Rails across in Mississippi: A History of the St. Louis Bridge

Article excerpt

Rails Across the Mississippi: A History of the St. Louis Bridge. By Robert W. Jackson. (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2001.) Pp. Vii, 265.

This book is an economic, political and technological biography of a bridge. Consequently, readers who like the book may like it for different reasons: Robert Jackson's detailed and interesting description of the bridge's innovative design and the construction process necessary to build the arched, steel, cantilever structure; his discussion of the unbridled and corrupt international financing of the project, which involved foreign investors as well as Andrew Carnegie and other industrial titans of the Gilded Age; or his analysis of St. Louis's declining status as a western gateway city in relation to Chicago, the attempts that St. Louis business interests made to turn the tide, and the bridge's place in that history.

Jackson carefully and successfully intertwines these various elements of the bridge's history. We first read about James B. Eads, a nonengineer but technological innovator who designed the bridge that today bears his name. Eads, however, did more than design the bridge. He was also involved in the financing of the project and made alliances with eastern financiers like Thomas Scott, a man who was willing to take great risks and "likely to engage in shady business practices to ensure that those risks paid off." (31) Eads perhaps learned from his association with such men, for he was "too smart to get caught" (216) when others associated with the failed National Bank of the State of Missouri were indicted by a grand jury for "declaring unearned dividends, unlawfully purchasing the bank's capital stock, the making of false reports by the cashier concerning the amount of bad debts held by the bank, and for other sundry offenses. …