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Secrets of a Master Builder | Article

The Ship Railway Plan

Widener Library, Harvard University

In a letter to President Hayes in 1880, Eads claimed that finding a shipping route across Central America to the Pacific had been the dream of kings and conquerors for 350 years. Tapping into Asian markets had been on the minds of many St. Louis entrepreneurs almost since Eads arrived in St. Louis in the 1830s. By the late 19th century it was also weighing heavily on the minds of businessmen and farmers across the nation. At the time, most goods manufactured in the U.S. were produced east of the Rocky Mountains. They were separated from markets in Asia not only by the Pacific, but also by a long train ride across the United States or a tremendously arduous route around South America. If East Coast industrialists were anxious for a new route to Asia, West Coast farmers were similarly keen to find a cheaper way of exporting their produce to Europe. It was clear to everyone that a shipping route across Central America was an imperative. "The over-sea commerce of the globe is now upward of fourteen billion dollars," one observer wrote in 1885, "and is increasing at the rate of seventy-five percent every decade; so that if ten years ago it was important to solve the isthmian problem, it is vastly more important today…" The problem was where -- over which isthmus — and how this route could be built.

By the early 1880s two rival teams had their own solution to the problem. Each was competing to build a canal, one across an isthmus in Panama, the other across Nicaragua. At this point Eads entered the fray with a third possible location and a much more audacious concept — a multi-track railroad designed to carry ocean liners across the Tehuantepec isthmus in Mexico. The ships were to be carried on 350-foot-long cradles, which Eads compared to dry-docks. The cradles would be backed down a railway until they reached deep enough water for the ships to be floated and securely attached to them. Two powerful locomotive engines would then pull the ships across Mexico.

The Ship Railway scheme was not Eads' idea, but without him it would never have come as far as it did. Eads mounted a publicity campaign for the project the likes of which the country had never seen. Many of those who followed the news stories thought him a genius; others thought him a con man. He toured the United States with a 30-foot model of the railway, giving lectures from California to Boston on the railway's advantages over a canal in either Nicaragua or Panama. His arguments were compelling: a canal would cost twice to four times as much and take three or four times as long to build; the railway could carry more vessels than a canal and transport them more rapidly; and the Ship Railway could be built across Mexico, which he said made it much closer to American ports than Nicaragua or Panama.

Widener Library, Harvard University

Eads spent the last seven years of his life trying to interest Congress in funding the scheme. He whipped the opposition and the press into a frenzy. The New Orleans Picayunecalled 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 — The St. Louis Republican called his scheme "the most important engineering project of the age" — 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.

Over the years of pushing for Federal funding, Eads also negotiated for concessions from the Mexican government for building the railroad. In 1881 the Mexicans agreed that the United States could regulate tolls and send mail, warships and other government property along the isthmus toll-free. By 1886, having failed to win congressional support for the project, Eads proposed undertaking the burden of financing the seventy-five million-dollar venture himself. The following year, 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.

In all likelihood, Eads' Ship Railway scheme would have been a temporary solution at best. Increasingly large 20th century ocean-liners would soon have outgrown the carrying capacity of the railway. Nor is it likely that ship owners would have been eager to trust their vessels to the hazards of the long trip over land. But the two canals being proposed at the time weren't the answer either. Work did begin on the tidewater canal in Panama proposed by the French diplomat Ferdinand de Lesseps, but incompetence and poor planning bogged down construction, and the project was abandoned. It wasn't until 1914, 27 years after Eads' death, that a lock canal through Panama built by American engineers opened to traffic.

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