The Westward Expansion was one of the greatest developments in American History. From 1865 until the end of World War I in 1918, millions of miles of roads and railroads were built west of the Mississippi River. And with that came bridges, big or small, that crossed whatever ravine was in the way. Hundreds of bridge building companies were established between 1865 and 1910 and while half of them either folded or merged with other bridge building firms, others remained in the business and with enough capital and a set of minds that were strong-willed and innovative, they succeeded in building unique crossings and competing with the bigger and more powerful conglomerates. Some of the companies eventually continued their business well into the 20th Century.
In the case of Stupp Brothers, they have been building bridges and other forms of artwork for 165 years and counting. Many people don’t know much about Stupp Brothers except when you find historic truss bridges with the Stupp plaques on them. Most of these bridges can be found in Missouri but this was because Stupp has its headquarters in St. Louis. When looking at the history of bridge building, some of the unique crossings have been built by Stupp. Aside from the Jefferson City Bridges, Stupp built the Bird’s Nest Bridge in Crawford County, Broadway Bridge in Kansas City, the Martin Luther Bridge in St. Louis, and the Route 66 Meramec River Bridge west of St. Louis- all of which still exist to this day.
More closely is the history of the Stupp Brothers Bridge Company itself, for its founder, originated from Germany in what is now North Rhine-Westphalia. And this is where the story starts. I did some research on the company and interviewed Judith Stupp, wife of the current president, John Stupp, in 2017 as efforts were being taken to find funding to restore the Meramec Bridge. While the role of Stupp with that bridge will be discussed later due to changes in developments to date, here’s what we learned about the bridge company, the Stupp family and 165 years of engineering success.
1. Who were the founders of the bridge company?
Technically, the bridge business was founded by George, Peter and Julius Stupp, the sons of Johann Stupp, but the story begins with Johann. Johann Stupp was born in 1827 in Cologne (Köln), Germany- Prussia at that time. He was trained as a metal smith and during his wanderberuf he developed friendships with several other young wanderers.
Economic conditions convinced some of these friends to immigrate to the US. Initially Johann resisted, but in 1854 he chose to join his friends in St Louis, Missouri. The influx of Germans was so great that by 1860, of the 160,783 citizens of St Louis, 50,510 were German-born.
By 1856 Johann was married and had started his own business fabricating small machine parts and doing some ornamental iron work. He brought his brother Peter to St Louis to work as foreman at J. Stupp and Bros., Blacksmiths.
2. What role did Stupp Brothers play in the Civil War, both regarding the bridge building business as well as in their private lives?
Though there is no documentation to prove it, there is a family conviction that Johann’s shop made iron plates for the fleet of seven ironclad gunboats built by John B. Eads to support the union effort to take control of the Mississippi and its tributaries. Eads was under intense pressure to produce the fleet in 90 days, so it seems likely that a shop like Johann’s would have been involved in the effort. Johann hadproduced iron plates for barges while still in Germany. Johann served in the “Home Guard” during the Civil War. This group was instrumental in preventing Missouri from seceding from the union.
By 1867 the firm was being advertised as the South St. Louis Iron Works. They fabricated fire escapes, railings and various ornamental items. In the late 1860’s the firm received a sub-contract to fabricate the gates at the newly created Lafayette Park. It was a triumph for the shop. Of the 32 gates Johann created 30 remain standing. Johann would concentrate on ornamental iron gates and fencing for the rest of his time in the business. Johann was a superb craftsman, meticulous and an artist in his trade. He died in 1915 at the age of 88.
By 1873 all three of Johann’s teenaged sons worked in the business. George was office manager, Peter was assistant pattern-maker and Julius was a bolt cutter. That same year saw the credit crisis known as The Panic of 1873. Johann had borrowed $3000 from an unscrupulous lender and, unable to pay the loan when called, lost the business. As a result of this experience no doubt, George Stupp had enrolled in business classes. In 1878 George formed the George Stupp South St. Louis Ornamental Zinc and Iron works. When Peter and Julius came of age a partnership was formed and the name was changed to Stupp Bros. With George in charge the company began to move from ornamental to structural work. One of the firms earliest orders was from the Anheuser-Busch Brewery.
3. How did Stupp play a role in the Westward Expension?
The 1880’s was an ideal time for the newly formed company. St. Louis was growing and prospering, it was fourth among American cities in gross value of manufactures and fifth in capital invested in manufacturing. When Stupp built its first bridge in around 1886, it was one of five bridge companies in St. Louis.
In December of 1890, the brothers incorporated, changing the firm’s name to Stupp Bros.
Bridge and Iron Company. America was becoming an industrial giant, Americans were pouring into the frontier, cities like Omaha, Dallas, Denver and San Francisco had emerged from frontier outposts. The networks of roads and rails in the east were improved and expanded, while new lines pushed westward creating and feeding new markets for manufactured materials. Buoyed by the expanding market, in 1893 the brothers expanded their plant by adding a second story to house an office and drafting room.
4. How did the bridge building expand after the Civil War? How many branch offices did it have and which ones still exist today?
In the early 1900-1920’s there were offices in Iowa City, Iowa, Kansas City, Missouri and downtown St Louis. Today manufacturing is done in Bowling Green, KY with the sales office at the company location in St Louis where has been since 1902.
5. While as many as 28 bridge companies merged to become the American Bridge Company in 1901 (including the Wrought Iron Bridge Company), Stupp didn‘t engage in this venture and continued to build bridges in the face of competition. How did the company achieve that successfully?
Independent minded. It is unknown whether or not they were ever approached about a merger. The company had the capital to remain independent.
6. What major projects has the bridge company been involved with since 1900? Bridge examples included.
Stupp’s contract records identify nearly 20,000 projects. Bridges make up a significant portion of them though not the majority of them. Some notable projects include:
- Hurricane Deck at Lake of the Ozarks, MO (1936 Prize Bridge winner)
- George P. Coleman Bridge over the York River, VA (Multiple swing spans-1990’s)
- Randolph Street Bascule Bridge Chicago 1970’s
- Ohio River Bridge Renovations Louisville, KY 2014-2016 (20,000 tons)
- Truss Bridges over the Missouri River at Washington, Herman, Chesterfield, St. Charles, Jefferson City, Miami for the state of Missouri 1940s to 1960’s
- Choteau Bridge replacement at Kansas City MO 2001
7. Who is in charge of the company today and what kinds of bridges are being built today in comparison with 100 years or even 150 years ago?
John Stupp is the president of the company and R. Philip Stupp, Jr. Is our executive vice president. They are cousins and great-great grandsons of Johann. Three members of the sixth generation are currently working for the company.
Stupp began building bridges in the 1880s. Most of the bridges Stupp fabricated in this time frame were less than 100 foot in individual span lengths. The majority of the bridges were truss bridges. The vertical elements of truss bridges are top chords, bottom chords, vertical and diagonal struts. These components form panels and the completed panels span the crossing. Horizontal members tie the two trusses together and support the roadway. Thru trusses, deck trusses, and pony trusses are three types of bridges that made up the majority of our contracts during the period. Railroad bridges and highway bridges were our primary bridge products.
In 1902 Stupp moved to a much larger plant and began building much larger structures (longer spans require larger structures) Trusses remained a dominant bridge type for another 100 years. Our expanded capabilities allowed us to build arch bridges, long span railroad bridges, and moveable bridges. Categories of moveable bridges include bascule, swing span, and lift. Rolled beams (wide flange) were introduced by Carnegie Steel and then mass marketed by Bethlehem Steel around the turn of the century. Their use greatly reduced the cost of short span bridges and these are known as rolled beam bridges.
Plate girder bridges became cost effective and widely used after welding was perfected in the 1950’s. Prior to then riveting plates together with angles was the preferred method. Today plate girder bridges make up over 80% of the steel bridge market. Plate girder bridges are the only bridge type that Stupp manufacturers since 1999.
To learn more about Stupp Brothers, click onto the link here and read more about it.