Bridging the Mississippi

In this lesson, students will investigate the need for development of railroad transportation across the Mississippi River to facilitate westward expansion. It will conclude with the construction of Eads Bridge at St. Louis Missouri. The students will analyze the importance of rivers (specifically the Mississippi) when it comes to transportation and trade. They will also describe the drawbacks rivers created for westward expansion.

Historical Background

After establishing the first settlements in the New World, American colonists began moving west. Westward exploration was usually done using waterways, and development was confined to areas along rivers to facilitate transportation and trade.

In 1825, the completion of the 350 mile Erie Canal across the state of New York connected New York City to the Great Lakes. The canal was built specifically to serve as a means of transportation and trade. New York City became a center of commerce in the East, and Chicago, Illinois on Lake Michigan became a commerce center for the young Midwest.

Railroads were introduced in the United States in the 1830s, and it soon became  obvious that they would become the major form of transportation in North America. The railroad industry grew quickly in the 1840’s, and by 1850 nine thousand miles of track had been laid.

Westward expansion in the 1850s punctuated the need for a transcontinental railroad. Forward thinking entrepreneurs and politicians pushed for the development of such a railroad and in May 1869 the final spike of the Transcontinental Railroad was driven in Promontory Point in Utah. The Transcontinental Railroad connected Omaha, Nebraska with San Francisco, California.

Railroads did not connect the Eastern United States to the Western United States until 1856 when the first rail bridge was completed connecting Rock Island, Illinois and Davenport, Iowa. The first railroad bridge was built at this site because it was the narrowest part of the river. Also, an island in the river provided natural footing for the bridge. Steamboat companies, claiming the bridge to be a hazard, took the builders to court. Abraham Lincoln was one of the lawyers representing the railroad.

By the middle of the century, St. Louis had become a booming center of commerce on the Mississippi River. Steamboat transportation on the Mississippi river had contributed to the growth of the city. With the advent of railroad transportation and the declining need for waterways as transportation, St. Louis started losing business and could not compete with Chicago and its eleven railways. In 1867 a convention was held to discuss improvements of the Mississippi River and at that time talk of a new bridge at St. Louis began. James Eads proposed his plan for such a bridge. Opposition to the bridge was fierce from rival companies, and they were able to get legislation passed that put specific requirements on the design of the bridge. These requirements were thought to be unattainable to most engineers of the time, however James Eads faced the challenge. On July 4, 1874, the engineering marvel was officially opened.

Lesson Objective

By the end of the lesson, students will be able to answer the following questions:

a. Waterways of the United States have always been of major importance for transportation, trade, and industry. How were waterways also an obstacle for railroads and the development of land west of the Mississippi River?

b. What geographic obstacles faced by settlers moving west? How did Westward migration drive the need for new innovations and thinking?

Historical thinking skills that will be used during this lesson include:

Close Reading – The students will be analyzing maps, looking for the benefits and challenges of the expanding railroad system. They will be looking for solutions to efficiently connect the East to the West, and the North to the South.

Contextualizing – Westward expansion created a demand for improved, more efficient transportation connecting the western territories and states with the eastern states.




  1. 1. Display the vocabulary words: canal, ferry, and caisson and their definitions on Promethean. Discuss definitions.
  2. 2. Display picture of the St. Louis Arch, the “Gateway to the West”. Start a discussion about westward migration and the causes for expansion. You may want to include:
    • The California gold rush
    • New opportunities for land and wealth
    • The end of the Civil War
    3. Discuss the use of waterways for transportation and construction of Erie Canal and development of commerce centers along major waterways.
    • Erie Canal map
    • Erie Canal picture
      4. Discuss the drawbacks of using waterways as a primary source of transportation.
    • Ferry boat picture
    5. Discuss the development of railroads as a more efficient means of transportation.
    • Appleton’s Railway map
    6. Explain the story and significance of the Eads Bridge. Who was James Eads? Why was the bridge construction innovative? Why was the bridge location important?
  3. Primary Source Analysis
  4. Students will w0rk in pairs to analyze the railway map provided by the National Park Service.
    • Have students analyze the railway map and the reason for the distribution of the railways. Why are there more railways in the East? Why are they most dense in the Northeast? Do most tracks run North and South or East and West?
    • Have students identify and mark their maps with the areas west of the Appalachian Mountains where many railways meet. (These areas would be (Cleveland, Toledo, Cincinnati, Dayton, Chicago, St. Louis, Nashville, Memphis) What geographic features influenced the growth of the large cities?
    • Have students mark the Mississippi River on their maps. Using the map, what do you notice about the railways at Memphis and St. Louis? If nobody responds ask “do the railways cross the Mississippi?” How do you think people and goods crossed the river at St. Louis and Memphis?


At the end of the lesson, hand out an exit ticket on which students need to write one thing they have learned and one question related to the topic that they would like answered.







Did not attend to or contribute to discussion or activity. Attended to discussions and contributed to activities. Participated in discussions and actively involved in activities. Actively participated in discussion and activities by asking relevant questions.
Did not complete exit ticket. 



Completed portion of exit ticket. Completed both portions of exit ticket with accurate knowledge and relevant question. Completed both portions of exit ticket with accurate knowledge and higher level question.




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