Part II: Wisdom from Below: Bridging the Mississippi

A series on learning from bridge building

The Mississippi bridge (1867-1874), stretching over the Mississippi River, was made to connect the five eastern and three western railroads near St Louis. The job of bridging the Mississipi River was a challenging endeavour due to the enormous power of the river, its constantly shifting sands and wild currents.

More than any man alive, there was one man that knew the river well – James Buchanan Eads. He had experience working above the river and later on the river bottom, salvaging valuable cargo. Lewis (2001) says:

‘…he [Eades] wasn’t counting on his brilliance or power to build the bridge. He possessed a far greater power: a knowledge of the Great River itself, which, since his birth, he had been in, around, under, and over. At deep and shallow levels, he understood the river. And with the wisdom of the river in his mind and body, he knew – like no-one else could – what it would take to bridge it’ (Lewis, 2001).

Eads did not have an engineering degree or prior bridge building experience, but was chosen to build the bridge over other renowned candidates of the time. The bridge was built in a way that challenged mainstream methods and 140 years later it has stood the test of time.

The commitment that Eads made to knowing the forces of the Mississippi river demonstrates the importance of context and the value of ‘wisdom from below’. In community development, it is important to provide the opportunity for the marginalised to speak into their own development. The wisdom that can be gained from local people is not only respectful, but can go a long way into understanding how to achieve sustainable outcomes.