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Aired October 30, 2000

Secrets of a Master Builder

How James Eads tamed the mighty Mississippi

Film Description

He was America's greatest engineer: an obsessive visionary who walked the floor of the Mississippi River, built the nation's first ironclad ships, designed a steel bridge no one thought possible, and opened the country's heartland to trade with a daring river control system. A bold entrepreneur and charming promoter, James Buchanan Eads created a series of technological marvels that changed the course of American history and inspired a new generation of engineers. Named one of the five greatest engineers of all time -- along with Leonardo Da Vinci and Thomas Edison -- Eads won the admiration of millions and the respect of leaders around the globe.

"Secrets of a Master Builder" recounts the story of a man who spent his life battling skeptics, political enemies, shifting fortunes, and ill health, fortified by an unshakable belief in the principles of science and in himself. "Science," Eads once stated, "can do anything, however tremendous, if it has enough money." "Secrets of a Master Builder" is produced by Carl Charlson and narrated by David McCullough.

Eads spent most of his life in, on, and by the Mississippi River. In 1833, he and his family were aboard a steamboat on their way to St. Louis when a fire broke out. The 13-year-old boy dove into the river and made it safely to shore. The incident foreshadowed a theme that would run through Eads' life. The mighty Mississippi, fraught with danger, would also be his salvation.

Eads began his engineering education in his early teens when he got a job at a dry goods store and the owner let him use his library. At the age of 19, he became a clerk on the steamboat "Knickerbocker," well aware of the perils of river travel. Fires, explosions and snags frequently sent steamboats and their cargo to the riverbed. Convinced he could recover this lost fortune, Eads marched into a local boat builder's office and unfurled designs for a vessel fitted with hoisting gear to retrieve the sunken cargo. Bowled over by Eads' enthusiasm and knowledge, the firm's owners agreed to go into business with him.

To reach the riverbed, Eads constructed a diving bell out of a barrel attached to a pump and air hose. Unable to find anyone to test his new device, Eads climbed in it himself. "He walked on the bottom of the river from tributaries in the Missouri and the Ohio, all the way to the sand bars at the gulf of the Mississippi," says writer John Barry. "And because he was a thinker, he would try to figure out how the current worked, how it affected the bottom. So, he did know the entire river."

The start of the Civil War in 1861 offered Eads new technological opportunities. Within months he'd made a bid for the construction of iron-reinforced gunboats. His extraordinary proposal for seven, 500-ton vessels that would be ready within 65 days was readily accepted, but because the government was overwhelmed by the cost of the war, Eads was forced to finance construction himself. His vessels, which he continued to improve, helped General Ulysses S. Grant win the first major Union victories and played a pivotal role in the outcome of the war.

By the late 1860s, St. Louis found itself on the wrong side of the Mississippi. Goods now traveled largely by rail, and without a bridge to connect St. Louis to the eastern railway system, the city was losing out on business. Eads responded by designing a bridge with five-hundred foot arched spans -- the longest ever conceived -- which were to be made of steel, a new material that had never been used in such a large structure. Critics predicted failure, but "Eads was absolutely sure of his mathematics," according to historian Howard Miller. "He was absolutely sure of principles of engineering. And therefore it followed that if you had worked it out and you had the numbers right, then failure was impossible, surprises were impossible, and things would simply fall into place."

As work on the bridge progressed, Eads had to shout down the steamboat industry that was afraid of losing business, battle "the bends" as workmen dug more than 100 feet underwater, and wrangle with Andrew Carnegie's Keystone Bridge Company to get the proper grade of steel. But Andrew Humphreys, Chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers proved to be his toughest opponent. Humphreys insisted that a canal be built so tall vessels could pass around the bridge instead of under it. Infuriated, Eads appealed to his old Army buddy -- now President of the United States -- Ulysses S. Grant. Grant gave Eads' plan the go-ahead. At the July 4, 1874, official opening of the bridge, Eads calmly noted, "Yesterday friends expressed to me their pleasure at the thought that my mind was relieved after testing the bridge. But I felt no relief, because I had felt no anxiety on the subject."

Humphreys and Eads would clash again. Even before the bridge was completed, Eads had set his sights some 100 miles south of New Orleans. As the Mississippi meets the Gulf of Mexico, the river slows down, depositing huge amounts of sediment that block the waterway. Humphreys was already planning to solve the problem by building a canal that would bypass the river's natural route. Eads thought that approach was ludicrous.

His idea was to build a series of wall-like jetties that would narrow the waterway. As the river sped up, it would become more forceful and dig out the sand bars itself. The struggle between Humphreys and Eads became national news. Once again, Eads offered the government a proposal it couldn't turn down: he would pay for construction of the jetties himself and would be reimbursed only if they were successful. "Fortune favors the brave," Eads declared. "Drive on is my motto."

Within a year results were apparent, but Eads needed more money to finish the project. The showman in him knew just how to prove that the channel, formerly eight feet deep, was now at least 15 feet. He arranged for an ocean-going vessel with a draft of 14 feet to steam through the jetties. The demonstration was a rousing success, new investments poured in and in 1879, the South Pass channel reached it desired depth of 30 feet. The New York Daily Tribune wrote, "Genius, persistence and practical skills have seldom won so great a triumph over the forces of nature and the prejudices of men."

Throughout his life, Eads' greatest obstacle was his own fragile health. Several times he collapsed and had to go to Europe to recuperate. "That everlasting brain," a friend warned, "will wear out three bodies." In 1887, amid plans for his next major project, he collapsed once again and this time, did not recover. "I cannot die," were his final words, "I have not finished my work.


Written and Produced by
Carl Charlson

Sharon Grimberg

Bill Lattanzi

Brian Keane

David McCullough

Boyd Estus
Dulce "Candy" Gonzalez
Bob Perrin
Dyanna Taylor

Art Direction
Katha Seidman

John Cameron
Ger E. Cannon
Francis X. Coakley

Assistant Camera
Ian Lynch
William B. McCullough
David Mellow
Jeffrey Victor

Guy Holt
Bill B. Leclair

Pier Gustafson
Noah Rosenblum

Archival Research
Joy Conley

Still Animation
The Frame Shop, Ed Joyce
Visual Productions, Burl Cherney

Violin, Bob Zubrycki
Violin, Helene Bergman
Violin, Aloysia Friedman
Viola, Jill Jaffee
Cello, Matt Goeke
Clarinet, Lawrence Feldman
Oboe/english horn, Dennis Anderson

Sound Design And Mix
Heart Punch Studio
Greg McCleary

Photo Restoration
Heidi Wormser

Digital Effects
Mark Geffen

Additional Camera
Paul Bateman

On-Line Editor
Medallion-PFA Film & Video
Paul Deakin

Medallion-PFA Film & Video
Brian Lovery

Historical Advisors
John M. Barry
Robert W. Jackson
Howard S. Miller

Archival Footage And Photographs
A. G. Edwards & Sons, Inc.
American Bridge Company
Andrew Carnegie Birthplace Museum
Baker Library, Harvard Business School
Beverley R. Robinson Collection
Boston Public Library
Bowen Archives, SIUE
Chicago Historical Society
Collection of Thomas H. Gandy and Joan W. Gandy
Ecole Nationale des Ponts et Chaussées, France
Joslyn Art Museum
Library of Congress
Louisiana State Museum
Manoogian Collection on loan to the National Gallery of Art, Washington
Mariners' Museum, Newport News, Virginia
David W. Mesker
Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis
National Archives
New Orleans Museum of Art, Private Collection
New Orleans Public Library
The New-York Historical Society
Jane Switzer Nichols
The Public Library of Cincinnati and Hamilton County
Rivers of Steel National Heritage Area Archives
Ragna J. Sloane
Smithsonian Institution
St. Louis Mercantile Library at the University of Missouri St. Louis
St. Louis Public Library
State Historical Society of Missouri, Columbia
Special Collections, Tulane University Library
US Army Corps of Engineers
US Naval Historical Center
West Virginia Humanities Council

"Silver Bullets March"
by Andrew Glover
Performed by the Town Square Cornet Band
Copyright by Andrew Glover
Used by permission

Special Thanks To
American Meteorological Society
Ames Estate/Borderland State Park
Belle of Louisville
Dan and Heather Cook
Jack D. Coombe
Gibson House Victorian Museum
Nichols House Museum
Jim Pogue
Fred Schilling
US Army Corps of Engineers

For American Experience

Post Production
James E. Dunford
Rose Compagine
Raymond Powell

Series Designer
Alison Kennedy

On-Line Editor
Mark Steele

Sound Mix
John Jenkins

Series Theme
Mark Adler

Business Manager
Christine Larson

Project Administration
Nancy Farrell
Helen R. Russell
Andre Jones
Rebekah Suggs

Director, New Media
Maria Daniels

Interactive Media
Danielle Dell'Olio

Daphne B. Noyes
Johanna Baker

Coordinating Producer
Susan Mottau

Series Editor
Sharon Grimberg

Senior Producer
Mark Samels

Executive Producer
Margaret Drain


NARRATOR: September 6, 1833. The steamboat Carrolton presses North up the Mississippi River. Among the ship's passengers is a 13-year-old boy named James Buchanan Eads. He's on his way to the up and coming town of St. Louis. James spends most of his time in the engine room, fascinated with every detail of the powerful machine that with the pull of a lever can outpace the Mississippi.

ARI KELMAN: Steam travel was something all new, something very, very exciting. On the other hand, steamboats were noisy, they were scary, they were dangerous. One minute you're travelling along in relative comfort, the next minute the boat's on the bottom of the river. 

NARRATOR: Not far from St. Louis, James is introduced to the perils of life on the Mississippi. A chimney flue collapses and the boat catches fire. Caught between the flames and the water, James takes his chances with the river. Struggling to swim fully dressed, he swallows mouthfuls of thick, brown Mississippi water. Eight people die that night, but young James makes it safely to shore.

James Eads will spend the rest of his life in a struggle to understand and control the Mississippi. He will come to know it better than anyone. As an engineer he will build master works for the river that will alter the country's fortunes, and the country's history.

By the end of his life, James Eads would be as famous as any American -- talked about for the Presidency -- and acclaimed as one of the great engineering geniuses of all time. But he would have to overcome personal attacks, bankruptcy, mental and physical breakdowns to achieve such success on the river.

NARRATOR: As the Mississippi River winds its way south to the Gulf of Mexico, it collects water from nearly half of the continental United States.

For the settlers of the still rugged West, the river and its tributaries were a godsend, providing 12,000 miles of navigable waterways.

ARI KELMAN: The Mississippi is the highway of commerce for the center of the country. This is a period in which there are no paved roads, no railroads. Overland travel is extraordinarily dangerous and incredibly arduous. The only way that you can get things from one place to another easily, is with the river.

NARRATOR: St. Louis started out as a trading post strategically located just below the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. During the early 19th century it was the place where the frontier and civilization met, and would become America's inland center of trade. When the Eads family arrived in 1833, St. Louis was a river town ripe for development. It was a good place to pursue new ventures for James' father, a charming but unsuccessful businessman. The Eads family had lost all but the clothes on their backs to the river, so James went to work for a dry-goods store.

JOHN BARRY: And the person who gave him a first job remembered him at 16 years old as a man of, "towering ambition". He had a way, even as a boy, of seeing inside something and asking himself and figuring out how things worked. He looked deep.

NARRATOR: In his time off James built a miniature steam engine and dreamed of one day working on a steamboat. He learned to play chess and could play the game in his head without a board. His employer was so impressed by the young boy's talent that he allowed James to use his personal library. Here, after long hours in the store, Eads began his education as an engineer.

ARI KELMAN: This was a profession that was accorded tremendous respect. There was so much to do, so much mapping, so much surveying, so much building. Engineers have a real impact on the American landscape. Mothers would have loved for their children to grow up and be engineers.

NARRATOR: When James was seventeen his parents resettled up river. He chose to stay in St. Louis and signed on as a clerk of the steamboat Knickerbocker. The work was exciting but dangerous.

JOHN BROWN: Rivers would rise and fall with the seasons, so the largest western river boats were seeking to run with a draft of no more than seven or ten feet, which meant that they were very lightly built, and that light construction meant that they had a very short life. They fell victim to fires, occasional explosions, but the common problem was snags in the river.

NARRATOR: James had been on the Knickerbocker less than a year when a snag ripped the boat open, sending it, and its cargo of lead, to the bottom of the river. In the time since James had moved to St. Louis, hundreds of boats were lost to the river. Their cargoes were considered irretrievable, but James was convinced there might be a way to reclaim them. Dressed in a new suit he walked in unannounced to the St. Louis offices of Case and Nelson, boat builders. There he presented a plan for a double-hulled riverboat, open in the middle, and equipped with hoisting gear strong enough to retrieve the many riches swallowed up by the Mississippi.

ARI KELMAN: He says: I'll create the design for this if you build it. We'll go in as partners, and we'll make a fabulous amount of money. Now, you have to remember, he's still a very young man. He's really still a kid. But he's got so much enthusiasm, he's so excited, he has so much energy, he's obviously so knowledgeable about the river, the owners of this shipbuilding firm say: Okay, let's do it. 

NARRATOR: To find the lost cargo, a diver would need to descend to the bottom of the river, as deep as eighty feet. Eads designed a diving bell consisting of an open-ended barrel, attached to a pump and hose for air. Finding no one brave enough to dive for him, he got in the barrel himself. He could not see the river so much as feel it.

"I found the bed of the river a moving mass and so unstable that my feet penetrated through it until I could feel the sand rushing past my hands, driven by a current as rapid as that above."

JOHN BARRY: He walked on the bottom from tributaries in the Missouri and the Ohio all the way to the sand bars at the gulf of the Mississippi and because he was a thinker, he would ask himself and try to figure out how the current worked, how it affected the bottom, so he did know the entire river.

NARRATOR: Wrecking turned out to be as profitable as it was dangerous. James was soon known as "Captain" Eads, in command of his own crew and salvage boat. He was 22, and ready to take his place in the world. Two years later at a social gathering James Eads was captivated by Martha Dillon, the spirited daughter of a prominent St. Louis businessman. "How little less than an angel can I view her whom I would make my wife," he wrote, "how warmly and ardently I love you." In October of 1845, James and Martha were married. A year later their first child was born, a girl.

Promising to stay close to home James put everything he had into a new glass-making business. But it failed. Eads, facing a mountain of debts, went back on the river.

In the spring of 1849 disaster struck St. Louis. The steamer White Cloud caught fire at the city wharf. Flames soon engulfed the downtown.

"There is no telling how many lives are lost," an eyewitness reported, "some burnt, some drowned, and some blown to pieces with powder."

Fifteen blocks were destroyed and twenty-three steamboats. What was a devastating loss for St. Louis proved to be a windfall for James Eads. He hired additional crew and sped up plans for a new salvage boat to help bring up the sunken cargo. Martha grew weary of her husband's long absences. Now, with a second daughter, she wanted him home. "Oh James," she wrote, "you surely will not condemn me to a long separation from you this winter." Eads, regretful, could only reply, "with a man in debt it cannot be said that his time is his own." 

Then, just as the couple's finances were improving, Martha fell ill. Exposed to cholera on a steamboat trip, she died within days.

Eads arranged for his two daughters to stay with relatives, and went back on the river. 

JOHN BARRY: Whether it was out of grief or - or guilt after she died, he started going into more dangerous situations while diving than he ever had before, into situations where none of the people who worked for him would agree to go. And yet he would go there.

JOHN BROWN: By the 1850's, Eads had developed his technological array sufficiently so that he could raise entire sunken steamboats, earning upwards of $4,000 on individual salvage jobs. And this at a time when the average annual salary of a skilled tradesman was $500. So that was real money.

NARRATOR: Eads bought himself a handsome mansion in the southern part of town. He decided to remarry, and in 1854 wed his widowed cousin, Eunice, who had three girls of her own. Concerned about his health, he quit the river, and settled into the life of a prosperous town father, involved with the city's leading financial institutions. He believed that cheap transportation would be the nation's engine of growth and progress and invested in new and promising railroad technology.

Though he could often be difficult and demanding, with his friends Eads was genial, witty and generous. He liked nothing better than telling river stories or reciting lines from his favorite poet, Alfred Lord Tennyson, whose words captured the spirit of the era. "When I dippped into the future far as human eye could see; Saw the Vision of the world and all the wonder that would be."

NARRATOR: The firing on Fort Sumter in April 1861 marked the beginning of Civil War and propelled James Eads back into action. Missouri was a border state -- Eads was strong for the Union. He realized early on that if Federal forces lost control of the Mississippi, the Confederacy might prevail. He lobbied furiously for a river navy to defend it. When the government invited bids for the construction of river gunboats fortified with iron plate, Eads put forth an extraordinary proposal. He would build seven, five-hundred-ton "ironclads" and have them ready within sixty-five days. He won the contract. Now the course of the war would depend on his ability to deliver. HOWARD MILLER: This is a major undertaking that requires boat people and iron and steel people and ordnance people and finance people and management people, all pulling this team together. 

NARRATOR: The first gunboats were launched in October 1861. They were unlike anything ever seem before on the river. Union troops called them 'Turtles' and made them home. Eads had been forced to finance the construction himself. The government, overwhelmed by the war, had failed to make payments it had promised.

In February of 1862 the fleet steamed south to attack the Confederate strongholds of Fort Henry and Fort Donelson.

A Confederate soldier reported that the assault "exceeded in terror anything that the imagination had pictured."

These were the first important Union victories of the war and made a hero of the commander in charge, Brigadier General Ulysses S. Grant.

JOHN BARRY: Eads still actually owned the gunboats. But Eads loaned them to Grant. And helped establish not only Grant's reputation but a relationship between Eads and Grant that would prove very important later.

NARRATOR: Eads knew his gunboats could be better. He labored obsessively to improve them, inventing a steam powered gun turret, a major breakthrough. Then in November, 1863, at the age of 43, James Eads collapsed. Attorney General Edward Bates urged him to take care; "The country can't spare you," he said. A friend warned, "That everlasting brain will wear out three bodies."

"I began to think ironclads and such matters are with me a kind of monomania." Eads wrote. "I think too that like some poets who produce their most brilliant strains just before they go crazy I am most successful as the disease increases in its intensity."

HOWARD MILLER: His best work happens when he's right on the edge. And he seems to know where the edge is -- with a little bit of fear that if I go over the edge too far, I'll be crazy.

NARRATOR: While Eads was recuperating in Europe he received word that his gunboats had helped secure a key Union victory at Mobile Bay. Once again the river was open, the war nearly won, all the sooner because of his ironclads.

James Eads returned to a jubilant St. Louis. When his daughter Eliza married the son of a St. Louis mayor, eight-hundred of the city's elite attended. Eads was now one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the Mississippi Valley, with a growing circle of influential friends in Washington. In the years following the war, St. Louis faced a new and serious threat to its future.

JOHN BROWN: The Civil War presented a real problem for St. Louis, a city which had derived its wealth off of a north-south river trade on the Mississippi, but which during the war had all of its trade with the South cut off. 

Equally during the war, Chicago, the other rising city of the mid-West boomed dramatically, thanks largely to its railway ties to the east. 

Because St. Louis was on the wrong side of the river for the railways, the western side of the river, it didn't have the advantage of strong ties to eastern railways. St. Louis was tied to the weaker western railway lines.

Chicago capitalists had already bridged the Mississippi upriver. Now they were driving deep into markets that St. Louis had always assumed was its by right.

James Eads turned all his attention to the construction of a railroad bridge at St. Louis and by the spring of 1867 had developed a revolutionary design.

Five-hundred foot arched spans - the longest ever conceived - were to be made of the new metal compound, steel. This would be the first attempt in the world to build a large structure out of steel.

Support would come from four massive piers grounded on bedrock, as deep as a hundred feet below the sandy river floor. No one had dared work at such depth before.

HOWARD MILLER: Eads knew from groping around the bottom of the river was not really the bottom of the river until you got to the bedrock, so that if you wanted to foot something like a bridge in the middle of heavy current, it wasn't enough to stick pilings into the mud and then build a bridge on top of it. If you really wanted to be sure, you had to go all the way down, wherever "all the way down" turned out to be.

NARATOR: In recent years an appalling number of bridges had collapsed under the weight of railroad trains. Eads, who had never built a bridge, thought it prudent to ask Jacob Linville, a leading bridge engineer, to endorse his design. "I deem it entirely unsafe and impracticable," was Linville's terse reply. Eads was undaunted.

HOWARD MILLER: Eads was absolutely sure of his mathematics. He was absolutely sure of principles of engineering. And therefore it followed that if you had worked it out and you had the numbers right, then failure was impossible, surprises were impossible, and things would simply fall into place

NARRATOR: Powerful steamboat interests attacked his plan as well. They protested that their boats would have difficulty clearing the bridge. They were also concerned that railroads would put them out of business. But Eads was sure he was on the right side of history.

HOWARD MILLER: Eads knows that transportation technology was the key to progress and prosperity and that was constantly changing because the technology was constantly changing. So at the time when the river was the key transportation he was a river man. At the time when the railroads became pre-eminent he becomes a railroad investor and a railroad bridge maker.

NARRATOR: When construction began there was still a great deal of money to be raised. Eads worked non-stop to attract investors all the while continuing to manage his other banking and railroad affairs. Then, in June of 1868, he collapsed once again, and left once again to recuperate in Europe. Work on the bridge ground to a halt.

HOWARD MILLER: There is a pattern. When he is on, he is just dazzling. And then he will ricochet into a period of almost total physical and emotional collapse, and he will disappear from the scene and recuperate. A modern psychologist would be inclined to say that perhaps we are dealing with a person with a bipolar disorder.

NARRATOR: While in Europe, Eads studied closely the most advanced bridge building techniques. When he returned to St. Louis he brought a daring new plan. The east pier would be sunk to its extraordinary depth using a pneumatic caisson, a structure similar in principle to Eads diving bell.

JOHN BROWN: Imagine something akin to a shoebox, only the dimensions of a house. But a shoebox turned upside down. The caisson was floated into place in the river, and was held there with pilings driven down into the sand. Then Eads' plan was to build the masonry courses of the piers right on top of that floating iron and wood box. This would allow the masons to work up at the level of the river, out in open air. And as each new course of masonry was laid, that would force the caisson down. 

Pretty soon the caisson would hit the sand bottom of the river, and at that point men would go down into the caisson and then excavate the sand. And as they did so, the caisson would go further down towards bedrock.

NARRATOR: Eads led special visitors on a tour of the partially completed pier. He took them down the winding stairs and into an air lock. When the air pressure was increased to that inside the caisson, a door swung back, and they stepped down on the sand floor.

The hiss of escaping air and the sensation of the river surging just outside was ominous. Visitors felt dizzy from the heavy atmosphere . . their ears ached dully . . . their voices turned into unfamiliar squeaks. One man passed a flask of brandy to friends inside the chamber. When he returned to the surface the flask exploded in his pocket. As the east pier sank deeper, and the air pressure increased, and workers began to suffer from labored breathing, stomach pains and paralysis. Then they began to die.

HOWARD MILLER: Eads knows about the phenomenon from his diving days, but he doesn't have a modern medical explanation and Eads' own physician suggests that perhaps they shouldn't work quite as long - which is the right idea - that they maybe should come up a little slower - which is the right idea - so they minimize the problem.

NARRATOR: Fourteen men died from what came to be called caisson disease or the "bends." It would take years to find the cause and treatment for the disease, but that work began at St. Louis. By February of 1870 four masonry foundations rose from the stone streambed, but it had yet to be shown that arches made of steel could stride them. A contract for the metal work was let to the Keystone Bridge Company of Pittsburgh. One of the company's directors was Andrew Carnegie, who was making a fortune in railroads. This would be Carnegie's introduction to steel. Eads presented Keystone with minutely detailed plans and specifications that called for a quality of steel never before produced.

JOHN BARRY: At the time, steel making was really an art, and Eads demanded the precision of a science. He essentially required steel makers to become scientific and to impose rational methods that would produce a standard reliable product. 

NARRATOR: More than six-thousand steel staves were required for the tubular structure. It took six months for Keystone to produce a single stave worth testing. It failed. Eventually, Eads got the steel he wanted.

HOWARD MILLER: Carnegie a number of times said: Essentially perfectly sane, composed people who get into a room alone with him will come out committed to -- to one of his lunatic schemes. And you have to be very careful of him, because he's absolutely infectious. He stares into you with his blue eyes, and you want to say yes.

NARRATOR: Day by day, his grand arches inched towards one another. Then, just as the spans were ready to close, steamboat owners protested once again that the arches of the bridge were too low. They demanded that construction be stopped and the bridge torn down. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers held jurisdiction over river improvements.

If anyone thought he knew more about the Mississippi than Eads, it was the Chief of the Corps, Andrew Atkinson Humphreys. Trained as an engineer at Westpoint and member of a prominent Philadelphia family, Humphreys had gained his post after authoring a highly regarded survey of the Mississippi River.

MARTIN REUSS: Humphreys had obtained a worldwide reputation. He was the person who had promoted and -uh-- wrote most of the Mississippi River Delta survey. So this was not a person who was a lightweight.

NARRATOR: Humphreys informed Eads that if his bridge remained, he must build a canal around it so that tall boats could pass unobstructed. Eads was outraged. Such a muddled plan was unacceptable. To resolve the dispute, he decided to call on a man who owed him a favor. President Ulysses S. Grant served coffee, and the two men reminisced about the war. Then Eads explained how his bridge had come under attack. Reminded that the Secretary of War had approved the design at the outset, Grant overruled Humphreys. And that was that.

On July 4, 1874 the Illinois and St. Louis bridge opened with a gigantic celebration. The temperature was 102 degrees but 300,000 people turned out to watch a parade that stretched for 14 miles. The St. Louis Republican wrote that with, "... the triple qualities of financier, engineer and inventor, James B. Eads stands today the foremost man of his time." The Scientific American said he should run for president. Eads addressed the enormous crowd, "The love of praise is, I believe, common to all men," and whether it be a frailty or a virtue, I plead no exception from its fascination." 

"...Yesterday friends expressed to me their pleasure at the thought that my mind was relieved after testing the bridge. But I felt no relief, because I had felt no anxiety on the subject."

HOWARD MILLER: He was the kind of person who, in a way, suffered from being right too much of the time. We've all met people like that.

NARATOR: Eads' bridge alone could not insure the future of St. Louis, but it spurred an engineering revolution, ushering in the age of structural steel bridges and the skyscrapers that followed. Techniques developed by Eads were used on other landmark structures, the Brooklyn Bridge among them.

Louis Sullivan, the pioneering modern architect wrote of Eads' vision, "Here again was Man, the great adventurer, daring to think, daring to have faith, daring to do."

James Eads was now 54 years old and celebrated across the country for his achievements. His daughters were grown and married, living in homes that he had bought them. He had no need of work, but he couldn't stop.

NARRATOR: As the Mississippi River approaches the Gulf of Mexico, some 100 miles south of New Orleans, it spreads and gradually slows depositing its huge load of sediment. In the years following the Civil War, as river boats increased both in number and size, sand bars often blocked the mouth of the river threatening its future as an international waterway. 

JOHN BARRY: You could go down to the mouth of the Mississippi River at any given time, and you would find 50 or 60 ships waiting for enough water to get over the sand bar. And the entire Mississippi River basin relied on the Gulf as an access to the rest of the world. 

NARRATOR: At the Port of New Orleans workers stood idle as ships destined for the East Coast or Europe waited for the river to rise.

There were three channels or "passes" to the sea. For over thirty years the Army Engineers had tried to keep at least one pass navigable by dredging -- but with little success.

Chief engineer Humphreys was under intense pressure to solve the problem. In January of 1874, he recommended to Congress that a canal be built from below New Orleans to an arm of the gulf, bypassing the natural channels.

James Eads thought the plan was wrongheaded, a violation of the natural order of things and sure to fail.

HOWARD MILLER: He believes, I think, to the base of his soul, that the laws of nature and the laws of God are in harmony, and that both are knowable, and that men have an obligation to know them and then to behave according to them. That gives him a bedrock sense of certitude.

NARRATOR: Eads approach to the problem worked with the river. He proposed building jetties -- wall-like structures within the water, extending and narrowing the channel out into the gulf. The narrower opening created by the jetties would speed up the water, causing it to dig out the sand bars and carry the sediment forward until it was dispersed out in the gulf.

JOHN BARRY: You would use the power of the Mississippi River, one of the greatest natural forces in North America, to cut its own way through the sand bar it would have the same effect as narrowing the nozzle on a garden hose. The force of the river would cut its way through the sand bar.

NARATOR: Humphreys, still smarting from his encounter with Eads over the St. Louis bridge, staked his reputation on the failure of Eads' plan. He argued forcefully that the jetties would merely cause sandbars to be formed farther out in the channel. But Eads would not be deterred. Persuasive and charming, he was known by his critics as "the arch beguiler."

JOHN BARRY: He was one of the best lobbyists ... probably ever to work the city. Whether it was sending flowers to the wives of Congressmen or making a logical presentation or whether it was arranging behind the scenes a little partnership, a little kickback, uh, he knew how to make things happen in Washington.

NARRATOR: The dispute between Eads and Humphreys turned into a bitter feud in the popular press.

MARTIN REUSS: The letters that Eads writes are published in various papers, not only in New Orleans and St. Louis, but they're published in papers on the East coast; they're published in papers on the West coast. And Humphreys. Humphreys' responses are also published. People who did not know a thing about engineering became engrossed in which of these distinguished engineers was right. 

JOHN BARRY: In the end what finally won the day, of course, was Eads' extraordinary offer, an offer that the government could not refuse. And that was: He would build the jetties at his own expense and his own risk, and the government would only pay for them if they worked.

NARRATOR: "Fortune favors the brave," Eads liked to say. " 'Drive on' is my motto." His plan for the operation was elegantly simple. The trunks of willow trees, harvested locally, were bound into mattress like structures, these placed between guide pilings and sunk with layers of stone. When they built back up to the surface they were capped with concrete. Sediment deposited by the river would finish the job, making the jetties impermeable.

Within a year Eads gamble was paying off. With much of the mattressing in place the channel was already deeper. He needed more money to finish the work but was confident he could attract new investors. It was time to put on a show.

He hired a luxurious steamer, the Grand Republic, and invited reporters and potential investors to boat down from New Orleans to see just how well the project was going.

JOHN BARRY: Eads laid things on first class. Oysters, shrimp, crab, all of Louisiana's finest cuisine on this trip from New Orleans down river. 

ARI KELMAN: Just as the steamboat arrives at the mouth of the Mississippi, where Eads has planned a series of spectacles to illustrate just how successful the jetties are, another boat shows up. And on this one, a representative of the Corps has a sheaf of papers in his hand. The Corps representative boards the steamboat with Eads' investors, circulates amongst them bandying about statistics which he says demonstrate that the mouth of the river is no deeper than it was before the construction began. 

JOHN BARRY: Humphreys knew that Eads' weak point was financing; that even if his theories of engineering were correct, if he couldn't finance the project, then it was going to collapse.

NARRATOR: News of the jetty failure shot up the Mississippi valley. Stock in Eads' company collapsed, and his situation became desperate. Failure of the jetties would not only destroy his reputation, it would bankrupt him. Without fresh funds he was doomed.

Eads' soundings showed the channel was at least 15 feet deep where a year before it had been barely eight feet. But who would believe him when the Army Engineers claimed otherwise?

ARI KELMAN: What he does is actually quite ingenious. He calls in a favor from an old friend, a man named Gager, who captains a deep-water steel-hulled steamship named the Hudson. Eads says to Gager, "I need you to bring the Hudson through the channel at South Pass."

NARRATOR: The Hudson was an ocean going vessel with a draft of fourteen feet seven inches. If the channel were any shallower the ship's hull would be ripped apart. With Eads standing beside him, the Captain ordered full speed ahead. 

All work stopped as the men watched the ship approach the two-mile stretch of jetties. One of Eads' men observed that as long as the Hudson carried that "white bone in her teeth," the wave that her bow pushed ahead, there was enough depth for the ship to pass. Tension rose as the ship raced between the jetties. Everyone knew there was little room for error. Then the Hudson nosed past the head of the jetties, and a cheer rose up all around.

With new investment, Eads' jetty operation could now move ahead. In 1879, four years after work began, the South Pass channel reached the final goal of 30 feet. Because of Eads' jetties New Orleans would grow from the ninth-largest port in the United States to the second largest, after New York.

The New York Daily Tribune wrote what many now felt: "Genius, persistence and practical skill have seldom won so great a triumph over the forces of nature and the prejudices of men."

JOHN BROWN: Between the bridge and the jetties, Eads was easily the most famous engineer in the world.

NARRATOR: He was invited to consult almost anywhere there were problems with rivers. In 1879, when the U.S. Congress established the Mississippi River Commission, wresting away exclusive control of the river from the Army Engineers, James Eads became its most prominent member. Not long after, Chief Engineer Humphreys resigned his post. 

Eads attention was already elsewhere. He was on to a new project - one that would dwarf all that had come before.

It was a multi-track railroad, to be built across the Mexican isthmus of Tehuantepec, designed to carry ships between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans opening the Mississippi to trade from the west coast and Asia. "Science," Eads confidently claimed, "can do anything, however tremendous, if it has enough money."

For seven years Eads gave speeches, lobbied politicians and entertained investors. Then, in 1887, he collapsed a final time. On March 8, as his ship railway project was debated in Congress, James Eads died. He was 66. His last words, "I cannot die. I have not finished my work." In an era held captive by geography, Eads helped open the country with innovative technologies for travel and trade. His work inspired a new generation of engineers and entrepreneurs. 

In the early 20th century, when deans of American schools of engineering were asked to name the greatest engineers of all time, in the top five, along with Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison, was James Buchanan Eads.