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Secrets of a Master Builder | Article

St. Louis Bridge Opening and Disasters

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A huge fire consumes 23 steamboats and much of downtown St. Louis | A.G. Edwards

Caisson Disease
During the building of James Eads' St. Louis Bridge, several of the construction workers digging out the riverbed from inside the caissons fell ill. An alarmed Eads shortened his men's working hours, and called his personal doctor on the scene. Still, some of the workers died. They were victims of caisson disease.

This condition, also known as the bends or decompression sickness, is caused by the formation of gas bubbles in the body. Human body tissues contain small amounts of the gases present in the air. At great depths underwater, because of the increased air pressure, larger amounts of gas can be held in solution in the body. However, when a diver or underwater construction worker rises to the surface of the water, the pressure decreases and the gases come out of solution. Oxygen doesn't cause a problem, because it is used up by the cells of the body. Carbon dioxide is simply exhaled. Nitrogen, on the other hand, accumulates. When the pressure decreases, the dissolved nitrogen comes out of solution, forming tiny bubbles in the blood and tissues of the body.

Nitrogen bubbles in the respiratory system can cause excessive coughing and difficulty in breathing. Other symptoms include, chest pain, dizziness, paralysis, unconsciousness or blindness. In extreme cases, caisson disease can cause death.

Opening of the St. Louis Bridge
When the Eads Bridge opened on July 4, 1874, it had been publicly tested just two days earlier. Eads had borrowed 14 locomotives from seven railroad companies. Over the course of five hours these engines, which together weighed 550 tons, were repeatedly driven across the bridge. It was a very public spectacle. Thousands of people crowded along the St. Louis levee to watch. Scores more lined the upper roadway of the bridge itself. A nervous engineer reportedly asked whether the bridge would hold -- a reasonable question in an era when railway bridges regularly collapsed under the weight of just one train. Many other doubters had been reassured two weeks earlier by the sight of an elephant lumbering across the wagon deck. It was an unscientific test, but in the 19th century many people believed elephants knew instinctively not to set foot on unsound structures.

Most of the citizens of St. Louis were proud of the bridge, which locals always called the Eads Bridge. It added to the city's prestige and, during the process of construction, it kept the city in the pages of many national papers. The St. Louis Republican was particularly partial to the project. It covered the bridge frequently and favorably during the years it was being built. Eads ensured the good press by paying off the paper's editors with bridge stock.

St. Louis Fire, May 1849
In 1850, the year after the fire, the St. Louis city directory described the devastation it caused: "The whole length of the wharf from Cherry Street to the head of Duncan's Island, a distance of at least a mile, presented one almost unbroken line of either lurid light or brilliant blaze and thus was sealed the destiny of twenty-three steamers many of them among the best and largest in our trade; some just arrived with full cargoes on board; some in like condition just ready to depart; and others partially loaded, either in the act of receiving or discharging cargo."

In a letter to his brother, one eye-witness wrote [spelling and punctuation as in original]: It was about 10 O'clock last night when the steamer White Cloud was seen to be on fire I had just gone to Bed and heard the Boat Bells ringing so I thought I would go down When I got there Ed Bates was on fire to and when she got to Burning pretty well she Broke Loose and floating down the warf she fired all the Boats about 36 [23 is a more accurate figure] in number the Levy caught fire above Locust Street and swept evry thing down to the Old market… and as far Back as 2nd all the offices of the papers are destroyed except the Union… There is no telling how many lives are lost some Burnt some drounde and some Blown to pieces with Powder there has been seven bodyes dug out of the ruins some with their heads and legs and arms all Blown off."

Steamboat Disasters
Steamboat travel in the 19th century was perilous. Exact figures for the number of steamboats destroyed on the western rivers varies according to the source.

"DeBow's Review," published in 1848, claimed there had already been 233 accidents in steamboats on the western rivers. The authors broke down the incidents as follows:

  • Bursting boilers 101
  • Collapsing flues 71
  • Bursting steam pipes 9
  • Bursting steam chests 1
  • Bolt and boiler forced out 1
  • Struck by lightning 1
  • Boiler head blown out 4
  • Breaking cylinder head 1
  • Breaking flange of steam pipe 2
  • Bridge wall exploded 1
  • Unknown 3
  • Not stated 38

The accidents were terrifying, and devastating in terms of loss of life and property. A major disaster befell St. Louis in 1849 when the "White Cloud" went up in flames at the docks, setting off 23 other steamers. As the result of a boiler explosion on the "Sultana," in 1864, an estimated 1,647 people were killed.

Descriptions from the times are chilling:

"This distressing accident, by which sixteen persons were instantly killed, and several others were badly scalded, took place on the Mississippi, while the boat was on her voyage from St. Louis to Galena. The locality of the dreadful event was off Muscatine Bar, eight miles below Bloomington. The "Dubuque" was running under a moderate pressure of steam at the time, when the flue of the larboard boiler, probably on account of some defect in the material or workmanship, collapsed, throwing a torrent of scalding water over the deck. The pilot immediately steered for the shore and effected a landing.

When the consternation and dismay occasioned by the explosion had in some measure subsided, Captain Smoker, the commander of the "Dubuque," and such of his crew as were not disabled by this accident, made their way with considerable difficulty through the ruins to the afterpart of the boiler-deck, when it was found that the whole of the freight and every other article which had been there deposited, was cleared off and wafted far away into the water. The unfortunate deck passengers, together with the cooks and several of the crew, were severely scalded either by the hot water or the escaped steam. Many of these wretched people in their agony fled to the shore uttering the most appalling shrieks, and tearing off their clothes, which in some cases brought away the skin and even the flesh with them. Humanity shudders at the recollection of the scene. It was several hours before any of them died; nor could medical relief be obtained until a boat, which had been dispatched from Bloomington, returned with several physicians who resided at that place. At 10 o'clock p.m., eight hours after the explosion, the steamboat "Adventure," Captain Van Houten, came up with the wreck and took it in tow as far as Bloomington."

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