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Secrets of a Master Builder | Timeline

James Eads Timeline

A.G. Edwards

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.

May 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.

March: 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.

June: 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.

February: 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.

June: 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.

A small bridge company secures a charter from the state of Missouri to build a bridge at St. Louis.

April 18: A subcommittee set up by the St. Louis Merchants Exchange votes unanimously to adopt Eads' proposal for a bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis. Missouri Senator Benjamin Gratz Brown wins congressional authorization for the bridge.

August 8: Andrew Humphreys becomes Chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

March 23: At a meeting of stockholders in the bridge company, Eads is nominated Engineer-in-Chief.

July: Large drawings of the Eads Bridge go on display at the St. Louis Merchants Exchange.

August 21: Eads begins construction of a cofferdam for the west abutment of the St. Louis Bridge. A convention of engineers meets in St. Louis. After meeting for five days, the engineers disapprove of the proposed spans of five hundred feet, and state that it is perilous and futile to set the mid-stream piers on bedrock.

December 3: Eight hundred people attend the wedding of Eads' daughter Eliza Ann to Major James F. How, the son of a former mayor.

June 1: Eads publishes his first report on the bridge, much of which has already appeared in the newspapers in May.

July 22: Overwhelmed with exhaustion, Eads goes to Europe via New York. He returns to St. Louis in April 1869.

October 25: Eads' father, Thomas C. Eads, dies.

October: The first caisson, for the east pier of the St. Louis Bridge, is launched from its own construction site, floated into position and sunk.

November 17: The first caisson reaches the sandy bed of the river.

Late January/early February: As a result of sickness among the men working in the caissons, Eads alters their schedule. The men are to stay down for four hours only, then rest for eight hours before going back for another four.

February 5: Eads shortens his men's hours for a second time, to three two-hour shifts with rests of two hours in between them.

February: The contract for supplying the parts and erecting the superstructure of the bridge is awarded to the Keystone Bridge Company.

February 28: The east pier caisson reaches bedrock.

March 19: James Riley collapses and dies fifteen minutes later after working for two hours in the caisson. He is the first American to die of the bends.

March 31: With more deaths, Eads appoints his family doctor, Alphonse Jaminet, to supervise the treatment of the men working in the caissons.

May 9: The west pier caisson is completed.

The book, "Great Fortunes and How They Were Made," devotes a chapter to Eads.

January: Grand Duke Alexis, son of Czar Alexander II of Russia, visits St. Louis and comes to see the St. Louis Bridge. Eads attends the banquet.

Spring: Laborers begin erecting the St. Louis Bridge arches.

March: Eads makes a trip to New Orleans and the mouth of the Mississippi as his interest in jetties is sparked.

May 13: At a convention in St. Louis, Eads condemns a proposal to build a canal to bypass sandbars in Louisiana, at the mouth of the Mississippi River. He suggests jetties instead.

September 2: An Army Board convenes in St. Louis to hear complaints from steamboat interests about the St. Louis Bridge. The board recommends a canal be built around the bridge.

September 17: The first two arch ribs on the St. Louis Bridge are closed.

Fall: Eads visits President Ulysses S. Grant and wins his support to overrule Andrew Humphreys, Chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, who has ordered that a canal be built around the St. Louis Bridge.

January 15: Addressing the sandbars problem, Humphreys advises Congress to proceed with the construction of a canal at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

January 31: All the towers and cables have been removed from the St. Louis Bridge.

February 12: Eads arrives in D.C. He promises to build jetties at the mouth of the Mississippi for less than it would cost to build the canal Humphreys has recommended.

April 15: The upper road of the St. Louis Bridge is finished.

May 23: The St. Louis Bridge opens to foot traffic.

June 4: The St. Louis Bridge finally opens to vehicle traffic.

June 9: The first railroad train travels across the bridge. The train is too wide for the tunnel on the St. Louis side. It is forced to reverse to the arcaded approach to the bridge.

June 14: In a stunt to prove the bridge's soundness, an elephant is led across the wagon deck of the St. Louis Bridge, because it is widely believed that elephants have uncanny instincts and won't cross unsafe structures.

July 2: To further demonstrate the bridge's strength, Eads publicly tests the bridge by driving 14 locomotives back and forth over it. At the time, railroad bridge collapses under the weight of just one train were not uncommon.

July 4: The St. Louis Bridge officially opens. Three hundred thousand people attend the celebration, a municipal triumph for St. Louis and the harbinger of the town's future prominence in the transport of cargo between east and west.

Railroad traffic through St. Louis would become so important to the city that the largest train station in the world at the time, Union Station, would be built in St. Louis just two decades after the dedication of the Eads bridge.

July 28: Eads resigns as Chief Engineer of the St. Louis Bridge.

January: By a vote of 6 to 1, a board composed of Army and civilian engineers hands Eads a second victory over Humphreys, voting for the construction of jetties rather than a canal at the mouth of the Mississippi River.

April: The St. Louis Bridge goes bankrupt, and is transfered into the hands of receivers.

June 17: Construction of the jetties begins at the mouth of the Mississippi, at South Pass below 7New Orleans. The first piles are driven into the floor of the riverbed.

February: The eight-foot channel in the South Pass has been deepened to 13 feet.

Eads' gun carriage design is exhibited by the Naval Ordinance Bureau in the Government Building at the Centennial Exhibition of 1876, in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Scientific American magazine writes of Eads' "commanding talents and remarkable sagacity." The article describes him as a "man of genius, of industry, and of incorruptible honor," and calls on him to seek the presidency of the United States.

May 2: The steamer "Grand Republic" makes a tour of Eads' jetties-in-progress, carrying potential investors and the press. An Army Corps engineer takes repeated soundings at South Pass in view of Eads' guests. The engineer then boards the "Grand Republic" at Port Eads and attempts to sabotage Eads' publicity efforts by claiming a new sandbar is forming 1,000 feet beyond the jetties.

May 12: The "Hudson," captained by E. V. Gager, a friend of Eads, steams full speed through the jetties, at the risk of grounding and destroying the ship, to prove they are deeper than Army engineers claim.

October 4: Eads officially achieves a 20-foot-deep channel in South Pass. Oceangoing ships begin using the still-unfinished channel routinely.

October 30: Eads' younger daughter Martha marries Edward Montague Switzer.

December: The channel at South Pass reaches 22 feet. A second payment is due to Eads.

May: A congress is called by the French diplomat Viscount Ferdinand de Lesseps to consider creating a passage from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific. Such a passage will speed travel times between the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans by eliminating the long, dangerous voyage around South America. De Lesseps proposes building a canal across Panama.

June 28: Congress creates the Mississippi River Commission, made up of Army and civilian engineers who will control the river.

June 30: Humphreys resigns as Chief Engineer of the Army Corps of Engineers.

July: U.S. Army Captain Micah Brown certifies that the South Pass channel has reached the final goal, a depth of 30 feet.

Fall and winter: Eads begins investigating the possibility of building a ship railway over the Tehuantepec isthmus in Mexico.

March 8: Viscount de Lesseps presents his plans for a canal in Panama before the Select Committee of the House of Representatives on Interoceanic Canals.

March 9 and 13: Eads appears before the Select Committee of the House of Representatives on Interoceanic Canals and advocates the construction of a ship railway in Mexico.

The year after Eads' jetties are finished, 453,681 tons of cargo are shipped from St. Louis via New Orleans to Europe. In 1875, the year Eads began work on jetties, 6,857 tons of goods were shipped on the same route; in only 5 years, the jetties have helped cargo shipments from New Orleans to grow by over 6500%.

November: Eads goes to Mexico and negotiates for a charter from the Mexican government to build the ship railway.

Winter: Eads proposes to Congress building the ship railway at his own expense and at his own risk, provided the government guarantees a dividend of 6% for 15 years after he has proven the railway's practicality. The Senate fails to take action on proposal.

April: Eads makes a second trip to Mexico City to meet with the new Mexican president and with engineers.

April 23: Work begins on clearing the way for the ship railroad.

December 27: Eads' frequent adversary, the former chief of the Army Corps of Engineers Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, dies.

July: Britain's Royal Society of the Arts awards Eads the Albert Medal for "services he had rendered to the art of engineering." He is the first American to be so honored.

Summer: Eads and his wife Eunice move to a new home at 40 West Fifty-third Street in New York City.

The ship railway bill is read in the Senate, and referred back to the Committee on Commerce. There it is debated for months, never reaching a congressional vote.

End of the year: Eads begins putting together a proposal to undertake the financing the seventy-five-million-dollar ship railway venture himself.

January: Eads lobbies on Capitol Hill for a new ship railway bill.

February 3: Eads sails with his wife Eunice and stepdaughter Adelaide to the Bahamas.

February: The Senate passes the ship railway bill. It never reaches a House vote: the speaker denies it the few minutes necessary for consideration.

March 8: James Buchanan Eads dies.

June: Several of Eads' former associates organize and eventually incorporate the new Atlantic and Pacific Ship-Railway Company.

September 1: Twenty thousand people gather for the opening of the new St. Louis Union Station, the world's largest railroad station at the time and physical proof of the impact of Eads' bridge on commerce in the region.

Congress authorizes the creation of a deeper, wider channel at Southwest Pass in Louisiana. The channel is completed seven years later.

August 14: A lock canal in Panama is opened to traffic.

James Buchanan Eads is elected to the Hall of Fame for Great Americans.

Deans of American Colleges of Engineering name Eads one of the five greatest engineers of all time, ranking him alongside Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison.

July: The last train crosses the Eads Bridge, a hundred years after the bridge was opened.

The Eads Bridge is closed. The east approach is structurally deficient and needs replacing. Over the next three years the top deck is also removed. The plan is to replace it with a deck strong enough to support four lanes of modern traffic.

The rail deck of the Eads Bridge comes back into service, carrying Metrolink regional transit trains across the river.

Fall: Projected date for the reopening of the upper deck of the Eads Bridge to cars, buses and pedestrian traffic.

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