Captain James B Eads

On the steamship "Germanic" I played chess with the great civil

engineer, Captain Eads, stimulated by the thought that to beat him was

to defeat the man who had twice conquered the Mississippi. But I didn't

defeat him.

The building of a ship-canal across the Isthmus of Suez made famous the

Frenchman, Ferdinand de Lesseps: so the opening-up of the mouth of the

Mississippi River has distinguished Captain Eads. To-day both these men

are struggling for the rare honor of joining, at the Isthmus of Panama,

the waters of the great Atlantic and Pacific; a magnificent scheme,

which, if successful, will save annually thousands of miles of dangerous

sea-voyage around Cape Horn, besides millions of money.

The "Great West" seems to delight in producing self-made men like

Lincoln, Grant, Eads, and others.

James B. Eads was born in Indiana in 1820. He is slender in form, neat

in dress, genial, courteous, and over sixty years of age. In 1833, his

father started down the Ohio River with his family, proposing to settle

in Wisconsin. The boat caught fire, and his scanty furniture and

clothing were burned. Young Eads barely escaped ashore with his

pantaloons, shirt, and cap. Taking passage on another boat, this boy of

thirteen landed at St. Louis with his parents; his little bare feet

first touching the rocky shore of the city on the very spot where he

afterwards located and built the largest steel bridge in the world, over

the Mississippi,--one of the most difficult feats of engineering ever

performed in America.

At the age of nine, young Eads made a short trip on the Ohio, when the

engineer of the steamboat explained to him so clearly the construction

of the steam-engine, that, before he was a year older, he built a little

working model of it, so perfect in its parts and movements, that his

schoolmates would frequently go home with him after school to see it

work. A locomotive engine driven by a concealed rat was one of his next

juvenile feats in mechanical engineering. From eight to thirteen he

attended school; after which, from necessity, he was placed as clerk in

a dry-goods store.

How few young people of the many to whom poverty denies an education,

either understand the value of the saying, "knowledge is power," or

exercise will sufficient to overcome obstacles. Willpower and thirst for

knowledge elevated General Garfield from driving canal horses to the

Presidency of the United States.

Over the store in St. Louis, where he was engaged, his employer lived.

He was an old bachelor, and, having observed the tastes of his clerk,

gave him his first book in engineering. The old gentleman's library

furnished evening companions for him during the five years he was thus

employed. Finally, his health failing, at the age of nineteen he went on

a Mississippi River steamer; from which time to the present day that

great river has been to him an all-absorbing study.

Soon afterwards he formed a partnership with a friend, and built a small

boat to raise cargoes of vessels sunken in the Mississippi. While this

boat was building, he made his first venture in submarine engineering,

on the lower rapids of the river, by the recovery of several hundred

tons of lead. He hired a scow or flat-boat, and anchored it over the

wreck. An experienced diver, clad in armor, who had been hired at

considerable expense in Buffalo, was lowered into the water; but the

rapids were so swift that the diver, though incased in the strong armor,

feared to be sunk to the bottom. Young Eads determined to succeed, and,

finding it impracticable to use the armor, went ashore, purchased a

whiskey-barrel, knocked out the head, attached the air-pump hose to it,

fastened several heavy weights to the open end of the barrel; then,

swinging it on a derrick, he had a practical diving-bell--the best use I

ever heard made of a whiskey-barrel.

Neither the diver, nor any of the crew, would go down in this

contrivance: so the dauntless young engineer, having full confidence in

what he had read in books, was lowered within the barrel down to the

bottom; the lower end of the barrel being open. The water was sixteen

feet deep, and very swift. Finding the wreck, he remained by it a full

hour, hitching ropes to pig-lead till a ton or more was safely hoisted

into his own boat. Then, making a signal by a small line attached to the

barrel, he was lifted on deck, and in command again. The sunken cargo

was soon successfully raised, and was sold, and netted a handsome

profit, which, increased by other successes, enabled energetic Eads to

build larger boats, with powerful pumps, and machinery on them for

lifting entire vessels. He surprised all his friends in floating even

immense sunken steamers--boats which had long been given up as lost.

When the Rebellion came, it was soon evident that a strong fleet must be

put upon Western rivers to assist our armies. Word came from the

government to Captain Eads to report in Washington. His thorough

knowledge of the "Father of Waters" and its tributaries, and his

practical suggestions, secured an order to build seven gunboats, and

soon after an order for the eighth was given.

In forty-eight hours after receiving this authority, his agents and

assistants were at work; and suitable ship-timber was felled in half a

dozen Western States for their hulls. Contracts were awarded to large

engine and iron works in St. Louis, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati; and

within one hundred days, eight powerful ironclad gunboats, carrying over

one hundred large cannon, and costing a million dollars, were achieving

victories no less important for the Mississippi valley than those which

Ericsson's famous "Cheese-box Monitor" afterwards won on the James


These eight gunboats, Commodore Foote ably employed in his brave attacks

on Forts McHenry and Donaldson. They were the first ironclads the United

States ever owned. Captain Eads covered the boats with iron: Commodore

Foote covered them with glory.

Eads built not less than fourteen of these gunboats. During the war, the

models were exhibited by request to the German and other governments.

His next work was to throw across the mighty Mississippi River, nearly

half a mile wide, at St. Louis, a monstrous steel bridge, supported by

three arches, the spans of two being five hundred and two feet long, and

the central one five hundred and twenty feet. The huge piles were

ingeniously sunk in the treacherous sand, one hundred and thirty-six

feet below the flood-level to the solid rock, through ninety feet of

sand. This bridge and its approaches cost eighty millions of dollars,

and is used by ten or twelve railroad companies. Above the tracks is a

big street with carriage-roads, street-cars, and walks for


The honor of building the finest bridge in the world would have

satisfied most men, but not ambitious Captain Eads. He actually loved

the noble river in which De Soto, its discoverer, was buried, and fully

realized the vast, undeveloped resources of its rich valleys. Equally

well he understood what a gigantic work in the past the river and its

fifteen hundred sizable tributaries had accomplished in times of

freshets, by depositing soil and sand north of the original Gulf of

Mexico, forming an alluvial plain five hundred miles long, sixty miles

wide, and of unknown depth, and having a delta extending out into the

Gulf, sixty miles long, and as many miles wide, and probably a mile

deep. And yet this heroic man, although jealously opposed for years by

West Point engineers, having a sublime confidence in the laws of nature,

and actuated by intense desire to benefit mankind, dared to stand on the

immense sand-bars at the mouth of this defiant stream, and, making use

of the jetty system, bid the river itself dig a wide, deep channel into

the seas beyond, for the world's commerce.

Captain Eads, who had studied the improvements on the Danube, Maas, and

other European rivers, observed that all rivers flow faster in their

narrow channels, and carry along in the swift water, sand, gravel, and

even stones. This familiar law he applied at the South Pass of the

Mississippi River, where the waters, though deep above, escaped from the

banks into the Gulf, and spread sediment far and wide.

The water on the sand-bars of the three principal passes varied from

eight to thirteen feet in depth. Many vessels require twice the depth.

Two piers, twelve hundred feet apart, were built from land's end, a mile

into the sea. They were made from willows, timber, gravel, concrete, and

stone. Mattresses, a hundred feet long, from twenty-five to fifty feet

wide, and two feet thick, were constructed from small willows placed at

right angles, and bound securely together. These were floated into

position, and sunk with gravel, one mattress upon another, which the

river soon filled with sand that firmly held them in their place. The

top was finished with heavy concrete blocks, to resist the waves. These

piers are called "jetties," and the swift collected waters have already

carried over five million cubic yards of sand into the deep gulf, and

made a ship-way over thirty feet deep. The five million dollars paid by

the United States was little enough for so priceless a service.

* * * * *

In June, 1884, Captain Eads received the Albert medal of the British

Society of Arts, the first American upon whom this honor has been

conferred. Before his great enterprise of the Tehuantepec ship railroad

had been completed, he died at Nassau, New Providence, Bahama Islands,

March 8, 1887, after a brief illness, of pneumonia, at the age of


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