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Spanning the Gilded Age

James Eads and the Great Steel Bridge

The fascinating history of the St. Louis Bridge, the first steel structure in the world.

In Spanning the Gilded Age, John K. Brown tells the daring, improbable story of the construction of the St. Louis Bridge, known popularly as the Eads Bridge. Completed in 1874, it was the first structure of any kind—anywhere in the world—built of steel. This history details the origins, design, construction, and enduring impact of a unique feat of engineering, and it illustrates how Americans built their urban infrastructure during the nineteenth century.

With three graceful arches spanning the Mississippi River, the Eads Bridge's twin decks carried a broad boulevard above a dual-track railroad. To place its stone piers on bedrock, engineer James Eads pioneered daring innovations that allowed excavators to work one hundred feet beneath the river. With construction scarcely begun, Eads circulated a prospectus—offering a 500 percent return on investment—that attracted wealthy investors, including J. Pierpont Morgan in New York and his father, Junius, in London. This record-breaking design, which employed a novel method to lay its foundations and an untried metal for its arches, was projected by a steamboat man who had never before designed a bridge.

By detailing influential figures such as James Eads, the Morgans, Andrew Carnegie, and Jay Gould, Spanning the Gilded Age offers new perspectives on an era that saw profound changes in business, engineering, governance, and society. Beyond the bridge itself, Brown explores a broader story: how America became urban, industrial, and interconnected. This triumph of engineering reflects the Gilded Age's grand ambitions, and the bridge remains a vital transportation artery today.

About the Author

John K. Brown is the author of The Baldwin Locomotive Works, 1831–1915: A Study in American Industrial Practice. He taught history, applied ethics, and writing in the Department of Science, Technology, and Society at the University of Virginia.

Endorsements

"Well written and exhaustively researched, John K. Brown's book is about a builder, a bridge, money men, and the greed, ambition, confidence, and vision that made possible the engineering marvels of America's Gilded Age."

- David Nasaw, author of Andrew Carnegie

"In Spanning the Gilded Age, one of America's most monumental pieces of engineering has finally found the historian it deserves. While writing a first-rate treatment of the physical and technical challenges Eads's bridge overcame, Brown also highlights the financial creativity required for such achievements in the age of high capitalism."

- Robert Friedel, University of Maryland

"A century and a half after the completion of the Eads Bridge, we have the first comprehensive history of the remarkable James Buchanan Eads and his extraordinary civil-engineering achievement. Spanning the Gilded Age engagingly connects the stories of the engineers, financiers, politicians, and railroaders who united two halves of a continent."

- Albert Churella, Kennesaw State University

"Brown serves up a rich slab of American history, from sweaty workers digging to bedrock below the Mississippi River to the rarified heights of transatlantic finance. Fabulous insights on city growth, bold engineering, railroad tangles, and classic 'robber barons' like Andrew Carnegie and Jay Gould."

- Thomas J. Misa, author of Leonardo to the Internet

"Skullduggery, robber baron intrigue, and engineering genius on the shores of the Mississippi River after the Civil War: John Brown tells the gripping, many-sided genesis story of Eads's graceful, steel-arched bridge at St. Louis, set in an era when steel was still an experimental material and no one knew quite what to do with it."

- Robert Kanigel, author of The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Enigma of Efficiency

"Investors and executives today will be riveted by this 150-year-old story of venture capital and entrepreneurial genius. No historical fiction could be this audacious: self-taught polymath James Eads matching wits with young Andrew Carnegie and enlisting J. P. Morgan to underwrite a high-risk mega-project that proved untested technologies."

- James Gelly, retired CFO, S&P 500 industrial company

"James Buchanan Eads mastered the Mississippi River, secured the future of St. Louis, forced a revolution in steel-making, and made the port complex around New Orleans the biggest by tonnage in the world. In short, he was one of the most brilliant and important—and forgotten—men of the nineteenth century. John K. Brown finally does him justice in Spanning the Gilded Age."

- John M. Barry, author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America 

"Deeply researched and exquisitely crafted, Spanning the Gilded Age presents a fascinating account of an enduring engineering marvel. Brown brings to life the world of pioneering entrepreneurial engineers who reshaped cities, industries, and a nation. Superb."

- Steve Usselman, Georgia Institute of Technology

"A highly readable account, Spanning the Gilded Age explores the construction of a true American landmark as a far-from-seamless collaboration between western boosters, visionary engineers, gentlemanly (and less gentlemanly) capitalists, and the ever-present American state. It thus combines business history with the history of finance, technology, and politics to illuminate anew the origins of the United States as a large industrial nation"

- Noam Maggor, Queen Mary University of London

 

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