It happened in his first year as a wrecker, when his first salvage boat was still under construction. Offered a contract to raise 100 tons from a sunken barge in Iowa, Eads didn’t want to pass on the opportunity. To do the job, he rigged a barge with derricks and hired a Great Lakes diver from Chicago to come down and do the work.

Diving BellWhen the diver descended into the river, it became apparent the diver’s armor wasn’t suitable for river work. Used to calmer lake water, the fast Mississippi River currents thrashed the man about on each descent. After several attempts with no success, the frustrated (and likely terrified) diver threatened to quit and head home.

Thinking quickly, Eads had an idea. He rushed into town and purchased a 40-gallon whiskey barrel. Bringing it back to the wrecking barge, he knocked one end out, fastened several pigs of lead to the opening, and connected air horses to the other. He then instructed the diver to get inside and be lowered into the river.

The diver adamantly refused to get inside such a contraption, so Eads was forced to do it himself. Remarkably, the diving bell worked. After several descents, Eads had brought up much of the sunken cargo himself.  The diver, realizing the bell was safe and effective, took over and finished the job.

I’d like to think Eads purchased a full whiskey barrel and helped empty it, but that’s probably not the case. But at least I know he bought one. And that’s good enough for me to tie this post to whiskey.

Even better, I was able to purchase my own (much smaller) whiskey barrel at a local liquor store. It’s the perfect size to make a diving bell for my cat, but it’s probably better used  in toasting the accomplishments of a great St. Louisan.

To drink a toast to James Eads, I filled it with a bottle of J.J. Neukomm, a hand-crafted single malt whiskey made right here in St. Louis. It’s even aged oak barrels, just like a guy who spent much of his life inside one.

The Drink

quote_lineSources invaluable to this post:

  • Zettwoch’s Suitcase – A blog by artist Dan Zettwoch
  • Road to the Sea by Florence Dorsey, 1947
  • Iowa Journal of History and Politics, Vol. 41 No 1, 1944
  • Rails across the Mississippi by Robert W. Jackson, 2001
  • The Eads Bridge by Howard Miller and Quinta Scott, 1999
  • A History of the St. Louis Bridge by C.M. Woodward, 1881
June 3rd, 2014 by Cameron Collins

The Summer of Eads, Part I

Eads BridgeOnce again, despite this blog never making me a single dime, my life continues to become richer as a result of it. This time, it’s in the form of a new friend that recently crossed my path.

Her name is Amanda Clark, and she owns and operates Renegade STL, an architecture and history tour company here in St. Louis. Like me, she’s all about telling the story of this city to people who are looking to hear it. Not only do Amanda and I share a common interest in the subject matter, we share a common interest in how we do it. We can both be a bit offbeat, we can each be a bit colorful (perhaps profane), and we don’t mind throwing a few drinks back when we do it.

Amanda may not know it, but she gave me one hell of a problem. On the day I met her, I listened to Amanda discuss one of her favorite St. Louis history topics, James Buchanan Eads. That guy, and the bridge that bears his name, are both very dear to her heart. A bit of this bridge love must have rubbed off on me, because I now find myself thinking about it all the time.

Fast forward to this exact moment and I find myself staring at stacks of notes, books, photographs, and drawings of this city’s landmark bridge. In the past few weeks, I’ve stared at it, biked over it, sketched it, toasted to it, and even joked that I am awesome enough to survive jumping off it. What it all means is that I have way too much information to shove into a single blog entry. My dear mother chides me because my posts are too long as it is, but how can I keep that bridge, the man who designed it, and the drink to celebrate them both under 2,000 words?

Bike-a-Sketch: Eads BridgeI can’t, so I came up with a plan. Like my Elijah P. Lovejoy posts last year, I think certain St. Louis history topics simply require a bit more love than others. For James Eads and his bridge, I’m going to write a couple, or maybe a few, and I’m going to post them all in a row. The good news is that most of my research is done (the biggest time consumer), so all I have to do is write, edit, and of course, drink.

Before I jump in (figuratively), I have to take a moment to clear something up. In discussing the Illinois & St. Louis Bridge (its original name), I often hear fellow St. Louisans confidently make a completely incorrect claim:

Eads Bridge QuoteThe Eads Bridge was definitely not the first bridge to span the Mississippi. It was the first one at St. Louis, and it contained several notable firsts in its design and construction, but it definitely wasn’t the first to span the river.

Perhaps people wouldn’t look to attribute unfounded facts to what the Eads Bridge is above the water if they only knew how special it is under the water. For that reason, I’m going to start my Summer of Eads with the story of the two massive limestone piers that hold it up. Specifically, I’m going to start with the story of the men who suffered building them. It’s a tragic story that I found particularly fascinating while researching every aspect of the structure. It’s also an unusual place to begin this bit of history, but like my new pal Amanda, I do tend to follow the unbeaten path.

Eads Bridge

Although he had never built a bridge before, James Eads knew the river better than anyone. His full story will come later, but it’s that point that must be noted here. The Mississippi is big and cranky. While it made many a riverboat pilot rich in the 19th century, it swallowed up just as many with its unpredictable currents and flows. As a young man, James Eads made his fortune walking around the bottom of it, salvaging wreckage in a diving bell of his own design. He knew first-hand how quickly the Mississippi could move something, and he had to be certain his bridge didn’t move. Sitting two massive bridge supports on silt and mud deposited by river currents wouldn’t cut it. They had to sit on bedrock.

James Buchanan EadsDuring a trip to Europe in 1868, he witnessed first-hand a relatively new technology that he decided to employ in his own bridge, the pneumatic caisson.

Caissons are watertight retaining structures. To work in depths of water, pneumatic caissons are sealed at the top and filled with compressed air. Sealed workspaces created by caissons allowed laborers (referred to as “submarines”) to work at the base of a bridge pier, on the riverbed, by digging up silt and sending it to the surface through pneumatic tubes. As the men dug towards bedrock, huge limestone blocks were piled on top of the caisson, thus building the pier at the same time the caisson pushed deeper into the riverbed. When it hit bedrock, the structure was leveled and the air chambers were filled with concrete. The concrete-filled caisson then became the base of the finished pier.

Pneumatic caissons offered an unprecedented level of efficiency, but at the time, only two bridges in the United States had been built using the technology. Neither came close to the size and depth required in Eads’ bridge design. Even today, the pneumatic caissons used in constructing the Eads Bridge are among the largest ever built.

When the east caisson was launched and sunk to the sandy river bed in October 1869, two engines on the surface went to work pumping compressed air into the chamber far below. This pressurized air compensated for leaks and provided a breathable workspace for laborers below. To get into the chambers, workers descended through a candle-lit spiral staircase and entered an airlock. When the airlock was sealed, an alternate door leading to the chamber was opened. The men could then climb out and begin work at the riverbed.

Dr. Alphonse Jaminet

As workers dug through the sandy riverbed and the caisson sank deeper, air pressure increased to compensate for the higher water pressure outside. When the east caisson hit bedrock in February 1870, the air pressure inside the chamber measured fifty pounds per square inch. That’s over three times the “normal” air pressure a person experiences at sea level.

At first, these pressurized compartments were a source of wonder. Eads himself frequently led friends, politicians, and curious St. Louisans down through the spiral staircase and into the air chambers at the bottom of the river. While there, visitors experienced an eerie atmosphere, water dripping from above, the hissing of escaping air, and a nearly intolerable odor. While many found the experience wholly terrifying, others found amusement. The increased air pressure caused voices to sound nasal and high-pitched, it was impossible to whistle, and blown-out candles seemed to re-light themselves as if by magic.

Soon, the physical effects of working such environments took a darker turn. Foremen started hearing complaints from workmen experiencing severe stomach, head, and joint pains when they emerged from the stairwell. Others suffered temporary paralysis in legs and arms, causing several to be admitted to a local hospital.

The situation became deadly on March 19, 1870, when a man named James Riley emerged from the center access shaft, informed a friend that he was feeling well, and promptly keeled over. He died fifteen minutes later. A few hours later, James Moran, an Irishman who worked in the east pier caisson, died at City Hospital. Three days later, a 22 year-old German named G.S. Alt died after two weeks of hospitalization. The next day, 27 year-old Henry Krausman and 21 year-old Theodor Baum both expired.

Eads Bridge Diagram

The lack of consistency in visible symptoms was confounding. Nearly every case involved stomach and joint pain, but similarities seemed to end there. While several men died, others experienced full recovery within a few hours. An Irishman named Mike McCoole became ill for the first time after three weeks of caisson work while an American named Hugh Devel collapsed on his very first day. An Irishman named Michael Herwin starting spitting blood while a co-worker named James Galloway was found to have pus in his urine. A 20 year-old German named Hansep Miller was hospitalized for nearly two months. Legs fully paralyzed, Miller had no control of his bowels and required frequent catheterization. Another man, a 30 year-old German named William Saylor worked three months in the west pier with no issue. After being transferred to the east pier, he died shortly after his first shift.

On March 31, Eads assigned his family physician, a man named Alphonse Jaminet, to figure it all out. Already familiar with the problem, Jaminet was the obvious choice for the task. Several weeks earlier, on February 28, 1870, he suffered a near-fatal encounter himself. After spending two hours in the east caisson, Jaminet emerged from the stairwell and discovered that he could barely walk. Racked with pain, he somehow made his way home and spent several hours expecting death to come at any moment. Fortunately it didn’t, and his recovery enabled him to spend the next several weeks doing everything he could to assist those afflicted. His detailed transcript, published in 1871, is the first record in history of what we now know as “decompression sickness”.

The Grecian Bend

Jaminet was faced with quite a dilemma. As John L. Phillips explains in his book The Bends: Compressed Air in the History of Science, Diving, and Engineering, it was unlike anything that had been seen before. It was a disease unique to the Industrial Revolution, and Alphonse Jaminet had no medical or scientific basis to work from.

Named “caisson disease” when it reappeared during the building of the Brooklyn Bridge two years later, it was jokingly referred to as “the bends” by workmen in St. Louis. According to Robert W. Jackson in his book, Rails Across the Mississippi, this epithet evolved from a popular fashion of the time. Men who suffered through the severe stomach and joint pain often walked about with a bent over posture. In the late 1800’s, it looked similar to the “Grecian bend”, a pose many women in Victorian society used to show off their bustles.

Today, we know that decompression sickness happens as a result of leaving a pressurized environment (such as a caisson) too quickly. The increased nitrogen produced in the bloodstream in such an environment requires sufficient time to dissolve when leaving it. If the nitrogen doesn’t dissolve, it may form bubbles in the blood and tissues of the body. These bubbles can lodge in the head, abdomen, or joints, producing symptoms experienced by the men working in the caissons.

Jaminet recorded the details of every case presented to him. He attempted to isolate it by recording each worker’s age, nationality, amount of time worked, their body type, and even their daily behavior. His biggest frustration came from the unruly behavior of the men who paid little heed to his warnings. Mostly Irish and German, many of these men were young, strong, and not the type willing to lay down for a spell. With four dollars of pay in their pocket, many rushed out of the caissons and headed straight for the beer and whiskey offered at saloons and taverns along the riverfront.

Caisson & Pier Diagram

Jaminet knew the problem was related to changes in air pressure, but his efforts to remedy the problem never provided the proper level of decompression we know today. Despite this fact, his work must be commended. With the support of James Eads (who also believed frequent saloon visits had a hand in the matter), shift times were reduced, the time between shifts was increased, and men were compelled to rest and eat before going ashore. He even ordered a “floating hospital” built next to the east pier. Many men received overnight care in this facility on the river before being sent home or to the hospital. According to John Phillips, this clinic was the first of its kind to provide on-site care for workers injured on the job.

Perhaps most importantly, he insisted the men working the airlocks, the men essentially controlling the rate of decompression, follow strict guidelines. Prior to this, veteran workers often initiated “greens” to caisson work by opening airlocks as quickly as possible and letting air rush in.

Sinking the East PierHowever, a few methods implemented by Jaminet also display the basic lack of understanding of decompression. Along with his belief that drinking alcohol accelerated symptoms, he also believed taking a hot bath would hasten paralysis. Drinking water was forbidden, and men who complained of thirst were given ice cubes or beef tea. He wasn’t alone. Home remedies circled around the workmen themselves, including various elixirs and useless “magneto-electricity” amulets made of silver and copper.

Despite fifteen deaths, two permanently disabled men, over 100 caisson workers severely afflicted (not counting the men who simply walked off the job when they became ill) caisson and pier work didn’t miss a beat. In fact, the only time caisson work cease was when workers attempted to strike for higher pay. Knowing that St. Louis provided no shortage of men looking for work, Eads and the bridge company simply waited them out. After a few days without pay, the men shuffled back into the caissons.

East Caisson Detail

By late May 1870, work at the riverbed was complete. James Eads was filled with pride in observing the two the two largest and deepest bridge piers ever constructed rise out of the water. As Howard Miller explains in his benchmark essay about the bridge, he had ample reasoning to admire his masterpiece. His accomplished marked a new chapter in the annals of civil engineering. In discussing his accomplishment, Eads wrote:

“When I left it to-day, I could not help being impressed with the feeling that I had never undertaken any mechanical or engineering performance before with such full assurance that failure was absolutely impossible as in the case of this, the greatest work of my life…”

This sentiment is remarkable for a man whose life was filled with wondrous accomplishment. That story comes next in the Summer of Eads.

The Drink

Selecting a drink to celebrate the Eads Bridge was difficult. I can’t drink on the bridge, and the rows of saloons and taverns that once welcomed caisson workers between shifts are all long gone. But I wanted to find something I could tie to the men who did a job I’d never sign up for.

Despite Jaminet’s warnings about drinking alcohol, one can’t blame these guys for ignoring him completely. As I spend my days sitting in a cubicle for too much money, these guys spent their days shoveling mud for not enough. If they didn’t drink for the taste, they certainly drank to celebrate surviving another shift.

A final anecdote found in my research further illustrate the dangerous changes in air pressure these men experienced. In Rails Across the Mississippi, Robert W. Jackson tells the story of a caisson worker who inadvertently carried a flask of brandy in his pocket down into an air chamber. Or perhaps it was intentional, and this man thought a few nips far below would help prevent the joint pain he suffered after work. Either way, it must have been a shock when he emerged at the surface and the flask exploded in his pocket. If he hadn’t already determined his job was dangerous, he surely must have realized it at that moment.

Personally, I wouldn’t climb down into a caisson if the reincarnation of James Eads came back to life and offered to lead me down into one himself. Instead, I decided to simply go stare at it again, just as I did after my new friend Amanda told me her version of its story.

But this time, I brought a flask of brandy with me. With no risk of it exploding in my hand, I raised it and drank to the men who worked and died building our famous bridge.

quote_line

Sources invaluable to this post:

  • Rails across the Mississippi by Robert W. Jackson, 2001
  • The Eads Bridge by Howard Miller and Quinta Scott, 1999
  • A History of the St. Louis Bridge by C.M. Woodward, 1881
  • The Bends: Compressed air in the History of Science, Diving, and Engineering by John L. Phillips, 1998
  • Physical Effects of Compressed Air, and of the Causes of Pathological Symptoms Produced on Man, By Increased Atmospheric Pressure Employed for the Sinking of Piers, in the Construction of the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge over the Mississippi River at St. Louis Missouri by Alphonse Jaminet, M.D., 1871
November 12th, 2012 by Cameron Collins

The Great Cyclone of 1896

The Great Cyclone of 1896

In the late afternoon of May 27, 1896,  a meteorologist by the name of Irl Hicks looked out the window of his observatory on 22nd street in St. Louis. He watched anxiously as black clouds and green skies loomed dangerously to the south.  An ordained minister, Confederate veteran, and publisher of his own almanac, Hicks knew exactly what was happening. By watching barometer in his office all day, he knew the air pressure in St. Louis was dangerously low. Shortly after 4 p.m., he ordered the storm doors to the building be closed. He instructed others to find safety and prepare for the tornado that was about to slam into the city.

As I’ve mentioned in previous posts (such as the T.S. Eliot post), one of the great joys of writing this blog is discovering where history happened in St. Louis. Recently, I met a woman who told me the third floor of her home in the Lafayette Square neighborhood was ripped off by the tornado Mr. Hicks correctly predicted over 120 years ago.  This piqued my curiosity, and I wanted to learn more about that day. I’ve found that most St. Louisans believe 1896 tornado was limited to the Lafayette Square neighborhood. In fact, it hit far more than that. The “Great Cyclone of 1896”  (as it would be known) ripped an eight mile swath of destruction through St. Louis and East St. Louis. To this day, it accounts for the single deadliest day in the history of both cities. It is the second deadliest tornado in the history of the United States (behind the “Tri-State Tornado” that hit Missouri, Illinois, and Indiana in 1925). Adjusted for inflation, the estimated $2.9 billion dollars of damage makes it the single costliest tornado in the history of the United States.

I also learned that my bike commute to work each morning nearly follows the path of the tornado exactly (except for the last leg into East St. Louis). Since I have quite a bit of time to kill on these rides, it’s been a fascinating event to think about each morning as I head to work.

Path of the Great Cyclone of 1896

Unlike Reverend Hicks, few St. Louisans had a barometer nearby to warn them of the tornado that touched down just past 5 p.m. In twenty minutes, 255 people would be dead. Over a thousand would be  injured.  Over three-hundred buildings were completely destroyed while  nearly eight-thousand were severely damaged. Homes were ripped from the earth, trees were uprooted, and boats were hurled across the Mississippi River. Factories, hospitals, and churches were flattened. The city’s most treasured public park would come to look like a battlefield. In just twenty minutes, St. Louis would be cut off from the rest of the world as every telegraph line out of the city would be severed.

The tornado first touched down near the City Poor House on Arsenal Street, just east of Hampton Avenue. This complex of brick buildings held over 1,300 poor, elderly, and impoverished residents. Few were given any warning as walls crumbled and chimneys toppled . Amazingly, nobody was killed. The tornado then jumped across the street and took the roof off an entire wing of the Female Hospital. It then twisted east, narrowly missing the hulking St. Louis Insane Asylum.  Still, not a single life was lost. That good fortune wouldn’t last long.

As it headed east towards Kingshighway Boulevard, the conical shape of the tornado became more pronounced.  It roared into Tower Grove Park at the south-west corner and cut across it diagonally.  It stormed through Shaw’s Garden (now the Missouri Botanical Garden), uprooting hundreds of trees and plants as it moved. To the north of Tower Grove Park, the Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company was building a large addition of buildings. Ironworkers were still high atop the girders when the tornado hit, causing many to plummet and be crushed beneath fallen iron and brick.

Liggett & Myers Tobacco Company

The tornado then crossed Grand Avenue and slammed into the Compton Heights neighborhood. Here it bounced around towards Jefferson Avenue, tearing off roofs, blowing out windows, and wrecking apartment buildings.  The tail of the tornado snapped around in a wide arc, wreaking havoc from Chouteau Avenue to the north and Russell Boulevard to the south.

The scene at Jefferson & Lafayette

It then stormed east into Lafayette Park and the elegant homes that surrounded it. The 36 acre park was turned into “a wasteland of stripped trees and stumps.” in a matter of seconds. Gazebos and pavilions were hurled into the sky. Pieces of the main bandstand were found over four hundred yards away. Many of the stately homes and churches that surrounded the park were laid to waste.

Lafayette Park

Lafayette Park was a place of beauty and joy to the residents of south city. The first public park in the city of St. Louis, its destruction delivered to them a severe blow.  Surveying the damage from the balcony of his home, a Lafayette Square resident named Charles Simpson openly wept. Although his family was safe, he lamented the destruction of the park he loved dearly. He turned to his son-in-law and said “It took forty years to grow those trees, and I shall never see their like again. The house I can repair, but my trees are gone forever”.

Lafayette Square

The tornado continued east, now bearing down on the massive City Hospital complex. Containing over 400 patients, the tornado ripped roofs and floors away. The crematorium was instantly demolished. One newspaper reported that a patient named George Wilson was sucked out of his second floor room. Amazingly, he landed upright and was able to run back into the basement of the building. Another patient was pulled from his fourth floor room and thrown over 150 yards away. Miraculously, that patient also suffered only minor injuries.

The City Hospital after the tornado

Moving past the hospital, the tornado was still gaining power. It reached its full fury in the Soulard neighborhood, near an intersection that would come to be known as the “vortex”.  Here, at the corner of Seventh and Rutger Streets, a man named Frederick Mauchenheimer owned a tavern on the ground floor of a tenement building. As he sat at a table playing cards with two patrons, the tornado slammed into the building. Every floor of the building collapsed down. Mauchenheimer survived, but the other card players and fifteen others died. Six more people died across the street. The day after the storm, the body of seven-year old Ida Howell was found in the arms of her mother.

The scene at the corner of Seventh & Rutger streets

After wreaking havoc in the Soulard neighborhood, the storm turned north and continued its carnage on the riverfront. Over twenty steamboats, tug boats, and ferries were ripped from their moorings and destroyed. The steamboat “Anchor Line” was hurled across the Mississippi, crashing into pieces on the eastern shore of the river. Although the official death toll on this day is 255, many believe the number is much higher. On the riverfront, scores of people lived in shanty boats. Since their bodies were washed downriver, perhaps as many as 150 deaths were unaccounted for.

Wreckage of the steamboat City of Vicksburg

As the tornado moved across the river, even Eads Bridge wasn’t spared. The top abutment of the first pier, including the girders and rocks, was picked up and thrown onto the tracks behind a passenger train. Two baggage cars were knocked off the tracks. Wagons loaded with goods and merchandise were thrown on top of them.

Eads Bridge on the East St. Louis riverbank

As the tornado moved onto the Illinois side of the river, residents of East St. Louis ran for cover as they watched entire homes pulled from the ground. More than 100 people on this side of the river were killed in a matter of minutes.  The police station and courthouse were completely destroyed. Inside that courthouse, a jury deliberating a case barely escaped with their lives. It wasn’t until minutes before the tornado hit that the judge allowed the members of the jury to flee and find safety.

The tornado was especially deadly at the various rail yards and depots in East St. Louis. When the storm hit the St. Louis, Vandalia, and Terre Haute Railroad Depot, fifteen of the thirty-five workers were killed.

The East St. Louis railyards

When the tornado finally dissipated, St. Louis and East St. Louis were wrecked cities. People emerged by the thousands to survey the damage and search for loved ones. Rescue efforts were organized to locate survivors buried under brick and rubble. One woman was found alive after being buried for over two days. Throughout both cities, the death toll clicked higher as victims succumbed to injuries. Many newspapers reported people physically unharmed by the storm still died of “shock”, and “fright”.

The day after the tornado, hundreds of people began gathering at city morgues to identify lost loved ones. Bodies were laid out on pine boxes as wagons departed and returned with more victims of the storm. At the St. Louis Morgue on 12th and Spruce, the crowd became so large that the police were called in to restore order.

Hundreds gather at the St. Louis Morgue

People come together in the wake of tragedy, and St. Louis in 1896 was no exception. Laborers were hired to remove debris. People who lost their homes were fed and given shelter. Communication was first restored to Kansas City, and then Chicago. Quickly, the rest of the country would come to learn about the tragedy that befell St. Louis. In the coming weeks and months, St. Louis slowly started to rebuild the homes, churches, and factories that it had lost.

Today, Lafayette Square is again one of the most beautiful neighborhoods in the city. Tower Grove Park, Compton Heights, and Shaw’s Garden look as elegant as ever. Hundreds of trees now stand tall in Lafayette Park. The City Hospital still stands as an attractive condominium complex. Although few signs of that storm are visible in St. Louis today, it’s a remarkable and tragic event in the history of the city.

The Drink

Square One Brewery

Well, this is a very depressing post to try to tie a drink to, but I’m still gonna do it. And, since that tornado cut quite a swath through St. Louis, it’s not difficult to find a bar that has ties to it. For this one, I chose Square One Brewery & Distillery in Lafayette Square. I know this place well since it’s on my bike route and the building’s previous tenant was my company’s after-work hangout years ago.   Today, Square One lays claim to being the first microdistillery restaurant in the state of Missouri. They pride themselves on pairing food, beer, and spirits together. Personally, I think they do a great job because I’ve always left happy. They brew an excellent selection of craft beers in small batches that are very good. They also make a good whiskey that I’ve had on a few previous visits.

I was tempted to see what Square One would do with a Manhattan. Instead, I checked out their cocktail menu and found a drink that seemed more appropriate for the subject of this post.

The “South Sider” contains Square One’s JJ Neukomm Whiskey, a dash of bitters, and Fevertree Ginger Beer. It’s served on the rocks in a tall glass. I haven’t experimented much with mixing beer and spirits, but this was a good start. The bitters added a nice spicy flavor and I enjoyed the drink.

I asked the bartender if he knew anything about the history of the building. I was told it was built before the tornado, but he did not know the extent of damage it took. Maybe I’ll find out more on my next visit.

The South Sider at Square One

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The Great Cyclone

Almost all of the information for this post came from the book The Great Cyclone at St. Louis and East St. Louis, May 27, 1896. It’s a compilation of stories that appeared in St. Louis daily newspapers after the tornado hit. It was first published just days after the tornado hit in 1896. It was recently republished and a new forward was added by St. Louis Post-Dispatch writer Tim O’Neil.

All photographs used in this post are courtesy of the Missouri History Museum.

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