- 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
Eads’s reputation as an expert on river and harbor works created an international demand for his services. He had become America’s foremost engineer, and a measure of the worldwide recognition of his genius was provided in 1884, when Queen Victoria decorated him with the Albert Medal—its first award to a foreigner. By that time he was involved in the controversy over the crossing of the Isthmus of Panama. Ferdinand de Lesseps’ difficulties in digging a canal prompted Eads to propose a radical yet practical “ship railway,” by which ocean vessels could be hauled over the mountains by teams of locomotives. Eads died rather suddenly in 1887, in the midst of the debate; had he lived another ten years it is not inconceivable that his last idea might have been adopted.
Although Eads’s is not a name widely known to American schoolchildren, his pioneer accomplishments in engineering have been recognized by those who have reason to judge him. He is so far the only engineer to be enshrined in the Hall of Fame for Great Americans at New York University. And when in 1927 the deans of America’s engineering colleges were asked to vote on history’s five greatest engineers, they selected Leonardo da Vinci, James Watt, Ferdinand de Lesseps, Thomas A. Edison—and James Buchanan Eads.