He Mastered Old Man River

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The Mississippi is in flood again as I write. The waters will have subsided by the time these words are printed, but the cleanup and the payments will continue inexorably. Congress has just voted some $2.5 billion in federal flood relief. That adds to the billions spent in flood preparation since a mighty and devastating inundation in 1927. That disaster inspired the River and Harbor Act, followed (in 1936) by the Flood Control Act, under both of which the Department of Agriculture and the Army Corps of Engineers shared the responsibility for creating a huge system of darns and locks on the nation’s major river systems. These would serve a variety of economic purposes: make the rivers easier to navigate, channel some of their flow into irrigation ditches and hydroelectric power generators, help prevent soil erosion along their banks—and keep them from drowning farms, homes, and townships in rainy-season overflows.

Many of these goals have been fulfilled in whole or in part. (The Tennessee Valley Authority is a fine example.) But the mighty Mississippi obviously does not intend to be and is decidedly not controlled. That would have been no surprise to Mark Twain, who wrote in 1883: “ten thousand River Commissions, with the mines of the world at their back, cannot tame that lawless stream, cannot curb it or confine it, cannot say to it, ‘Go here,’ or ‘Go there,’ and make it obey; cannot save a shore which it has sentenced; cannot bar its path with an obstruction which it will not tear down, dance over and laugh at.”

There is one exception, however—of a limited kind. A contemporary of Mark Twain (fifteen years older but, like Twain, bred and shaped by the river in its steamboating glory days) was James B. Eads. He got the Mississippi to do his bidding, after a fashion, and to dig itself a civilized and usable channel for vessels entering and leaving New Orleans. It was a remarkable undertaking, and Eads was a remarkable man whose memory deserves to be revived now that the river has rampaged its way once more into the headlines.

He was born in 1820 in Indiana, was brought by his merchant father to Cincinnati at the age of three, thence to Louisville, and finally to St. Louis. His family was so hard up that he had to quit school and sell apples in the street until he was taken on as a clerk by a dry goods firm. He educated himself from the private library of the kindly owner. At eighteen he became a purser’s clerk on a Mississippi river steamboat and got to know that immense, turbulent, crooked waterway that drains a great part of North America in all its power and orneriness. (If you want to know what it was like, read Twain’s Life on the Mississippi ; you won’t be sorry.) High on the river’s list of hazards to life (and limb) were the snags that lay in wait under the surface to destroy unwary vessels. They consisted mainly of uprooted trees and the debris of floods, washouts, and cave-ins plus the hulls, boilers, cargoes, and machinery of wrecked steamers. Eads decided to go into business salvaging such wrecks. He invented for that purpose a diving bell that allowed him to walk the sifting river bottom and guide the snag boats, fitted with chains and derricks for lifting, to their targets. Within a few years he had made himself rich. He had also acquired a formidable knowledge of hydraulics and was on the way to becoming one of the great self-taught engineers of a century brimming with [ confidence in the power of engineerI- ing to perform marvels. In 1856 he offered to remove, for a suitable price, all the snags and wrecks from the Mississippi and three of its main tributaries. But Congress failed to appropriate the money.

Came the Civil War, and Eads, now retired in St. Louis, was called to Washington for advice on how best to use the Mississippi in the Union war effort. His immediate response was to undertake the building—in less than one hundred days and on his own credit—of seven armor-plated, shallow-draft wooden gunboats that looked like (and were called) turtles, to help Union land forces overpower Confederate forts and shore batteries impeding their progress downriver. Later he added other boats, some entirely of iron and some with gun turrets operated by steam on an Eads design. All of them played a powerful role in the two-year river campaign that cut the Confederacy in half. Soon after the war ended, Eads was at it again, this time as chief engineer of a bridge across the river, the first one ever at St. Louis. The specifications were daunting because the still-strong steamboat and ferry lobbies insisted that the span be at least fifty feet above the surface for smokestack clearance, and the central span had to be five hundred feet long. Learned engineers pronounced the job impossible, which was more or less the lobbyists’ hope. Eads set to work building a bridge of three steel arches (the longest ever) resting on four masonry piers. The piers were sunk to bedrock through as much as ninety feet of sand and gravel river bottom, shifting under the constant swirl of currents that threatened the crews in the caissons, diving bells, and other devices that he invented or improved as he went along. It took seven years of grinding labor, and when it opened in 1874, it was one of the manmade wonders of the modern America. It is still there.