James B. Eads was a prominent 19th Century civil engineer who was based in St. Louis most of his long career. The mark of his work can still be found on the Mississippi River more than a century after his death in 1887. Florence Dorsey’s 1947 biography, Road to the Sea, recounts his life and accomplishments.
Eads came to St. Louis with his family in 1833 at the age of 13. They were coming by river from Louisville, Kentucky, to set up shop in greener pastures ahead of his father, Col. Thomas Clark Eads, who moved westward from one failed venture to the next. The ship that carried them caught fire just as they arrived in St. Louis and all their possessions burned up with it.
The family needed the support of the enterprising boy, so he had no opportunity to go to school. He read voraciously, though, borrowing books from an employer, Barret Williams, whose collection included many books on scientific and mechanical subjects.
Eads decided to stay in St. Louis when his family moved upriver to Iowa. He was on his own at age 17, but maturing into a man who would have success as an engineer, businessman and builder.
Eads career began to flourish when, at age 22, he designed and had built a boat with a diving bell. He eventually launched a fleet of bell boats that supported his salvage business. He salvaged wrecks and cargo from the Mississippi and its tributaries. He spent a lot of time in the river and began to know it very well.
By the time the Civil War broke out he had retired from salvaging and enjoying his wealth, but he risked his own fortune to secure the Mississippi River for the Union. He built ironclad gunboats to guard the river and attack Confederate fortifications. America’s military leaders weren’t sure what to make of them at first, but as the war progressed his ships were in great demand.
Eads found it frustrating to deal with Washington politicking and bureaucracy, especially in the U.S. Army. In his post-war endeavors he regularly had opposition from the Army Corps of Engineers and its chief, Andrew A. Humphreys.
These ventures were daring feats of engineering that were aimed at improving the commerce of the Mississippi valley. He built the world’s first steel arch bridge at St. Louis that would connect the city to the east by railroad (and got soaked by his contractor, Andrew Carnegie, while he was at it). He opened a route through the mud at the mouth of the Mississippi River that gave passage from the middle of the country to the ocean and helped make New Orleans a major port. In both these efforts he faced opposition and meddling from the Corp of Engineers.
In his last days he proposed to build a railroad across Mexico’s Tehuantepec isthmus to permit shorter passage from the Atlantic (i.e., the Mississippi) to the Pacific Ocean. His proposal was a serious alternative to Ferdinand de Lesseps’ Panama Canal. Though others took up the cause, Eads’ ship railroad proposal practically died with him. The Panama Canal didn’t fare much better at the time; the United States didn’t take over the project until 1904 and it didn’t open until 1914, de Lesseps’ plan for a tide-level canal with no locks having been abandoned.
As an engineer and Missourian, I’m fascinated by Eads and his extraordinary career. I would recommend Dorsey’s book to anyone looking for an interesting and little-known bit of history.
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