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FreightWaves Classics/Pioneers: James Eads was a leading engineer of his time

Whether it was salvage ships on the Mississippi River, ironclads that helped the Union win the Civil War, a key bridge across the Mississippi or jetties at the mouth of that great river that spurred commerce, James B. Eads solved some of the major engineering problems of his time. That led deans of American colleges of engineering to name Eads one of the five greatest engineers of all time in July 1932.

Early life

James Buchanan Eads was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, on May 23, 1820 to Thomas and Ann Eads. His father moved the family often, trying to generate a decent living and failing each time. In September 1833, the Eads’ were aboard the steamboat Carrolton. As the ship approached the St. Louis wharves, a chimney flue collapsed, and the ship caught fire. Eight people were killed; Eads and his family escaped, but their meager possessions were lost in the fire. 

To help support the family, James Eads began selling apples in the street and then running errands for a dry goods store. His employer recognized Eads’ intelligence; he allowed Eads to read books from his personal library. This began Eads’ engineering education. Although he had very little formal education, by using the store owner’s library he educated himself on engineering, technology, machines and river transportation.

He tinkered at home, and built a six-foot long model steamboat in his early teens. He was also intrigued by the inventions of others. He saved enough money to visit Washington, D.C. In a letter to his family he wrote that of everything he had seen in the city he found the “Patent Office with the models of machines which have been patented” the most interesting. “I could spend five days at the Patent Office,” he continued, “and find something new and interesting every day.”

Salvage

In 1842 at the age of 22 Eads was working as a clerk on the “Knickerbocker,” a steamboat that plied the Mississippi River. The steamboat was carrying a cargo of lead, and when a snag ripped open its bottom it sank to the riverbed. This was the second time Eads had been involved in a steamboat accident, but his experience wasn’t all that unusual. Steamboat travel during the 19th century was perilous. The bottom of the Mississippi River was littered with hundreds of ships and their cargoes. 

Eads' salvage vessel, which raised ships and their cargoes from the bottom of the Mississippi River. (Image: civilwarnavy150.blogspot.com)
Eads’ salvage vessel, which raised ships and their cargoes from the bottom of the Mississippi River.
(Image: civilwarnavy150.blogspot.com)

Convinced these vessels could be retrieved, Eads drew up plans for a salvage vessel and diving bell and took them to Calvin Case and William Nelson, two boat builders. They built the boat and the three men went into the salvage business, finding cargo that could be resold.

Next, Eads attempted to establish a glass works in St. Louis – the first west of the Ohio River. Unfortunately, the factory failed, leaving Eads with a very large debt. He went back into the salvage business again, and by 1850, Eads’ salvage vessels were equipped with the pumps and derricks necessary to raise entire vessels. It was “dangerous, dirty and grueling work.” But the salvage business made Eads wealthy; when he retired from the business in 1857 he was worth $500,000 (more than $16 million today). Because of his salvage work Eads had become an expert on the Mississippi’s river currents and their effect on the river’s bed. 

The Civil War

When the Civil War began in 1861, Eads was married, retired and affluent. However, soon after the attack on Fort Sumter, Eads received a telegram from Edward Bates, an old friend who was the Attorney General of the United States under President Lincoln. “Be not surprised if you are called here suddenly by telegram,” Bates wrote. “If called, come instantly. In a certain contingency it will be necessary to have the aid of the most thorough knowledge of our Western rivers and the use of steam on them …” Eads was summoned to Washington, and was offered a contract to build seven iron-plated gunboats that Union forces would use in their Western campaign. The gunboats were considered essential to take control of the Mississippi and its tributaries from the Confederacy.

The original seven ironclad gunboats built by James B. Eads. (Photos: distilledhistory.com)
(Photos: distilledhistory.com)

Eads built the boats from the designs given him; he also adapted one of his salvage boats into a war vessel, and it became the best of the fleet. Captain Andrew Foote, who commanded the vessels, wrote “[Eads’ ship] The ‘Benton’ is worth any three of the new gunboats.” Foote chose the Benton as his flagship.

Eads' drawing of the ironclad Monitor, which was launched in 1864. (Image: distilledhistory.com)
(Image: distilledhistory.com)

The gunboats built by Eads helped win the first major Union victories of the war. Eads spent much of the remainder of the war building new, improved ironclads and designing steam-powered gun turrets. His efforts to help the Union win back the Mississippi was driven by his desire to keep the river open. The river was that era’s “highway” for the transportation of goods from across the Midwest. Eads’ work won him the friendship and admiration of some of the Union’s most powerful men, including Union general and future president Ulysses S. Grant. When the war ended, and with powerful friends everywhere, Eads began bidding for larger and larger projects.

Bridging the Mississippi 

Eads’ interest in the Mississippi River was coupled with his vision of St. Louis as a key player in a national network of markets. When rails began to replace waterways as the nation’s key transportation mode, Eads shifted his focus from steamboats to railroads. 

However, if St. Louis was to continue as the gateway to the West, it had to have a bridge that  spanned the Mississippi River. At that time, traveling to the ferry docks from the railway stations in St. Louis and East St. Louis, Illinois, was an ordeal. The river crossing was dangerous at all times, but impossible when the river was low or when it froze. These conditions meant that goods could be delayed for weeks. 

This situation led Eads to propose the construction of a revolutionary bridge to cross the Mississippi River in 1868. He utilized his extensive knowledge of the river and engineering to design the first bridge to cross the Mississippi at St. Louis. 

View of completed St. Louis Bridge, with steamboats in Mississippi River, surrounded by eight views of stages of bridge construction, based on photographs taken in 1874 by R. Benecke, sections of pier and machinery, and portrait of Capt. James B. Eads, chief engineer. (Image: Library of Congress)
View of completed St. Louis Bridge, with steamboats in Mississippi River, surrounded by eight views of stages of bridge construction, based on photographs taken in 1874 by R. Benecke, sections of pier and machinery, and portrait of Capt. James B. Eads, chief engineer. (Image: Library of Congress)

Instead of using the truss design, which was the conventional design for railway bridges at the time, Eads sought to build an arched bridge, with spans longer than 500 feet. To ensure its strength, he also planned to build the bridge’s arches of steel, which was stronger than the wrought iron then typically used in railroad bridges. 

The major bridge-builders of that time labeled Eads’ plans as “entirely unsafe and impracticable.” Eads insisted his calculations and the laws of physics made the bridge a practical option – and then proved himself right. Although the bridge took seven years to build and more than a dozen men’s lives were lost in its construction, it was a magnificent structure. 

He pioneered the use of steel to construct the longest arched spans ever conceived. His bridge had upper and lower decks to carry wagons and rail traffic, respectively. He advanced the field of civil engineering when he used the “largest pneumatic caissons employed to date to anchor the bridge’s mid-river limestone piers in bedrock deep below the river floor.” 

When it was completed, the Eads Bridge was 6,442 feet, the largest arch bridge on Earth, and the world’s first major bridge project of entirely steel construction. The bridge connected St. Louis and East St. Louis.

The elephant crosses the Eads Bridge. (Photo: smartypantsmagazineforkids.com
The elephant crosses the Eads Bridge.
(Photo: smartypantsmagazineforkids.com)

Many people were afraid of the bridge; unsure of steel’s strength and its overall length. Eads demonstrated its strength in two ways. On June 14, 1874, the designer led an elephant across the span without incident. The use of an elephant was more than because of the animal’s weight; folklore indicated that an elephant could sense unsafe ground. In addition, Eads had 14 locomotives cross the bridge (one at a time) at the end of June.

The bridge was officially opened on July 4, 1874, and more than 300,000 people took part in the celebration. President Ulysses Grant and war hero William Tecumseh Sherman oversaw the festivities. The bridge became synonymous with St. Louis and was its primary attraction (at least until the St. Louis Arch was built).

Eads was treated like a hero; many believed Eads had built a bridge that would ensure the city’s greatness. The St. Louis publication Central Magazine stated, “James B. Eads is the greatest engineer on the American continent and his work, the great St. Louis Bridge, is the greatest structure of its kind in the world.” Built 148 years ago, the Eads Bridge remains in use today.

A $2.00 stamp issued by the U.S. Post Office features the Eads Bridge. (Image: University of Illinois Press)
A $2.00 stamp issued by the U.S. Post Office features the Eads Bridge.
(Image: University of Illinois Press)

Jetties open the Mississippi and benefit New Orleans

As important as the bridge across the Mississippi River was, it was Eads’ next project that was  his most significant. This problem also involved an obstruction to transportation – the mouth of the Mississippi. Along its course to the Gulf of Mexico the great river spread and gradually slowed, depositing large amounts of sediment, which created sandbars. Ships frequently ran aground on the sandbars, since they appeared and disappeared regularly. At that time the sandbars effectively blocked the port of New Orleans for weeks at a time, which caused food and produce to rot on the docks. 

Efforts by the Army Corps of Engineers to keep the channel open had failed. By 1874, under pressure to solve the problem, the Corps proposed to build a canal from below New Orleans to the Gulf. Eads ridiculed the idea and suggested that the government award him a contract to build jetties, or “underwater walls running parallel to the current of the river.” Moreover, Eads proposed to build the jetties without any advance payment; he would only be paid if the jetties worked.

An 1877 engraving shows the east jetty at the mouth of the Mississippi River under construction. Eads's jetty design eventually won out over Andrew Humphreys' plan for a canal. (Image: honc.org)
An 1877 engraving shows the east jetty at the mouth of the Mississippi River under construction. Eads’s jetty design eventually won out over Andrew Humphreys’ plan for a canal. (Image: honc.org)

Eads’ plan was to build the jetties where the Mississippi meets the Gulf. His jetties would create a narrower channel that would speed up the water running between them. Eads’ believed that the faster the water flowed, the more sediment it would carry. Eads also believed that the water’s extra force would carry sediment into the Gulf, eliminating the sandbars. He was hired by Congress to build the jetties; and he would be paid in increments as he reached certain depths; at a depth of 30 feet Eads was to be paid $4.25 million.

Eads’ ridicule of the Corps plan and his idea for jetties created some powerful enemies in Washington, including Andrew A. Humphreys, the Chief of the Army Engineers. After Eads won the contract to build the jetties, Humphreys sought to sabotage the project. However, Eads was a formidable opponent. 

A friend described Eads as “… a bitter and unrelenting foe. To him the unfolding of great and correct principles was more than personal friendships. His beliefs were his friends.” The vicious debate between Eads and Humphreys was fodder for the media of the time. In the end, Eads won when the jetties were completed in 1879.

As Eads had planned, the jetties created a 30-foot deep channel, ensuring that ships could navigate safely into and out of New Orleans. The silt buildup was eliminated, permanently opening the mouth of the Mississippi to ships. The new jetties exponentially increased the flow of commercial traffic through New Orleans. Eads’ work caused the New Orleans port, which had been the nation’s ninth-largest, to become its second-largest port after New York.

Eads’ reputation as a master of river engineering was enhanced significantly with the success of the jetties. News of his feat spread worldwide. Among others, Brazil, Great Britain and Canada invited him to consult on navigation problems. 

This map shows the location of the Eads jetties off of the South Pass of the Mississippi River delta. (Image: hnoc.org)
This map shows the location of the Eads jetties off of the South Pass of the Mississippi River delta. (Image: hnoc.org)

A ship railway across Mexico

For the last several years of his life, Eads promoted an audacious idea that was not his own – a “multi-track railroad designed to carry ships from the Atlantic Ocean across Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.” Eads believed the railway would provide the United States much easier access to markets in the Far East. In an 1880 letter to President Hayes, Eads wrote that the project would realize “the dream of kings and conquerors during the last 350 years.”

Eads also spent seven years trying to interest Congress in funding the idea instead of two competing ideas for canals – one across Panama, the other across Nicaragua. Despite his success with its jetties, the New Orleans Picayune called his plan “The Great Ship Railway Raid on the Treasury.” The Chicago Tribune called him “the most audacious, unprincipled and successful lobbyist the national Capital has ever known.”

An illustration of Eads' ship railway. (Image: Mining and Scientific Press - 1885)
An illustration of Eads’ proposed ship railway.
(Image: Mining and Scientific Press – 1885)

What kept Eads going despite the detractors was his conviction that the idea he supported was the right way and that he had science and the laws of nature on his side. 

A Ship Railway Bill that would have given Eads a charter for the plan was passed by the Senate. However, Eads was not in Washington to enjoy that victory. Frail and exhausted, Eads had followed his doctors’ orders and sailed to the Bahamas to rest. On March 8, 1887, James Eads died. The House of Representatives never voted on the legislation passed by the Senate, so Eads’ plan died with him. Nearly 20 years later, the United States took over the Panama Canal project and completed it in 1914.

Legacy

Britain’s Royal Society of the Arts awarded Eads the Albert Medal for “services he had rendered to the art of engineering” about two years before his death. He was the first American to receive the honor. 

James Buchanan Eads’ death was reported by newspapers around the country. Most mourned his passing and praised him as a “giant of inventiveness and reasoning.” Reporters almost universally recognized him as a man “to whom the nation owed a huge debt of gratitude.” 

As noted above, the deans of American colleges of engineering named Eads one of the five greatest engineers of all time in July 1932.

An 1888 cigarette trading card of Eads. (Image: Allen & Ginter Tobacco/wikiwand.com)
An 1888 cigarette trading card of Eads. (Image: Allen & Ginter Tobacco/wikiwand.com)

As a young man Eads had realized that the future prosperity of America depended on building infrastructure “based on daring new technology.” Despite a lack of formal education, he helped the United States become a technological and economic powerhouse by the end of the 19th century.

His passing also marked the end of an era. In the specialized worlds of 20th century science and technology, “it would become much harder for an uneducated boy from St. Louis, someone born without pedigree or connections, to be able to challenge graduates of the best engineering colleges in the country and prove them wrong.”

Scott Mall

Scott Mall serves as Managing Editor of FreightWaves Classics. He writes articles for the website, edits the SONAR Daily Watch series, marketing material for FreightWaves and a variety of FreightWaves special projects. Mall’s career spans 45 years in public relations, marketing and communications for Fortune 500 corporations, international non-profits, public relations agencies and government agencies.

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