Monday, February 15, 2016

James B. Eads: Master of the Mississippi

Water & Watersheds

By John Shepard

They don't make 'em like James B. Eads anymore. His introduction to the Mississippi River occurred in 1833 at age 13, as he arrived with his family in St. Louis and was nearly blown to pieces by an explosion from their steamboat's faulty boiler.  He escaped another steamboat wreck a few years later while working his first river job. These early calamities somehow awakened in him a lifetime of diverse career possibilities that ultimately established his legacy as a true Renaissance engineer and early Master of the Mississippi.

Salvation Through Salvage

In Eads' day, Steamboat wrecks were epidemic on the Mississippi (567 were lost between 1811 and 1899), and in this the young man saw great opportunity. He developed a St. Louis salvage operation, created a special boat for retrieving lost cargo, and fashioned his own diving bell, quickly earning himself a fortune. The many, many hours he spent beneath his bell, walking the river bottom while breathing air from a tube that ran to the surface, acquainted him intimately with the dynamics and flow of the mighty river's currents—knowledge that he put to use in several subsequent exploits.

Civil War Ironclads 

During the Civil War, Eads helped spur the Union Army to victory by populating its brown-water navy with more than 30 innovative ironclads. His steel-armored gun ships had paddlewheels placed mid-ships for protection from enemy fire and shallow drafts that allowed for wide-ranging river navigation. The ships proved critical to General Grant's successful siege of Vicksburg and other key naval battles on the Western Front.

A Legacy Bridge that Still Stands Strong

The Eads Bridge was the first to cross the Mississippi at St. Louis upon its completion in 1874, and the only one built by the completely self-taught engineer. His understanding of the power of the river's currents informed his use of caissons to excavate through the the river's shifting sediments in order to anchor the pilings in bedrock deep below. The bridge's three graceful arches, which were built using pioneering cantilevered construction strategies, together formed what was then the longest arch bridge in the world. It still stands strong today, hosting east-west rail and vehicle traffic.  Rumor has it that Eads anchored the west end of the bridge at the very location where his family was brought dripping to shore years from their ill-fated steamboat.

Jetties at the Mississippi's Mouth and a Locomotive Portage for Panama

After completing his bridge, Eads used his understanding of the river's powerful currents once again in the aid of a southern city—New Orleans—by inventing a means of keeping open the mouth of the Mississippi Delta for international ship traffic.  Shifting sand bars and debris deposited by annual floods at the river's mouth had long made the transition from river to Gulf very difficult. His successful idea, which he pitched to the government with an ironclad, 100-percent money-back guarantee, was to narrow the available passage for the river currents by building jetties, thus allowing the river to dredge and maintain its own path to the sea.

This string of successful enterprises culminated with one grand scheme that didn't fly. Ead's solution to the challenge of enabling ocean-going ships to cross the Isthmus of Panama was to haul the ships overland via a pair of railroads.

All considered, Eads remarkable life was shaped by a gifted imagination and a willingness to take calculated risks. His extraordinary career is difficult to imagine in today's highly specialized world. And, it was built on a foundation of intimate familiarity with the hidden powers of America's greatest river.

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