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Secrets of a Master Builder | Article

The Jetties Today


A trip to South Pass today shows little evidence of the bustling building camp called Port Eads or of the jetties James Eads put in place. A lighthouse stands at land's end, but it was erected after Eads' jetties were completed in 1879. A large portion of Eads' original jetties do still survive, even though you can't see any of his original work. Almost the entire length of the west outer jetty and up to a third of the east jetty are now covered with sand, a process that began very early, even before 1900. The concrete blocks and stone work put in place by Eads are likely there even though they are well beneath the surface of the water.

Nonetheless, in their day Eads' jetties did make a big impact not only on the economy of New Orleans but on the entire Mississippi River valley. Between 1879, when the jetties were completed and the channel reached a depth of 30 feet, and 1900, New Orleans' trade increased 100 percent and, according to some estimates, ship owners collectively saved $5 million annually in maritime insurance.

It soon became obvious, however, that building jetties was not enough: they needed constant maintenance and additional construction to insure that the channel remained open permanently. Even mild storms caused horrible damage. In 1882 half a mile of concrete wall was badly ripped apart. The wind and water tore concrete blocks weighing approximately 28 tons from the jetty, flipping them over and scattering them. In 1889 two storms about a month apart destroyed all but 690 feet of the outer east jetty, which had to be rebuilt.

It also turned out that Chief Army Engineer Andrew Atkinson Humphreys had been right about one thing. When the river met the Gulf at the end of the jetties it did begin to deposit some of the material it was carrying, creating a new sandbar. To overcome this, parallel jetties — known as the inner jetties — were built in 1884-86.

In 1901 Eads' maintenance contract ended and the United States government assumed responsibility for maintaining the channel at South Pass, but by that time, the number of ships heading to and from New Orleans and the size of vessels plying the waters meant South Pass was no longer large enough to accommodate all the traffic. The following year, the Federal government approved the construction of jetties in the much larger South West Pass.

The late 1990s saw a new burst of activity in South Pass. For much of 1999 and 2000, a dredge was working its way slowly up the pass, spewing up tons of sediment from the bottom of the channel to deepen the river. The Army Corps had stopped dredging the channel more than 20 years earlier, arguing that the small volume of traffic using South Pass didn't justify the expense of dredging. By the early 1990s there were only eight feet of water in the channel. In 1999, driven by the need to keep South Pass open for fishing vessels and ships that service the gas and oil rigs, the Corps began dredging long neglected South Pass once again.

That's not to say that Eads' work is no longer relevant. Dredging supplements the impact the jetties continue to make. More than 120 years after Eads built them, those underwater walls are still an important factor in keeping the Mississippi River open. In 1982 the American Society of Civil Engineers designated Eads project at South Pass a National Historic Engineering Landmark. A plaque commemorating the honor stands a few miles up river at Fort Jackson, Louisiana.

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