- 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 business grew rapidly. Eads’s system was to take his Submarine to the site of a wreck, go over the side in a diving bell, sink to the bottom, and feel his way over the wreck to the hold. Once he had fastened a rope to a crate or barrel, he signalled to his crew above with a tug on the line. If only the approximate location of a wreck was known, Eads “walked” the river bottom, the Submarine keeping pace above, until he found it. Then the salvage operation would commence.
In 1845 Eads temporarily left the river. He was courting a St. Louis belle named Martha Dillon, whose family, though related to the Eadses, regarded river salvage as déclassé . Her father, Colonel Matthew Dillon, rejected Eads’s suit, but only succeeded in adding his name to a growing list of people who vainly tried to stop Eads from doing something he wanted to do. Conducting his courtship by mail, the young riverman proved as adept with a pen as he was with a hoisting rig. Martha complimented his penmanship. He sent her the pen. She returned it at once: “How long my father’s root may shelter me, I know not, but while I remain within its precincts my line of conduct is determined upon.” This prim declaration served as prelude to an open invitation: “Do not use this pen until you have occasion to write to her whom you have selected for your companion as you journey through this vale of life.” They were married on October 21, 1845, at the Church of St. Louis de France.
Partly to meet his in-laws’ objection to his river career, and partly because he saw a good business opportunity, Eads opened the first glass factory in the West. His timing was unfortunate; the Mexican War made many businesses boom, but not glass. By 1848 Eads had run up a debt of $25,000.
He was just twenty-seven years old. A contemporary described him as slender but muscular of build, with a complexion ruddied by exposure to weather, eyes deep and unflinching, mouth firm. Despite his financial difficulties, he carried himself with a conscious pride. This self-confidence was echoed by the esteem of his fellow St. Louisans, including his creditors. They loaned him enough money to repurchase a share in the salvage business, and by spring he was back on the river bottom.
Business was better than ever. Steamboats were being launched at a breakneck pace, and they were blowing up, ripping open, and catching fire almost as rapidly. Twenty-nine of them were destroyed all at once in 1849 when a fire swept the St. Louis wharf area. The resulting salvage operation made Eads solvent again. Three new Submarines were added to the company’s fleet, and Eads equipped the last one with centrifugal pumps that were capable of clearing a sunken hull of water and sand so that it could be refloated. The prowess of Submarine No. 4 made Captain Eads one of the most famous men on the Mississippi. Sometimes as No. 4 chugged to a new location, she passed a freshly painted steamboat she had raised from the bottom a few weeks earlier. By the spring of 1856, when Eads’s cousin James Buchanan was inaugurated President of the United States, ten Submarines were in operation, and their inventor had become a wealthy man.
Martha Dillon Each had died tragically of cholera in 1855, and in 1857 Eads married Eunice Hagerman Eads, the widow of a cousin. They lived in a large house on Compton Hill and entertained on a scale befitting his status as one of the leading citi/ens of St. Louis. Increasingly, the evening conversations centered on the nation’s worsening political situation. As the slavery crisis deepened, the city’s politicians and businessmen met in heated debate at Captain Eads’s house. Their host favored moderation, but his loyalty was steadfastly with the Union. His guests, who included such Unionists as Edward Bates, Lincoln’s attorney general, listened with respect when he talked about the strategic importance of the Mississippi River.
Eads foresaw secession and war, and by the time of Lincoln’s election lie had concluded that the weapon for winning control of the western river system for the free states was the ironclad gunboat. The French had successfully used armored “floating batteries” in the Crimean War a few years earlier. In Washington, Eads urged construction of shallow-draft boats capable of carrying big guns, with bows and sides protected by plate armor. Despite considerable opposition, he was given a contract in the summer of 1861 to build a fleet of gunboats of his own design.
Before he left Washington, Eads sent telegrams that stirred idle machine shops and sawmills all along the Ohio and the Mississippi into a storm of activity. Within two weeks he had four thousand men at work. “Neither the sanctity of the Sabbath nor the darkness of night were permitted to interrupt … ”, wrote a contemporary historian. “On the iath of October, 1861, the first United States iron-clad, with her boilers and engines on board, was launched in Carondelet, Missouri.”