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Economy & Business

The Eads Bridge reflects a thriving, wonderful St. Louis

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 3, 2011 - There is a tinge of real regret to Louis Daniel Brodsky's voice as he talks about his love affair with the Eads Bridge. His words seem to evoke a time -- and a city -- gone by.

"I like the place St. Louis was in in those days," said the noted local poet who has been writing since the 1960s. "I thought it was a thriving, wonderful place. At one time, it actually surpassed Chicago."

Three of Brodsky's eight poems on the Eads will be read by their creator on Saturday, June 4 at 10 a.m. as St. Louis' oldest Mississippi River bridge fits into a discussion on the significance of the new cable-stayed span connecting Illinois with downtown. Participants are welcome to speak with Brodsky, as well as a transportation department official and a journalist regarding both structures as part of the eight-day Beacon Festival, which is set to wrap up June 6.

The Eads span has a compelling history. Completed in 1874, the bridge relied on an unusual arched design with a double-decked roadway and a steel frame. According to a history on the National Park Service website, the structure's creator James Eads encountered a fair amount of criticism for his blueprints.

"Eads' plans were thought radical by some, mad by others," it said. "He had never built a bridge before, and even his supporters wanted him to consult an experienced bridge engineer."

The bridge opened on Independence Day to a 100-gun salute, a 14-mile parade and Civil War hero Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman driving in the span's final spike.

"The Eads Bridge was the world's first steel arch bridge and the biggest bridge built up to that time," said the NPS history. "It was the first important steel structure of any type in the world, leading a revolution in construction."

Brodsky said that, to him, the Eads shows the determination of the nation and a city in its heyday and on the rise.

"It just symbolizes for me something that was wonderful about the innovativeness of America, the can-do attitude that we all had and the wonderful inventions that were happening," said Brodsky. "I thought the way that they built that bridge, the concepts that went into it structurally, even artistically ... it's very beautiful with all that superstructure showing and the style that they used. It was remarkable."

His poem, "The Soul of Eads," talks about both Eads and the groundbreaking bridge he brought into being. The last two stanzas are particularly evocative.

Tonight, I've inherited the soul of James B. Eads.
I am science, civil engineering,
That grand tributary, the Mississippi River,

The forces of nature tamed by his mathematics,
The colossal Eads Bridge itself,
Spanning the rapid currents of my imagination.

The work will be among those he reads on Saturday.

"I guess I felt one with him when I wrote that poem," he said.

Brodsky said that the Eads is both a work of art and a product of innovation and science.

"I don't want to say qualitatively that it's more significant than the Arch but to me, it's a more stellar remnant of our stellar engineering past," he said. "I find the Eads Bridge to be very significant and iconic for me."

He encourages others to emulate Walt Whitman, who is said to have spent time standing under the bridge, though Whitman never recorded the experience in poetry.

"I think it's a great treasure that we have in St. Louis and I think people should go down and just spend 20 minutes sitting near it, staring at it, walking on it," Brodsky said. "It's really special."

David Baugher is a freelance writer.

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