- Historic Sites
Mr. Eads Spans The Mississippi
The odds were all against him. His only credential seemed to be self-confidence—and who had ever heard of a steel bridge?
August 1969 | Volume 20, Issue 5
The Mississippi River w;is W both boon and bane to midnineteenth-century St. Louis. It was an obvious blessing as a trade thoroughfare to the sea; but the same Mississippi, broad and deep—and unbridged—was keeping vital east-west rail traffic from the city. St. Louis businessmen fumed as Chicago’s industrial boom was abetted by several river-spanning bridges in northern Illinois. St. Louis needed a bridge and would have to choose its architect with great care.
Astonishingly, St. Louis turned to a man who had never in his life built a bridge; in fact he had never been formally trained as an engineer, although he was famous for his engineering feats. The self-taught genius was James Buchanan Eads, and his career up to the time when he undertook the great St. Louis bridge was already an amazing American success story.
Eads was born at Lawrenceburg, Indiana, on May 23, 1820, the son of an adventurous Marylander, Colonel Thomas Eads. A decade later, the Colonel decided to move on to Louisville, a river journey that provided his mechanically brilliant prodigy with a detailed explanation of the workings of the steam engine and paddle wheel, courtesy of the steamboat’s chief engineer. In the summer of 1833, the family moved again, liiis time to St. Louis. The long trip down the Ohio River and up the Mississippi almost ended in tragedy when the vessel burst into flames as it approached St. Louis on the night of September 5. The passengers made it safely to the dock, but many of them, the Eadses included, lost all their personal possessions.
To keep the family together, Mrs. Eacls opened a boardinghouse in St. Louis, and young James peddled apples until he could get a regular job as “boy” at a dry-goods store. The position had a valuable fringe benefit in that he was allowed to climb to a loft in spare hours and read the storekeeper’s collection of books on “mechanics.” When lie was eighteen, Eads quit the shop and headed for the river and a berth as a “mud clerk” on the steamboat Knickerbocker , collecting freight bills and bargaining for fuel along the muddy waterfront. Another responsibility was keeping an eye on the riffraff crew and the barrels of whiskey in the cargo to make sure the two did not mix. It was a job of drudgery-filled days and sleepless nights, but it was—with all the romance and adventure the phrase contained in the nineteenth century—life on the Mississippi. The adventure was not long delayed. On December n, 1839, the Knickerbocker was turning into the Ohio at Cairo in the dawn hours. There was a jar and then a splintering rip as she snagged something on the river bottom, and in seconds the boat was sinking. Fortunately a flatboat flotilla was nearby, and the half-dressed passengers and crew were able to scramble aboard the barges without loss of life.
Such an accident was by no means uncommon on the Mississippi; the river steamboats were as ha/ardous a means of transportation as anyone has yet devised. Their unprotected wood-burning boilers and their timber construction made them vulnerable to fire, while their fragile hulls were easily torn open. Storms, floods, and ice jams added to the toll, and the wrecked hulls themselves became hazards. Eads, having survived two such catastrophes, gave these wrecks considerable thought. Most, he realized, had salvageable cargoes—if they could be located and raised.
One morning in 1842, Calvin Case and William Nelson, prominent St. Louis shipbuilders, received an unexpected caller—a tall, spare young man in a riverman’s rig. The two men listened incredulously as their earnest caller explained a sketcli he had made of a strange new kind of boat with twin hulls and derricks, pumps, blocks and tackles, and other gear mounted on its deck. The twenty-two-year-old designer called it the Submarine , although it was actually a surface craft intended to support the underwater labors of human divers. The shipbuilders’ skepticism was gradually overcome by the logic of Eads’s exposition, and at last they agreed to build the Submarine in return for a partnership in the salvage operations.
Before the Submarine was finished, Eads had secured his first salvage contract—a cargo of lead on the river bottom near Keokuk. He hired an experienced Great Lakes diver to go down and fasten a line on the lead pigs, but the current proved too strong. Diving apparatus was still a novelty, consisting of a helmet mounted on an airtight leather garment, with a hose to the surface. The resourceful Eads promptly contrived his own diving bell. Buying a forty-gallon whiskey barrel in Keokuk, he attached a hose to the top so that air could be pumped down from the boat. The bottom of the barrel was open, permitting the air to escape as the pressure inside forced it out. It was an awkward contraption but it worked, and Eads himself soon located the cargo and began attaching lines to the seventy-pound lead pigs. After several dives, the abashed lake diver volunteered to relieve his young superior.