Abstract: Not the Eads Bridge: Assessing a Counterfactual History in St. Louis

John K. Brown


The St. Louis Bridge (popularly known as the Eads Bridge in honor of its designer) became an iconic landmark soon after its opening in 1874. While the public loved the structure, the civil engineering profession condemned most of its design features and its final cost. But today James Eads is revered as a brilliant designer, his bridge is a historical landmark in American civil engineering, and the span has become an icon of St. Louis. So we have here a fascinating riddle to unpack. To resolve this conflict, this paper picks up a tool that business and technological historians seldom wield—counterfactual analysis. Fortunately, a range of good sources supports a strong counterfactual for the St. Louis Bridge. The need for such a benchmark is even stronger. The unique and iconic qualities of Eads' bridge have largely obscured real analysis. Most accounts laud his engineering creativity (a great man designs a great span) while sidestepping entirely the operational history of that bridge and its role in shaping St. Louis down through the Gilded Age. This short conference paper will show the value of posing an alternative history for St. Louis.