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Secrets of a Master Builder

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James Eads Timeline
1820 - 1864 | 1865 - 1874 | 1875 - 2001


May 23: James Buchanan Eads is born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana.


November 22: Martha Dillon is born.


September 6: The 13-year-old Eads arrives by steamboat in St. Louis with his mother and two sisters. As they approach the wharves, a chimney flue collapses and the boat is engulfed in flames. Eight people are killed. Eads and his family escape with just the clothes on their backs.


Eads' family moves to Iowa. He stays in St. Louis.


Eads becomes a mud clerk on the steamboat "Knickerbocker." It is sunk by a snag on December 11, 1839, with the loss of a large quantity of lead.


Eads walks into the St. Louis offices of boat builders Calvin Case and William Nelson and shows them his designs for a salvage boat and diving bell. He proposes they build the boat and several diving bells for free. In return, Eads offers to make them partners in his salvage business.

Eads builds Submarine No. 1, his first salvage boat, and starts his salvage business. He traverses the bottom of the Mississippi in his diving bell, locating wrecks, and starts to gain expertise in the river's powerful currents.


Spring: Eads asks Martha Dillon to marry him. Her father Colonel Dillon refuses to consent to the marriage.

October 21: Eads marries Martha Dillon at the Cathedral Church of St. Louis de France. Eads leaves salvaging, and starts a glass factory.


August: Martha gives birth to their first child, Eliza Ann.


Eads' glass business fails. Early in the year he begins diving again for sunken cargoes.

August 11: Martha gives birth to a son, James. Eads, working at a salvage site, doesn't make it home for the birth.

Eads builds his second salvage boat, Submarine No. 2, in Cairo, Illinois.


St. Louis fire of 1849May 17: A huge fire consumes 23 steamboats and much of downtown St. Louis. The conflagration is a terrible misfortune for St. Louis, but a boon for Eads, who contracts to salvage much of the sunken cargo.

June 15: Baby James dies.

Eads builds his third salvage boat, Submarine No. 3.

September 30: Congress authorizes a survey of the lower Mississippi from Cairo, Illinois, to the Gulf. Two men are to conduct it: the civilian engineer Charles Ellet Jr. and the Army engineer Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. The $50,000 appropriation is divided between them.

Eads builds Submarine No. 4 in Paducah, Kentucky. It is equipped with centrifugal pumps and hoisting equipment that allow it to raise sunken steamboats.


Martha Dillon and daughtersMarch: Martha gives birth to a second daughter, Martha.


Late summer: Martha goes to Vermont to recover from fatigue.

October 12: Martha dies of cholera on the way home from Vermont.


Eads gives up diving forever.


May 2: Eads marries his cousin's widow, Eunice Hagerman Eads, at St. Vincent's Catholic Church in St. Louis.

Eads travels to Europe for the first time, with Eunice.


Eads buys five snag-boats offered for sale by the U.S. government and converts them into salvage boats.

J. B. Bissell, John How, James Lucas and John O'Fallon organize the St. Louis and Illinois Company to build a bridge at St. Louis

in 1855, but the regional railroads can't afford the $1.5 million tab.

November 1: A bridge built for the Pacific Railroad of Missouri collapses. Many state legislators and some of St. Louis' most prominent citizens, including Eads' former partner in the salvage business, Calvin Case, are killed in the accident.


James BuchananJune: The Baltimore & Ohio Railroad reaches the Mississippi opposite St. Louis at Illinois Town, which later is renamed East St. Louis.

Engineer John Roebling submits plans to build a bridge at St. Louis, but the St. Louis and Illinois Bridge Company ignores him.

Eads' mother's first cousin, James Buchanan, is elected President.

Eads buys government snag boats when the federal government stops removing snags from the Mississippi River. Lobbying efforts in Washington the following year fail to get a government contract to continue this work. So Eads forms a syndicate of 50 insurance companies to finance the operation privately.


Eads retires with a fortune of $500,000.


By one estimate, 50 boats have been raised and set afloat by Eads and his partner William Nelson.


Gunboat drawingsFebruary: Missouri delegates at a convention held in St. Louis vote to stay in the Union.

April 12: Confederate forces fire on Fort Sumter, South Carolina. Civil War breaks out.

April: After the attack on Fort Sumter, Eads receives a telegram summoning him to D.C. to present plans for ironclad warships to President Abraham Lincoln.

August 7: Eads' proposal for making seven ironclads is accepted and a contract is signed.

November: Constructed in under a hundred days, Eads' first four ironclad gunboats sail downstream to Cairo, Illinois.


February: Under the command of Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, Eads' gunboats bombard and capture Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River, in a joint attack with Union army troops led by Ulysses S. Grant, a little-known brigadier general. When the Confederate general Simon Buckner sees his force is vanquished, and requests terms, Grant replies, "No terms except an immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted." These are the first major Union victories of the war.


July 4: The siege of Vicksburg. Mississippi ends in Union victory. The Mississippi River is open again.

November: In a letter to the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, G. V. Fox, Eads complains that he has been confined to his bed for two weeks. He remains incapacitated for many months.


Mobile BayJune: Eads makes a trip to Europe. Shortly after, he writes a revealing letter to Fox: "I believe that ironclads and such matters are with me a kind of monomania."

August: Eads' ironclads play an important role in the Union victory at Mobile Bay, in Alabama.

1820 - 1864 | 1865 - 1874 | 1875 - 2001

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