He Mastered Old Man River

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Eads wasn’t through. A call came from the South that launched him into his third most memorable project. This was to open the mouth—or rather, a mouth—of the Mississippi for the benefit of New Orleans merchants. The problem was this: Constantly gnawing away its own banks over its thousand-mile course, the silt-gorged Mississippi slowed down as its bed flattened and dumped its burden of dissolved earth in the form of a monstrous delta. It then flowed through this desolate marsh to the Gulf of Mexico via three shallow, sluggish streams, comparative trickles known as passes. All were obstructed by stubborn sandbars that returned no matter how often the authorities dredged them away. Eads, who by now had made himself an expert on harbor-clearance problems in general, proposed to Congress that he would create a guaranteed deep-draft channel through one of the passes. The government took him up, but on precarious terms.

The goal was a thirty-foot-deep ship’s passageway. He would get no money until a twenty-foot bottom for a width of two hundred feet had been reached. At that point half a million dollars would be released. After that there would be installments for each additional foot of depth, with a final million held in escrow for ten years until it was certain that the blockages wouldn’t return. Meanwhile, of course, his own money would be tied up in the project, but Eads worked on the old-fashioned premise that an entrepreneur, even when contracting with a government, was paid for taking real, not theoretical, risks.

Eads’s solution was not to dredge but to squeeze the stream. In effect, the river had blocked its own outlet. And, he reasoned, the river could now dig its own way through. Faster-moving water carried more sediment than did sluggish water. What Eads did, therefore, was to speed up the flow through South Pass by compressing it within jetties, made out of “mattresses” of stone enclosed in willow baskets, supported by pilings driven down through the muck by steam and muscle. Army engineers had earlier rejected the jetty option and called instead for a costly canal. But in the end they had to concede that Eads was right. Precisely as he predicted, the current began to pick up speed and scour its own bottom, pushing the silt far out into the deep Gulf waters. Work began in 1874, went on through financial panics, yellow fever epidemics, and other difficulties, and was done in 1879. The measuring gauges marked off the depth at thirty feet, and at thirty feet it stayed.

Eads believed that an entrepreneur—even one backed by the government—was paid for taking real risks.

Eads had made Old Man River clean up part of his own act, and in 1882 grateful New Orleans shippers serving newly accessible world markets tendered him one of those wonderful Victorian multicourse banquets—soup, fish, game, roasts, fruits, ices, and wines—that may have made their lives shorter but more enjoyable.

The father of the Eads gunboats, bridge, and jetties was now named as the civilian member of a river commission to recommend further navigational improvements in the Mississippi system. He quit after a few years, impatient with political and bureaucratic delays and the stuffiness of military engineers. He had a number of ideas for harnessing and managing the river’s flow by strategically placed artificial barriers and canals and is thus one of the fathers of the whole flood-control enterprise.

His conceptions might or might not have worked. They were the product of an age bent on “conquering” nature’s unpredictable forces. We have learned now that such strategies carry environmental costs that Eads’s contemporaries did not see. Nor does “conquest” always endure. The Mississippi at this moment seems to be having the last word, and that word favors a more cooperative approach to dealing with rivers in general, not to mention jungles, deserts, and other natural features that seemed to our great-grandfathers mere obstacles to progress.

But Eads was of another era. After completing the jetties, he traveled widely and was regularly consulted by governments pondering water transportation problems. At his death in 1887 he was working on his biggest but never-to-be-realized project: a “ship railroad” across southern Mexico that would have cut thousands of miles off the trip between the eastern and western coasts of the United States. Vessels at either the Atlantic or the Pacific terminal would be maneuvered into huge cradles that would be hauled over a hundred-mile route on fifteen-hundredwheel flatcars, rolling on twelve rails and negotiating curves on turntables. It sounds bizarre, but knowing Eads, I’m not at all sure that it might not have worked.