Bridging the Gap

1875 drawing of Eads Bridge by Camille N. Dry [Drie], courtesy Library of Congress Prints and Photographs division


There is fascination in the sudden appearance of a dozen cranes, the size used to build skyscrapers, spaced alongside a highway bridge over a major river. It means things are in the works, forces are at play. Something slouches to be born.

How wide and varied the world is! How much there is to discover and know! Some people talk about the Eden of the womb—oneness, ease, comforts—but for months the snake of the umbilical offers little tastes of the outer world. Mysterious rappings on the drum of the belly summon. Pressure for change builds. Maybe we are happy to be born in order not to endure more blissful amniotic boredom.

The construction of two new bridges to replace an existing bridge joining Illinois and Missouri, on the north edge of St. Louis, is midwifed by expertise, daring, and trudging drudgery. The project is another opportunity for commuters to be made aware of how public money, time, transport, fuels, materials, employment, labor, machines, skills, technologies, and processes combine to change the landscape of daily life.

The project affects more than the existing bridge. Bulldozers work the dirt for miles on the approach, and barges covered in steel pipe pilings are anchored in the current of the Mississippi. The change is a slow-motion violence, though neither as slow nor as powerful as that of the sliding sheet of water rumpled over its bed of mud and stone. The construction will be a pain, but civilization, a growing family, requires it. The Illinois Department of Transportation says the old I-270 bridge went from 19,800 vehicle crossings per day in 1975 to more than 51,000 vehicles now; 17 percent of those are heavy trucks. The bridge is near the end of its design life, they say.

Ten bridges (twelve, if counting twin spans separately) already cross the Mississippi within a few miles of St. Louis. The first, still the oldest standing bridge on the Mississippi River, was the Eads Bridge, built in 1874.

“It is indeed a structure of perfection and beauty unsurpassable, and I never tire of it,” Walt Whitman said.

It was also a serious, dangerous business to build it. The pressure built, literally, to get the work done despite political, engineering, and financial challenges. The use of caissons, inverted boxes fed by compressed air, was a new technology. Workers inside the dark boxes cleared sand and boulders as the caissons sank slowly to the bedrock under the river with millions of pounds of granite piers on top of them. The workers were basically deep-sea divers with helmets the size of houses.

As the depth increased, the men breathed air three to four times the pressure at sea level, which meant they could only stay twenty minutes without incurring a decompression obligation. Instead, they were made to work hours every shift, day after day. Fifteen died from decompression sickness making nitrogen bubbles in the blood and organs. Two others were disabled permanently, and fifteen more were “severely afflicted.”

What did they discuss as they gathered to go back into the wet chamber through the airlock? The taste of stew last night, the cry of babies, different qualities of rain? Or did they slog along lost in their thoughts, or with no thoughts at all, in the guttering candles? Ask the workers on the new bridges.

In 1916, a subway tunnel being dug under the East River in Brooklyn explosively decompressed through a weak spot in its wall. Three workers were sucked out through the hole. Only one, Marshall Mabey, a 28-year-old father of four, lived. He was shot like a human cannonball through the depths of silt and river water and 25 feet into the air in a great gush of mud into the light of the sun, surprised, wet, filthy, and born again because he was not dead from the weird violence. He said he survived by keeping his mouth “tight shut,” which is the best policy, maybe. He intended to go back to work in a day or two.

His wife told the Times, “Of course I know that Marshall is in danger every time he goes to work but all work is dangerous and my husband is as careful as he can be. His job is a good one and I am glad he has it.”

John Griswold

John Griswold is a staff writer at The Common Reader. His most recent book is a collection of essays, The Age of Clear Profit: Essays on Home and the Narrow Road (UGA Press 2022). His previous collection was Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life. He has also published a novel, A Democracy of Ghosts, and a narrative nonfiction book, Herrin: The Brief History of an Infamous American City. He was the founding Series Editor of Crux, a literary nonfiction book series at University of Georgia Press. His work has been included and listed as notable in Best American anthologies.