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Trans-Mississippi Musings

TMM Bio: James Buchanan Eads

Posted by The Muse (themuse) on Oct 07 2018
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James B. EadsJames Buchanan Eads made his fortune as a young man in St. Louis by salvaging sunken riverboats. Because of health issues resulting from this work, Eads retired from his salvage business. But when the Civil War started, Eads took his engineering expertise and was awarded a contract to build the first ironclad gunboats that would steam on the Mississippi River. These gunboats would be instrumental in gaining control of the Mississippi River for the Union, culminating with the fall of Vicksburg on July 4, 1863. After the war, Eads designed and built a bridge across the Mississippi in St. Louis. When completed in 1874, the Eads Bridge was the longest arch bridge in the world, with an overall length of 6,442 feet. Still in use today, the bridge crosses the St. Louis riverfront between Laclede's Landing, to the north, and the grounds of the Gateway Arch, to the south.

It has been well said that the victories gained by force of intellect for the promotion of human happiness in the arts of peace, are greater than the victories gained by the armed phalanx in the field of blood. Energy and mind employed in such a direction are more worthy of our admiration than the skill and genius of conquerors. Time was when statues were erected in honor of tyrants, and triumphal processions accorded to human butchers. We honor not now the oppressors and destroyers of mankind; but those who are the friends and benefactors of the race. Few men who devote themselves to the promotion of vast public enterprises, which, in the nature of things, are but little understood by those who have not considered them from the stand-point of the projector, or from the scientific calculations of the engineer, are appreciated or rewarded by the generation with which they are contemporary. To this almost general rule the subject of this sketch is an exception, and St. Louis has done well to honor one who has shown himself to be the friend and benefactor of the people.

James B. Eads was born in Lawrenceburg, a small town in Southern Indiana, on the Ohio River, May 23, 1820. His parents were in comfortable circumstances, and, appreciating the advantages of education, gave him in the schools of Cincinnati and Louisville the foundation for that education upon which the efforts and application of his youth and manhood have built such a noble superstruction.
The sphere of his future usefulness was early indicated by his fondness for machinery, and in the enthusiasm and delight which he brought to the investigation of mechanical contrivances. This was the sport of his youth, as it has been the serious business of his maturity.

It is related of him, that, having embarked on an Ohio river steamboat when only nine years old, the interest which he exhibited in the engine attracted the attention of the engineer, who was pleased to explain the machine, and the operation of its parts, to a student so keenly attentive and at the same time so intelligent. This lesson was one which the boy never forgot, as we find that four years later he was enabled to construct a working steam engine in miniature, without assistance.

The advent of the boy in the city of St. Louis, in September 1833, seemed to give little promise of the future that he should be enabled to win, and at the same time illustrates the vicissitudes from which few lives are entirely free. The steamboat on which his father had embarked with his family to find a home in the West, was burned, and they were landed here destitute.

Unable at the moment to secure such employment as his ability would warrant or his taste select, and the necessity for doing something being imperative, he sold apples from a basket on the street, and by this means supported himself and assisted his mother. The boy of thirteen here put in practice, unconsciously perhaps, the characteristic principle of his life—action, immediate and unhesitating. No repinings over losses have ever been allowed to cloud his judgment, but the recuperative effort has followed at once upon the path which has, in most cases, found the substantial reward that flows from success.

Having obtained, soon after, a situation in a mercantile house, with which he remained several years, and having free access, during that time, to the excellent library of the senior partner, Mr., Barrett Williams, he used the opportunity to study mechanics, machinery, and civil engineering. He next passed two years as an officer on one of our Mississippi steamboats, and there began that knowledge of the great river which prepared him for the important services which he was afterward to render.

In 1842 he formed a copartnership with Case & Nelson, boat-builders, for the purpose of recovering steamboats and their cargoes which had been sunk or wrecked in the river.

In 1845, Mr. Eads married Miss Martha N., daughter of Patrick M. Dillon, of St. Louis; and desiring to leave the river, sold his interest in the diving bells and started a factory for making glassware. To him belongs the credit of making the first glassware west of the Mississippi. The manufacture of glass did not, however, prove profitable in St. Louis, and Mr. Eads, after two years spent in it, returned to his old business of recovering boats and property wrecked in the river. In ten years this business had been so successful that the property of this firm was valued at nearly half a million dollars.

This success is largely attributable to the fertility of the expedients which Mr. Eads brought to the labor, which in each case was the subject of varying conditions. The facilities with which the company started out would now be regarded as ridiculously inadequate, hut the careful application of such means as could be commanded, in the end wrought out results that appear strikingly disproportionate.
In the winter of 1855-6, Mr. Eads made a formal proposition to Congress to keep open, for a term of years, the Western rivers, by removing all obstructions, and keeping the channels free. A bill embodying his proposal, was passed in the House by a large majority,, but by the influence and management of Jeff. Davis, then Secretary of War, and Judah P. Benjamin, it was defeated in the Senate.
On account of ill-health, he retired from business in 1857, having prepared himself, however, by a life of activity, energy and success, for the more important part he was destined to take in the affairs of the country in the construction of the Western ironclads.

When, during the first year of the war, the Federal Government decided upon equipping a fleet of novel construction, for service upon the Mississippi and its tributaries, Mr. Eads received the contract for building the first seven of these boats. The contract was signed on the 7th of August, 1861, and specified that the vessels were to be ready for their crews and armaments in sixty-five days. Habituated, as we now are, to the contemplation of the achievements of the war, and the singular examples of energy which it often developed, the building of seven iron-clad steamers in sixty-five days, when the wood of which they were to be constructed was yet standing in the forest, and the rollers were not vet fashioned for shaping the iron for their armor—is an undertaking, the possibility of which many able men might gravely question. Yet it was done. On the 12th of October 1861, the first United States iron-clad, with her boilers and engines on board, was launched at Carondelet (now within the limits of the city of St. Louis,) in forty-five days from the laving of the keel. She was named the ''St. Louis,” by Admiral Foote, in honor of the city. When the fleet was transferred from the war department to the navy, the name was changed to “Baron De Kalb,” there being at that time a vessel commissioned in the navy called the St. Louis. This vessel had the honor to be in more engagements than any other on the waters of the Western rivers. In ten days after the “De Kalb,'' the “Carondelet” was launched, and the “Cincinnati,” “Louisville,” “Mound City,” “Cairo” and “Pittsburgh“ followed in rapid succession.

Building the ironclad gunboats in Carondelet, Missouri

An eighth vessel, larger, more powerful, and superior in every respect, was also undertaken before the hulls of the first seven had fairly assumed shape.

It is to be regretted, however, that the promptness and energy of the man who thus created an iron navy on the Mississippi, was not met on the part of the Government by an equal degree of faithfulness in performing its part of the contract. On one pretext after another, the stipulated payments were delayed by the War Department, until the default assumed such magnitude that nothing but the assistance rendered by patriotic and confiding friends enabled the contractor, after exhausting his own liberal means, to complete the fleet.

It was mainly by the aid of these vessels, at the time his own property, that the brilliant capture of Forts Henry and Donelson was accomplished; and the ever-memorable midnight passage of Island No. 10, which compelled the surrender of the redoubtable stronghold, was achieved, several months later, by the Pittsburgh and Carondelet, two of the vessels furnished under the same contract, and at that time unpaid for.

Without following in detail the labors of Mr. Eads in the construction of vessels during the war, it is enough to say that he created a navy, especially adapted for service on our Western waters, and differing entirely from anything that had before existed. Whatever its merits, it is sufficient to say that it accomplished its purpose, and that its builder was the man who made possible its brilliant achievements.
In Ma}' 1868, the Mound City Life Insurance Company (now the St. Louis Life) was organized, and Mr. Eads was elected president. He continued to hold the position until his departure for Europe, for the third time, on business for the Bridge Company, but owing to the demand upon his time as chief engineer of the bridge, he resigned in 1872.

Later, however, when the St. Louis Mutual Life Insurance Company was in difficulty, and about to be forced into the hands of a receiver, by which great loss would have fallen upon a vast number of widows and orphans, Mr. Eads again assumed the presidency of the Mound City, and to his keen foresight and accurate judgment is largely due the success of the movement which eventuated in affording protection and security to the thousands interested in the St. Louis Mutual. The capital of the Mound City was largely increased to cover any possible deficiency in the other company, and the two were ultimately consolidated under the name of the St. Louis Life. Life insurance ranks among the exact sciences, being founded on mathematical principles as well established as any of the data of civil engineering, and to his management of the St. Louis Life Mr. Eads brings a mathematical mind, trained to subject all questions to the crucial test of the logic of figures. His well-balanced mind, kindly nature and untiring energy admirably fit him for controlling the destinies of that great corporation whose assets foot up over seven million dollars.

As a recognition of eminence in his profession, the Missouri State University two years ago conferred upon Mr. Eads the degree of LL. D. He was twice elected president of the St. Louis Academy of Sciences, and has held positions of honor and trust in several of the most important corporations in the State, among which we may name the National Bank of the State of Missouri, the St. Louis, Kansas City & Northern Railway, the St. Charles Bridge Company, the Third National Bank, etc.

The magnificent bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis, is a notable landmark in the engineering progress of the age in which we live. It not only exemplifies that mechanical and engineering skill which belongs to this quarter of a century, but it is an imperishable proof of the audacity of the man whose splendid genius conceived, and whose enterprising liberality consummated it. Its history has been told again and again, but will be heard with undiminished interest until narratives of great achievements cease to attract the attention of man.

James B. Eads was the chief engineer of the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge. He was its head and front—its originator and creator. Whatever its value, and it is already known to be greater than was estimated, its construction is mainly due to the unflagging zeal, tireless energy and marvelous perception of this modest and unassuming man. Linked with his, it is true, are the names of others, who performed their part of the work nobly. But his was the genius which conceived the plan upon a principle untried in the science of engineering. And he was the organizer who drew around him associates, and inspired them with something of his own enthusiasm to erect a structure which shall serve the uses of millions of people to the end of time.

The Eads Bridge in St. Louis, Missouri

But the successful solution of new problems in engineering is not the only triumph in connection with the bridge, of which Mr. Eads has a right to be proud. His financial abilities are acknowledged to be of the highest order. To him belongs the chief credit of raising the half score of millions required to build the bridge and tunnel.

The bridge was formally thrown open to travel on the 4th of July 1874. The event was duly celebrated. There was an immense procession extending fifteen miles in length, and in it every trade and calling of the city was represented. The stores were closed, and all business was suspended. Several distinguished statesmen, including the Governors of Illinois and Missouri, spoke to a vast audience, and every incident of the day demonstrated that as long as the arches of tempered steel which stretch their graceful web over the noblest river that serves the purposes of man, shall endure, so long shall the name of James B. Eads be remembered and honored.
Even before the completion of this great work, Mr. Eads had maturely considered and proposed a plan for obtaining, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, sufficient depth of water and width of channel to permit the unobstructed passage of the largest ocean vessels. Operations upon and beneath the surface of that river—lifting wrecks from its bottom, building war vessels to open, and keep open, its communications, and, finally, building that bridge, which renders it no longer an obstacle to the transverse .trade of the country—have filled the active period of his life, and peculiarly fitted him for the execution of the plan he has conceived. That plan is the construction, at one of the passes, of jetties, which, in Mr. Eads' language, “are simply dikes or levees under water, and are intended to act as banks to the river, to prevent its expanding and diffusing itself as it enters the sea. It is a notable fact that where the banks of a river extend boldly out into the sea, no bar is formed at the entrance. It is where the banks, or fauces terrae (jaws of earth) are absent, as is the case in delta-forming rivers, that the bar is an invariable feature. The bar results from the diffusion of the stream as it spreads out fan-like in entering the sea. The diffusion of the river being the cause, the remedy manifestly lies in contracting it or in preventing the diffusion.”

It is not essential to a correct understanding of the jetty plan that a detailed description of the phenomena of the Mississippi River, or the geography of its mouth, should be given here. It will be presumed that every intelligent reader knows that the river finds its way into the Gulf of Mexico by three outlets, or passes, and that at the mouth of each of them is a bar, formed of the comminated sand, clay and earth which the stream has brought down in suspension, and deposited where the current loses its momentum. Inasmuch as these bars have greatly hindered navigation, and practically restricted it to vessels of the lightest draft, the problem of how to remove them, and keeping them from forming again, has puzzled the minds of scientific men and Congressmen ever since the commerce of the South and West has been of sufficient importance to command national consideration.

Congress took up the subject of improving these outlets in 1837, and in 1838 elaborate surveys were made under Colonel Talcott, but led to discussion rather than to any efficient action. In 1861 the able and comprehensive exposition of the “Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi,” by Humphreys and Abbott, was published by the Government, with beautiful letter-press, and profuse illustrations. It was the first work of the kind which ever appeared in regard to any river in the Western Hemisphere, and contained a vast number of interesting facts, the treatment of which in the text was, in general, highly creditable to the dual authorship. But the compilers, although officers in the Corps of Engineers, United States Army, of which the first named, General Humphreys, is now the chief, contented themselves with discussing theories, without compressing them into absolute recommendations, and did not positively indicate any particular mode of improvement at the mouth of the river as, in their opinion, so likely to be successful as to merit preference above all others. They gave the results of consultations of a board of engineers, composed of Major Chase and Captains Barnard and Beauregard, of the army, and Captain Latimer of the navy, but did not specially indorse any one of them. This board, known as the Board of 1852, had recommended:

  1. That the process of stirring up the bottom by suitable machinery should be tried.
  2. If this failed, dredging by buckets should be tried.
  3. If both these failed, that jetties should be constructed at the Southwest Pass, to be extended annually into the Gulf as experience should show to be necessary.
  4. Should it then be needed, the lateral outlets should be closed.
  5. Finally, should all these fail, a ship canal might be resorted to.

Dredging, both by stirring and by buckets, was tried at an early day; and in 1856 “one insecure jetty of a single row of pile planks about a mile long”—as Humphreys and Abbott tell us—was built by Craig & Rightor at Southwest Pass, but was not completed, although it had, even in its incomplete state, an appreciable effect on the depth of water near its lower end. But dredging was the main reliance, and for many years past has been carried on at a heavy annual cost, but without results of value. In the meantime, ocean vessels have been greatly increased in size and draft, so that the navigation at the delta is relatively worse than when the improvement of the river's outlet was first undertaken. Ships of a size to carry cheapest cannot get in or out, and our enlarged commerce, in its way to and from the sea, finds that its difficulties increase with its growth. This fact has co-operated with railroad development to relatively diminish the river commerce, which is less now, in proportion to the population and business of the region drained by the river, than it was twenty years ago. The attainment of an enlarged outlet to the gulf has, therefore, an importance not equaled by that of any other measure relating to cheap transportation; and the people of the great valley have been unanimous in demanding efficient and permanent works, because they know that the river is the natural and only adequate competitor with the east and west railroads, and that its proper improvement is the best statute to regulate them.

But the question, as to which of the various proposed plans for the improvement of the river was the proper one, was difficult of satisfactory solution. Each method had its advocates, until, in the course of time, the ship canal had outstripped all others, and had gained the support of a majority of the Government Board of Engineers. The press and the people of the Lower Mississippi Valley, especially of the city of New Orleans, indorsed it with almost entire unanimity, and the Senators and Representatives from that section pertinaciously pressed it upon the favor of Congress. The appropriate committees of the two bodies had heard arguments in behalf of its adoption, and the House Committee actually had reported a bill unanimously for the construction of the Fort St. Philip canal, when Mr. Eads came forward, single-handed and alone, to fight for his plan of the jetties, and wage war upon the mistaken recommendation of the United States Engineers. He insisted that a ship canal was not the proper remedy; and in February 1874 made a formal proposal to Congress to create, by the use of jetties, a deep and permanent channel, receiving pay only as the work should prove successful. Congress having refused to pass the canal bill, and being not then prepared to adopt the jetty system, he suggested the appointment of a select mixed commission of civil and military engineers, to consider and decide all questions relating to the mouth of the river. The act of June 23, 1874, provided for the Commission, and upon the adjournment it was appointed by the President. It soon after went to Europe to personally inspect the jetty system as applied to many of the great rivers there.

Mr. Eads also went for the same purpose, but not with the Commission. He was accompanied only by Mr. James Andrews, who, having been his contractor on most of his engineering works, had unbounded faith in his scheme. They and the Commission returned to the United States in the month of November. The Commission reported to Congress, when it assembled in December, unanimously except one member, in favor of the jetties. Their report, however, unfortunately recommended their application to the South instead of the Southwest Pass, as Mr. Eads desired. But it decided the vexed question between the canal and the jetties, and on March 3, 1875, Congress passed the bill, fully entrusting the improvement to the entire judgment of Mr. Eads, and thus ended the dispute forever in his favor.

By its terms, a depth of twenty feet of water is to be given to the South Pass within two years. He is then to press forward and increase the depth, within a specified time, to thirty feet. Upon the completion of the work, he and his company will receive from the Government the sum of five million two hundred and fifty thousand dollars. The first installment of half a million is to be paid when he has obtained a channel two hundred feet wide and twenty feet deep, and the last when the channel has been made seven hundred feet wide and thirty feet deep. After obtaining a depth of thirty feet, he is to receive one hundred thousand dollars per annum for twenty years for maintaining this depth.

As an illustration of the energy and ability of Mr. Eads, it is stated that in less than two months after the passage of the act, the building of the jetties was let to Messrs. James Andrews & Co., and preparations for the work were in active progress. While thus engaged, he was tendered, and accepted, the honor of a complimentary banquet by the leading citizens of St. Louis. It was given at the Southern Hotel, on the 23d of March, and was presided over by the Mayor of the city. From his eloquent response to the principal toast of the evening, the following extract is selected as a fitting close to this sketch:

If the profession of an engineer were not based upon exact science, I might tremble for the result in view of the immensity of the interests which are dependent upon my success. But every atom that moves onward in the river, from the moment it leaves its home amid crystal springs or mountain snows, throughout the 1,500 leagues of its devious pathway, until it is finally lost in the vast waters of the Gulf, is controlled by laws as fixed and certain as those which direct the majestic march of the heavenly spheres. Every phenomenon and apparent eccentricity of the river, its scouring and depositing action, its curving banks, the formation of the bars at its mouth, the effect of the waves and tides of the sea upon its currents and deposits, are controlled by laws as immutable as the Creator, and the engineer needs only to be assured that he does not ignore the existence of any of these laws, to feel positively certain of the result he aims at.

I therefore undertake the work with a faith based upon the ever-constant ordinances of God Himself; and so certain as He will spare my life and faculties for two years more. I will give to the Mississippi river, through His grace and by the application of His laws, a deep, open, safe and permanent outlet to the sea.

In private life, Mr. Eads is one of the most estimable of men. He is easily approached, and is kind, courteous and affable to all who come in contact with him. His physical constitution, intellectual activities, temperaments, habits—all would seem to mark him out as a man destined to close his career, as he has long conducted it, in the very midst of labors on works of incalculable value to the country, apparently destined to materially influence, if not to totally revolutionize the commercial relations of three continents—the two Americas and Europe.


Reavis, Logan U. “James B. Eads, C.E., LL.D.” In Saint Louis: The Future Great City of the World, 321–30. St. Louis: Gray, Baker & Co, 1875.


Last changed: Oct 07 2018 at 10:10 AM