He was America's greatest engineer: an obsessive visionary who walked the floor of the Mississippi River, built the nation's first ironclad ships, designed a steel bridge no one thought possible, and opened the country's heartland to trade with a daring river control system. A bold entrepreneur and charming promoter, James Buchanan Eads created a series of technological marvels that changed the course of American history and inspired a new generation of engineers. Named one of the five greatest engineers of all time -- along with Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Edison -- Eads won the admiration of millions and the respect of leaders around the globe.
"Secrets of a Master Builder" recounts the story of a man who spent his life battling skeptics, political enemies, shifting fortunes, and ill health, fortified by an unshakable belief in the principles of science and in himself. "Science," Eads once stated, "can do anything, however tremendous, if it has enough money." "Secrets of a Master Builder" is produced by Carl Charlson and narrated by David McCullough.
Eads spent most of his life in, on, and by the Mississippi River. In 1833, he and his family were aboard a steamboat on their way to St. Louis when a fire broke out. The 13-year-old boy dove into the river and made it safely to shore. The incident foreshadowed a theme that would run through Eads' life. The mighty Mississippi, fraught with danger, would also be his salvation.
Eads began his engineering education in his early teens when he got a job at a dry goods store and the owner let him use his library. At the age of 19, he became a clerk on the steamboat "Knickerbocker," well aware of the perils of river travel. Fires, explosions and snags frequently sent steamboats and their cargo to the riverbed. Convinced he could recover this lost fortune, Eads marched into a local boat builder's office and unfurled designs for a vessel fitted with hoisting gear to retrieve the sunken cargo. Bowled over by Eads' enthusiasm and knowledge, the firm's owners agreed to go into business with him.
To reach the riverbed, Eads constructed a diving bell out of a barrel attached to a pump and air hose. Unable to find anyone to test his new device, Eads climbed in it himself. "He walked on the bottom of the river from tributaries in the Missouri and the Ohio, all the way to the sand bars at the gulf of the Mississippi," says writer John Barry. "And because he was a thinker, he would try to figure out how the current worked, how it affected the bottom. So, he did know the entire river."
The start of the Civil War in 1861 offered Eads new technological opportunities. Within months he'd made a bid for the construction of iron-reinforced gunboats. His extraordinary proposal for seven, 500-ton vessels that would be ready within 65 days was readily accepted, but because the government was overwhelmed by the cost of the war, Eads was forced to finance construction himself. His vessels, which he continued to improve, helped General Ulysses S. Grant win the first major Union victories and played a pivotal role in the outcome of the war.
By the late 1860s, St. Louis found itself on the wrong side of the Mississippi. Goods now traveled largely by rail, and without a bridge to connect St. Louis to the eastern railway system, the city was losing out on business. Eads responded by designing a bridge with five-hundred foot arched spans -- the longest ever conceived -- which were to be made of steel, a new material that had never been used in such a large structure. Critics predicted failure, but "Eads was absolutely sure of his mathematics," according to historian Howard Miller. "He was absolutely sure of principles of engineering. And therefore it followed that if you had worked it out and you had the numbers right, then failure was impossible, surprises were impossible, and things would simply fall into place."
As work on the bridge progressed, Eads had to shout down the steamboat industry that was afraid of losing business, battle "the bends" as workmen dug more than 100 feet underwater, and wrangle with Andrew Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company to get the proper grade of steel. But Andrew Humphreys, Chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proved to be his toughest opponent. Humphreys insisted that a canal be built so tall vessels could pass around the bridge instead of under it. Infuriated, Eads appealed to his old Army buddy -- now President of the United States -- Ulysses S. Grant. Grant gave Eads' plan the go-ahead. At the July 4, 1874, official opening of the bridge, Eads calmly noted, "Yesterday friends expressed to me their pleasure at the thought that my mind was relieved after testing the bridge. But I felt no relief, because I had felt no anxiety on the subject."
Humphreys and Eads would clash again. Even before the bridge was completed, Eads had set his sights some 100 miles south of New Orleans. As the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico, the river slows down, depositing huge amounts of sediment that block the waterway. Humphreys was already planning to solve the problem by building a canal that would bypass the river's natural route. Eads thought that approach was ludicrous.
His idea was to build a series of wall-like jetties that would narrow the waterway. As the river sped up, it would become more forceful and dig out the sand bars itself. The struggle between Humphreys and Eads became national news. Once again, Eads offered the government a proposal it couldn't turn down: he would pay for construction of the jetties himself and would be reimbursed only if they were successful. "Fortune favors the brave," Eads declared. "Drive on is my motto."
Within a year results were apparent, but Eads needed more money to finish the project. The showman in him knew just how to prove that the channel, formerly eight feet deep, was now at least 15 feet. He arranged for an ocean-going vessel with a draft of 14 feet to steam through the jetties. The demonstration was a rousing success, new investments poured in and in 1879, the South Pass channel reached it desired depth of 30 feet. The New York Daily Tribune wrote, "Genius, persistence and practical skills have seldom won so great a triumph over the forces of nature and the prejudices of men."
Throughout his life, Eads' greatest obstacle was his own fragile health. Several times he collapsed and had to go to Europe to recuperate. "That everlasting brain," a friend warned, "will wear out three bodies." In 1887, amid plans for his next major project, he collapsed once again and this time, did not recover. "I cannot die," were his final words, "I have not finished my work."