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Secrets of a Master Builder | Article

James Buchanan Eads, 1820-1887

Ragna Sloan

In the spring of 1887, worn and frail, the engineer James Buchanan Eads propped himself up in his sick bed to revise plans for his latest project. Outside the window he could hear the sound of waves crashing onto the beach in Nassau, the Bahamas. His second wife Eunice and stepdaughter Adelaide fussed over him; in all likelihood they knew he was dying. Back in the United States, a whirlwind of press was swirling around Eads' scheme. It was an audacious idea -- a multi-track railroad designed to carry ocean liners from the Atlantic across Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. The railway would give the United States much easier access to markets in the Far East. In a letter to President Hayes six years earlier, Eads had grandly claimed the project would realize "the dream of kings and conquerors during the last 350 years."

For seven years Eads had been trying to interest Congress in funding the scheme instead of two competing ideas for canals -- one across Panama, the other across Nicaragua. He had whipped the opposition and the press into a frenzy. 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."

Through all the attacks, Eads remained unperturbed. He had as many vocal supporters as detractors, and he had been through fights like this before. What kept him going was his burning ambition and the conviction that his way was the right way -- that he had science and the laws of nature on his side. Eads had known since he was a young man that the future prosperity of America depended on building an infrastructure based on daring new technology. And despite having no formal education, he believed he was the man to provide it. In many ways he was right. The United States had become a technological and economic powerhouse by the end of the 19th century because of the vision, ingenuity, and arrogance of men like Eads.

James Eads was born on May 23, 1820, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, the third child of Ann and Thomas Eads. His father moved the family from one town to the next, trying to eke out a decent living and failing each time. In September 1833, the Eads family steamed into St. Louis aboard the "Carrolton." As they approached the wharves, a chimney flue collapsed, engulfing the boat in flames. Eight people were killed that day; Eads and his family escaped with just the clothes on their backs.

That was the end of Eads' childhood. In order to help support the family, he began selling apples in the street and then running errands for a dry goods store. His employer soon recognized how clever the boy was and allowed him to spend time reading in his library. So began Eads' education as an engineer. He tinkered with his own inventions at home, building a six-foot long model steamboat when he was in his early teens. And he was intrigued by the inventions of others. As a young man he managed to save enough money to visit Washington, D.C. In a letter home, he wrote that of everything he had seen in the capital he found the "Patent Office with the models of machines which have been patented" most absorbing. "I could spend five days at the Patent Office," he continued, "and find something new and interesting every day."

Eads had his first important idea in 1842. At the time he was 22 years old and working as a clerk on the steamboat the "Knickerbocker." The vessel was carrying a cargo of lead when a snag ripped open its bottom, sinking it to the riverbed. This was the second time Eads had been involved in a steamboat accident. His experience wasn't unusual. Steamboat travel in the 19th century was perilous. The river was literally littered with sunken boats and cargo. Eads drew up plans for a salvage vessel and diving bell and took them to Calvin Case and William Nelson, two boat builders. Case and Nelson built the boat and the three men went into the salvage business.

Around the same time, Eads fell in love. Martha Dillon, the woman who turned his head, was related by marriage. During his stays ashore, Eads became a frequent visitor at the Dillon home. The young couple stole horseback rides together. And on a few occasions, they met at Martha's sister Sue's house. They began to exchange letters. Martha was striking, feisty and intelligent. In her first letter, she wondered what to write about. Should it be a scientific or political discussion, she asked? And then she proudly insisted she could tackle such weighty subjects: "… you have never measured the length and breadth of my mind," she wrote, "and consequently do not know what I am equal to."

"Dear Cousin Martha," Eads wrote back, "I do not believe that I can experience that thrilling nobleness of feeling … until the holy bonds of wedlock have linked my lot to that of some dear, devoted and affectionate creature. … How little less than an angel can I view her whom I would make my wife. … How warmly and ardently I love you." Patrick Dillon, Martha's father, a prominent St. Louis businessman, didn't approve. He wanted Martha to wed someone with money and influence. So in October 1845, the couple was married without his consent.

Martha went to live with Eads' parents in Le Claire, Iowa, while Eads tried to set up a glass works in St. Louis -- the first one west of the Ohio River. The glass factory failed, and what was supposed to be a temporary living arrangement become permanent. For much of their marriage, Martha wrote letters imploring Eads to come home, and Eads wrote back explaining how the pressure of business prevented him from doing so. When the glass factory went under, he had huge debts to pay off and the pressure only intensified. Working as a salvager again, he wrote: "It is no small loss to forego the pleasures of Christmas time with those I cherish so dearly, but with a man in debt it cannot be said that his time is his own."

By 1850, Eads' salvage vessels were equipped with the pumps and derricks necessary to raise not only cargo, but whole vessels. It was dangerous, dirty and grueling work. After spending four days raising a steamboat, Eads wrote to Martha. "I worked night and day at the "St. Paul" and was only in bed 3 hours whilst I was on board of her. I was pretty well worn out when I got back. Martha's reply was bittersweet: "It seems almost beyond belief that a steamboat of any size could be raised in so brief a space. This will give you an enviable reputation. …But your last letter makes me almost certain that you will not think of leaving the river at present. I might almost as well expect a miner to leave the madder El Dorado when the metal was glittering in his clutch."

Martha died before Eads made the fortune she had predicted. In October 1852 she fell ill with cholera. It killed her within days. Nonetheless, Martha was right. Eads' first idea -- salvaging -- did make him tremendously wealthy: when he retired from the river in 1857 he was worth $500,000. What Martha didn't know was that his second big venture would extend his influence far beyond St. Louis.

In 1861, nine years after Martha's death, Eads was remarried, retired and affluent. The outbreak of Civil War forced him back to work. Shortly after the firing on Fort Sumter, Eads received a telegram from an old St. Louis friend who was now President Lincoln's attorney general. "Be not surprised if you are called here suddenly by telegram," wrote Edward Bates. "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. The assignment was to build seven iron-plated gunboats with which the Union forces would conduct their Western campaign. The boats were essential to wresting control of the Mississippi and its tributaries from the Confederacy.

Eads won the contract; he built the boats from the designs Washington sent; and he also adapted one of his salvage boats into a war vessel. She was the best of the fleet. "The Benton," wrote Captain Andrew Hull Foote, who commanded the vessels, "is worth any three of the new gunboats." Foote chose her as his flagship.

The boats secured the first major Union victories of the war. Eads spent much of the rest of the conflict constructing new, improved ironclads and designing steam-powered gun turrets. His determination to help the Union win back the Mississippi was fueled by his desire to keep the river open. The waterway was a major highway for the transportation of goods. Without it, the fortunes of the whole of the Midwest were sunk. Eads' efforts won him the friendship of some of the most powerful men in Washington, including Union general and future president Ulysses S. Grant. After the conflict was over, with powerful friends everywhere, Eads began vying for larger and larger projects.

Eads' interest in the river had always been inspired by his vision of St. Louis as a key player in a national, and one day international, network of markets. Without cheap transportation, St. Louis wouldn't flourish. When railways began to replace waterways as the highways of commerce, Eads shifted his attention from the steamboats to locomotives. When the river got in the way, he focused on solving the problem.

By the 1860s, if St Louis were going to continue as the gateway to the West, the city had to have a bridge. Reaching the ferry docks from the railway stations in St. Louis and East St. Louis was an incredible ordeal. The river crossing was frightening and dangerous at the best of times, and impossible when the water was low or the river froze. Goods could be delayed for weeks. One observer wrote: "It is a pity that Dante, when he wrote his "Inferno," had no knowledge of the tortures of the transfer between St. Louis and East St. Louis in those times. Had he known of it he would have let the condemned be taken across the dark waters by that method, instead of having them rowed over by Charon in a comparatively peaceful way."

What Eads did was to offer to build a bridge that was quite revolutionary. Instead of a truss design, the conventional form for railway bridges at the time, he suggested building an arched bridge, with spans in excess of 500 feet. To make sure it was strong enough, he wanted to build the arches of steel that was stronger than the wrought iron typically used in railroad bridges. To experienced bridge-builders, Eads' bridge may have seemed as crazy as building a railway line to transport ocean-liners seems to us today. One critic wrote: "I deem it entirely unsafe and impracticable." Arrogant and vain, Eads belittled his opponents and insisted on the infallibility of his calculations and the laws of physics. He proved himself right. Though the bridge took seven years to construct and cost more than a dozen men's lives, it was a magnificent structure. And unlike scores of 19th century truss bridges that collapsed under the weight of trains, the Eads bridge still stands to this day.

When it opened on July 4, 1874, Eads was treated like a hero by the 300,000 people who turned out to take part in the celebration. He had, they believed, built a bridge that would ensure the city's greatness. One citizen wrote: "no work of man on the globe so thoroughly combines the useful and the beautiful as the grand steel bridge which stretches its graceful line across the Mississippi at St. Louis. …" The St. Louis women's publication Central Magazineclaimed that "James B. Eads is the greatest engineer on the American continent and his work, the great St. Louis Bridge is the greatest structure of the kind in the world."

But it was Eads' next work that was perhaps his most significant. Once again, the problem involved an obstruction to transportation. This time the obstacle was in the mouth of the Mississippi. As the river approaches the Gulf of Mexico it spreads and gradually slows, depositing its huge load of sediment. Ships frequently ran aground on the sandbars that formed. In the 1860s the sandbars effectively blockaded the port of New Orleans for weeks at a time, leaving food and produce to rot on the docks. The Army Corps of Engineers' efforts to keep the channel open had been totally ineffective. In 1869 an exasperated New Orleans Picayune reporter complained: "It is idle for us to rely upon the Government dredge machine now at Pass-a-l'Outre, for experience has proved that the most she can accomplish is to occasionally break her propeller and steam up to the city for another."

In 1874, under tremendous pressure to do something, the Army Corps of Engineers proposed building a canal from below New Orleans to the Gulf. Eads thought the scheme was ludicrous. He suggested instead that lawmakers contract with him to build jetties, or underwater walls running parallel to the current of the river. To make the offer irresistible, he proposed building the jetties without any advance payment; the government would only pay him if the jetties worked.

Eads' plan was to build the jetties at the point where the Mississippi meets the Gulf. The jetties would create a narrower channel, which would speed up the water running between them. The faster water flowed, the more sediment it would carry. Eads claimed the extra force would be enough to carve out the sandbars and carry the sediment into the Gulf. He was hired to build the jetties; Congress agreed to pay him certain amounts of money as he reached certain depths, so that by the time he reached the 30-foot depth he would be paid $4.25 million.

Eads' interference in Army Corps jurisdiction made him some very powerful enemies in Washington, including the Chief of the Army Engineers, Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. Once Eads won the contract to build the jetties, Humphreys tried on numerous occasions to sabotage the project. But 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." An often vicious debate between Eads and Humphreys played out in the press, with members of the public taking sides. In the end, Eads proved his point. When the jetties were finally completed in 1879, they created a 30-foot deep channel, one that ensured ships could get into and out of New Orleans. The city went from being the ninth largest to the second largest port in the nation, after New York.

The jetties sealed Eads' reputation as a master of river engineering. News of his success spread worldwide. The Brazilians, British and Canadians, among others, invited him to consult on navigation problems. In July 1884, Britain's Royal Society of the Arts awarded Eads the Albert Medal for "services he had rendered to the art of engineering." He was the first American to receive the honor. On the wave of his new-found celebrity, Eads found a fabulous new project for his boundless energy.

The Ship Railway scheme was not his idea, but without him it would never have come as far as it did. In 1886, after Eads had lobbied relentlessly for years on behalf of the project, a Ship Railway Bill, that would have given him a sanctioning charter, passed the Senate. But Eads was not in Washington to witness that victory. Exhausted, he had followed doctors' orders and sailed to the Bahamas to rest. On March 8, 1887 James Eads died. His bill was never voted on in the House; Speaker Carlisle denied it the few minutes necessary for consideration.

Eads' death was mourned in papers around the country. Reporters almost universally recognized him as a giant of inventiveness and reasoning, a man to whom the nation owed a huge debt of gratitude. His passing also marked the end of an era. In the increasingly 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.

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