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He Mastered Old Man River

June 2024
6min read

“Ten thousand River Commissions,” wrote Mark Twain, “cannot tame that lawless stream.” But James Eads came close.

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.

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.

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