Widely considered one of the greatest engineers in American history, James Buchanan Eads developed innovations throughout the 1800s and improved transportation, commerce and military defense of the Mississippi River region during the Civil War.
We invite you to read below to learn how this self-taught inventor developed a worldwide reputation for his ingenuity, fearlessness and confidence in solving seemingly impossible challenges.
Born on May 23, 1820, in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, Eads was the third child of Ann and Thomas Eads. His family struggled financially and moved often. In September 1833, the family moved to St. Louis, Missouri. On the way there, the steamboat they were traveling on caught fire and eight people were killed. The Eads family escaped unharmed, but they lost most of their possessions.
While in St. Louis, Eads had to grow up fast. From a young age, he began doing what he could to support his family. After selling apples and running general errands, his employer recognized his potential and granted him access to a personal library, where young Eads immersed himself in the study of engineering. A lifelong interest in building and inventing began, and while still in his early teens, Eads built a 6-foot-long scale model steamship.
Salvaging the Mississippi River
At age 17, when his family moved to Le Claire, Iowa, Eads decided to stay behind in St. Louis to work on a steamboat named Knickerbocker. In the 19th century, traveling the Mississippi River was a treacherous affair full of debris that would often damage boats and cause wrecks. When serious accidents did occur, steamships and their valuable cargo sank to the riverbed.
On Dec. 11, 1839, the Knickerbocker hit a snag and sank to the bottom of the river along with a massive supply of lead that was on board. Eads realized that if someone could invent a machine able to retrieve the sunken ships and valuables on board, they could make a fortune. He designed salvage ships and an improved diving bell, allowing him to work underwater.
By the time he retired from operating his salvage boat, he made a fortune and had a net worth of around $500,000.
A Civil War Hero
In 1861, the outbreak of the Civil War brought Eads out of retirement. He was asked to build seven iron-plated gunboats to help the Union gain control of the Mississippi River and its tributaries.
One of the boats he built, the Benton, was adapted from one of his salvage boats and was considered the strongest of the fleet. According to Capt. Andrew Hull Foote, who was charged with commanding these boats, it was “worth any three of the new gunboats,” and he selected the vessel as his flagship.
Eads’ boats were part of the first significant Union victories of the Civil War. Throughout the conflict, Eads was tasked with building new and improved ironclad boats and designing steam-powered gun turrets. His contributions led to powerful relationships, including a friendship with Union general and future president Ulysses S. Grant. The connections and popularity he gained during this time allowed him to apply for even larger and more important engineering projects.
The Eads Bridge
Though Eads had never built a bridge before, he became interested in the idea of connecting St. Louis with East St. Louis to enable safe transportation, especially during the winter months. Most bridges at the time were either suspension or truss bridges, but Eads wanted to use the (at the time) new material of steel paired with architectural design cues from ancient Roman arches.
Construction began in 1867, and to source the materials for building the bridge, Eads had to fight Andrew Carnegie for the high-quality Bessemer and Siemens-Martin steel he needed. At the time, Carnegie did not believe steel was a safe building material for the construction of bridges.
Eads’ revolutionary design required nearly 2,400 tons of steel and over 3,100 tons of wrought iron, and it cost close to $10 million. In addition to being the world’s first steel arch bridge, the Eads Bridge became the “world’s first important steel structure of any type” and revolutionized the construction of bridges and buildings.
The Eads Bridge remains in use to this day, and in 1964 was named a National Historic Landmark.
The Jetties at the Southwest Pass
Following Eads’ many successes, he was enlisted by the U.S. Congress to create a way for large ships to move between the Mississippi River and the Gulf of Mexico while avoiding the sandbars that had built up over many centuries.
Though the Corps of Engineers had suggested the construction of a canal to remediate the problem, Eads was confident that building jetties to alter the sediment behavior of the river would prove to be more effective. Eads was so sure of this solution, he self-funded the project, with the stipulation that if they maintained a 30-foot channel, Congress would pay for the project.
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