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Mr. Eads Spans The Mississippi

June 2024
22min read

The odds were all against him. His only credential seemed to be self-confidence—and who had ever heard of a steel bridge?

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.

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.”

The St. Louis (later renamed the Baron De Kalb ) was followed by six others, including the conversion of Submarine No. 7 into the Benton . Because he had not quite succeeded in meeting the unrealistic deadline specified in the contract, the War Department bureaucratically delayed payment, so that the gunboats still technically belonged to Eads when Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote employed them to capture Fort Henry and support Grant at Fort Donelson. Subsequently these and other Fads-built ironclads distinguished themselves at Island No. 10, Vicksburg, and Memphis, where they became the first ironclads ever to engage an enemy fleet. (See “The Carondelet Runs the Gantlet,” in the October, 1959, AMERICAN HERITAGE ). Preparing to assault Mobile Bay, Admiral David Farragut urged Washington, “Only give me the ironclads built by Mr. Eads, and I will find out how far Providence is with us.” Eads’s ironclads performed valiantly in the decisive naval victory that followed.

The end of the Civil War allowed Eads to focus his brilliant energies on what was to prove the crowning achievement of his amazing career: the bridge over the Mississippi at St. Louis. As already noted, the leaders of St. Louis, the center of the steamboat trade, had watched in dismay as Chicago, with direct rail connections to the East and the West, burgeoned into the transportation capital of the Midwest. What was clearly needed was a railroad bridge to replace the time-consuming practice of ferrying the railroad cars across the river from East St. Louis, Illinois. It there was anyone who could accomplish this and still protect the navigation rights of the steamboat operators, it was James B. Eads.

Most railroad bridges at that time were truss designs. The truss is a pattern of triangles, whose engineering value lies in the fact that they cannot be distorted by stress. The first truss bridges were built of timber, the most important pioneering being done by the Yankee covered-bridge builders of the early decades of the nineteenth century. Two or three of their designs were taken over wholesale for railroad bridges, and simply built in iron instead of wood.

But iron proved to be an unsatisfactory building’ material for railroad bridges. Cast iron, the cheaper form, had insufficient tensile strength. Wrought iron was better, but it was very expensive and also treacherous, owing to the difficulty of achieving uniformity in fabrication. When the Bessemer and Siemens-Martin processes were developed in Europe in the fifties and sixties, it became possible to use steel—heretofore a rare, almost exotic metal—for structural purposes. Although conservative engineers in Great Britain and the United States doubted that mass-produced steel could be made uniform, Eads enthusiastically adopted the new material.

He urged his fellow townsmen to build their bridge in steel, but in place of the universally accepted truss, he advocated a return to the old Roman bridge form of the arch. His design called for three giant arches, the center one 515 feet, slightly longer than the two side spans. These arches were to be mounted on four mighty foundations sunk to bedrock. Each arch would consist of four ribs, arranged in parallel pairs, rising underneath a double-deck roadway.

Each of the three arch spans was to consist of a series of steel tubes joined together. The orthodox way of erecting such arches would have been to build timber falsework, or scaffolding, in the river. But Eads knew he could not obstruct the daily river traffic. He proposed an ingenious solution: he would cantilever the arch ribs out from each foundation, supporting the steel mass with cables from above instead of with scaffolding from below.

This daring conception, full of untried features, was not warmly received by the engineering establishment. And though Eads’s prestige, persuasive talent, and powers of logic won wide acceptance for his plans, even his most loyal St. Louis backers thought it would be wise to have an experienced bridge builder as consulting engineer. When the contract for fabricating components for the superstructure was awarded to the Keystone Bridge Company of Pittsburgh, the nation’s leading bridge-building firm, J. H. Linville, the company’s president, was invited to examine the plans. Linville took one look and sent them back to St. Louis. “I cannot consent to imperil my reputation by appearing to encourage or approve of [the design’s] adoption,” he announced. “I deem it entirely unsafe and impracticable.” He thoughtfully enclosed a plan of his own, a more conventional iron truss, to be floated on pontoons and raised to position. But Eads, who had never seen the inside of an engineering school, had his own conclusions checked by two trained engineers, Colonel Henry Flad and Charles Pfeiffer. These two gentlemen not only approved the design but became devoted subordinates in the project, which Eads commenced at once. In August of 1867 a flotilla of pile drivers, work boats, derricks, engines, and barges gathered at the foot of Washington Avenue, the heart of the St. Louis waterfront.

Because the proposed bridge would link Missouri and Illinois, enabling legislation from both states was required. A Chicago promoter named Lucius Boomer had already obtained a franchise from the Illinois legislature to build an iron truss bridge at East St. Louis. Assembling a meeting of hand-picked engineers, he got resolutions passed declaring that piers could not be founded to bedrock in the Mississippi, that spans of five hundred feet were impossible, and that the only sensible bridge to build would be a six-span truss. Boomer’s engineers ignorantly declared that bedrock foundations would not be necessary because scour—the abrasive action of the moving riverbed—did not extend “to a greater depth than thirty feet below low water.” Eads, who had spent a good part of his youth exploring the bottom of the Mississippi, knew better, and St. Louisans trusted his knowledge. “[Boomer] found himself opposed by one who possessed to an uncommon degree the confidence of his fellow citizens, and who united to the skill of an engineer great executive power and unusual resources as a financier,” observed Professor Calvin M. Woodward in his compendious History of the St. Louis Bridge , published in 1881. Without waiting for the legal tangle to unwind, Eads boldly commenced work on the west abutment. The sale of five million dollars’ worth of bonds on the New York and London financial markets depended on sufficient construction being carried out to inspire confidence in the project. Eads chose his site strictly on the basis of the bridge’s optimum location, which was where the fire of 1849 had raged. Consequently he had to plant the abutment in the midst of a fantastic jumble of steamboat debris on the river bottom. “The old sheet-iron enveloping their furnaces, worn-out gratebars, old fire-bricks, parts of smoke-stacks, stone-coal cinders and clinker, and every manner of things entering into the construction of a Mississippi steamer seemed to have found a resting place at this spot,” wrote Woodward. Two steamboats reposed, one on top of the other, the lower one shoved down through the mud to a point only two or three feet above bedrock. The wharf had been rebuilt, and the rubble dumped to support it pinned down the wrecks, making it impossible to refloat them.

The problem was how to build a cofferdam in this underwater junkyard. One of the oldest tools of bridge engineering, a cofferdam is an enclosure, sunk in a riverbed, which can be pumped out to expose the bottom and allow the construction of solid foundations. Eads devised a sort of monster chisel, with a steel blade and oak handle, to cut through the mass. The sheet piling of the cofferdam was thrust into the cleft. Despite every obstacle, including the hulls of four large barges buried in the mud, the cofferdam was completed, and the solid masonry of the west abutment began to rise from the bedrock, forty-seven feet below the city directrix (a marker on a downtown building showing the highest water in the city’s history).

With the construction of the west abutment, Boomer’s rival company gave up, and a deal was negotiated. By the expedient of adopting the rival’s name, the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge Company, Eads took over the indispensable Illinois franchise. But to win the necessary congressional approval and the support of the financial community, he had to demonstrate persuasively the superiority of his steel-arch design and the bedrock foundations. In a lucid and well-argued report he successfully did both. The foundation ‘question was more complicated than might appear, owing to the configuration of the bedrock at St. Louis. While the west abutment had reached bedrock a mere fortyseven feet below the directrix, the rock shelved away from west to east. The west pier, a third of the way across the river, would have to go much deeper than the west abutment, the east pier deeper still, and deepest of all would be the east abutment on the Illinois shore. The practical difficulties of working one hundred feet below the surface of the water had to be given serious consideration.

During the winter of 1867-68, Eads contracted a bronchial ailment and went abroad to convalesce. The leading French iron and steel firm, Petin, Gaudet & Cie., had considered bidding for the superstructure contract at St. Louis; Eads took the opportunity to show M. Petin, the head of the firm, his plans. Petin called in his chief engineer, M. Moreaux, who invited Eads to visit Vichy, where he was constructing a bridge over the Allier River. There Eads got his first look at a pneumatic caisson, one of the most noteworthy engineering developments of the nineteenth century.

French and British engineers, confronted with the problem of constructing deep foundations for bridges and harbor works, had developed the idea of sinking a huge box, full of compressed air, inside which men could work. The concept had been successfully tested at depths of eighty-five feet. To facilitate entry into the sealed box, Admiral Thomas (Lord) Cochrane had invented the air lock. The compressed air in the caisson kept the box from collapsing under the external pressure of water and mud. Ultimately, the caisson itself, filled in with rubble or masonry, became the base of the foundation. Eads’s discussions with the French engineers at Vichy convinced him that the pneumatic caisson, properly constructed, could be used at depths beyond any reached in Europe. He resolved immediately to sink the east pier foundation, the deeper of the two in-water foundations, in order to reassure the bond market that the bridge could be completed.

Back in St. Louis, Eads had soon begun work on a structure even more startling to rivermen than the socalled Submarines or the ironclads. In October, 1869, a huge, armored caisson, eighty-two feet long and sixty feet wide, was towed, rocking and swaying, to the site of the east pier, two thirds of the way to the Illinois shore. A flotilla of boats and barges waited, manned by 1,500 workmen and bristling with hoisting and pumping machinery. Lines, hoses, and cables were attached to the caisson. The caisson had no bottom, but its roof was extraordinarily thick, made up of several courses of heavy timber. Masons and carpenters clambered onto the massive roof and began to build the stone foundation of the pier. As they laid on limestone blocks and mortar, the weight caused the box beneath them slowly to submerge. One week after the caisson was launched, the cornerstone of the pier was laid. A few days later, the bottomless caisson struck sand.

Eads had provided seven air locks as entries to the working chamber for men and tools, and the carpenters and masons had constructed a spiral stairway through the center of the rising pier. Eads’s compressed-air workers—known today as sand hogs—descended the stair, entered an air lock, closed the door behind them, opened a valve, admitted enough air to equal the pressure in the working chamber, closed the valve, opened the opposite door, and entered the large, nine-foot-high chamber. Their task was to dig the mud and sand from under the caisson and shovel it into the lower end of a sand pump that Eads had designed to lift it to the surface and squirt it out into the river. Meanwhile the increasing weight of masonry above continued to press the caisson down through the river bottom toward bedrock.

As the caisson descended, the water pressure on its walls increased and had to be counterbalanced inside. The men worked well in the compressed-air atmosphere, but alter they left the chamber—sometimes while they were on the way home—several complained of acute stomach pains. One or two reported fleeting paralysis after emerging to the surface. After coming up from a depth of seventy-six feet, where the air pressure was thirty-two pounds per square inch, one man was doubled up with such severe abdominal pains that he had to be hospitalized. The men gave the strange ailment the name “the Grecian Bend,” after a contemporary fashion in women’s posture, and invented “cures” such as bands of zinc and silver around the wrists and ankles.

Eads, taking a more realistic view, noted that many of those suffering from the mysterious malady were underfed and alcoholic. He gave orders that only men in good physical condition should be employed in the working chamber. At the same time, he stopped night work and cut the working shift to three daytime watches of two hours each. These measures seemed to have some effect, and on February 28, 1870, the caisson was driven to bedrock at ninety-three feet below the directrix without further serious cases of “the bends.” Cannon boomed, and steamboats whistled up and down the waterfront.

The original working chamber was now bricked in till it was “the size of an Irishman,” at which point the last Irishman crawled out, the ladder was pulled up, and the last space bricked. But almost immediately the air lock had to be put back in use and a new working chamber created above the old one. The spring flood had caused the river to rise more rapidly than the upper part of the caisson could be filled in. Within days the air pressure had to be raised to forty-four pounds to match the increased water pressure.

Among the gang going down one morning was a new worker named James Riley. Squeezing down the narrow spiral stair in file, the men entered the air lock, waited for the pressure to equalize, and climbed down into the working chamber. At the end of two hours of hard work filling in the chamber, they re-entered the air lock, reversed the valves, and quickly reduced the pressure in the lock to normal. Stepping out, they climbed back to the surface. Riley told a fellow workman that he felt fine. The next moment he toppled over dead—America’s first caisson-disease fatality.

Horrified, Eads summoned his personal physician, a man named Jaminet, who fitted up an emergency hospital for other afflicted workers. Nevertheless, five more deaths took place in the next few days. Eads cut the working day to three one-hour watches. At Dr. Jaminet’s suggestion, he laid down strict rules on sleep and diet. This brought bitter complaints from the men, but the east pier was completed with no more fatalities.

Eads was not the first engineer to encounter caisson disease. Several French and British engineers had observed it and, after various experiments, had discovered how to prevent it. But medical news travelled slowly, and Eads had never heard of the European solution. One day during work on the west pier, Dr. Jaminet himself suffered an excruciating seizure after a visit to the caisson. The doctor was fortunate enough to recover; analyzing his experience, he decided that the trouble might lie in the rapidity of the decompression. Although he did not thoroughly understand the cause, his conclusion was right, and the introduction of gradual decompression greatly relieved the problem. (Later investigation was to show that a sudden reduction of atmospheric pressure releases body nitrogen into the blood in the form of tiny bubbles that can block the supply of oxygen to vital organs and thus cause severe disorders.) On the east and west piers there were ninety-one cases of the bends, including thirteen fatalities and two permanent disablements. On the last and deepest foundation, the east abutment on the Illinois shore, only one fatality occurred, despite pressures that reached forty-nine pounds per square inch. The east abutment struck bedrock at the astonishing depth of 127.5 feet below the directrix.

Just after Christmas, 1870, an ice gorge came piling down the river. Eads had foresightedly provided a powerful pointed breakwater, which he now rapidly fortified with rock rubble. Then as the weather turned warm and the gorge subsided, the flood began. Roundthe-clock work was rushed to build the masonry high enough to keep above the crest. This peril was narrowly escaped but was promptly followed by a new one. A tornado raged in from the southwest, uprooted trees, hurled trains off embankments, levelled buildings, and, in a matter of seconds, crumpled the superstructure of the east abutment. By good luck, there were only eight injuries and one fatality. The damage was repaired, and a few weeks later the giant column—45,000 tons of masonry—was complete. After three and a half years of unremitting struggle, the four foundations stood unshakable on the Mississippi bedrock, ready to receive the three great arches.

These had already caused almost as many problems as the foundations. Ironmasters of Europe and America had avidly sought the contract, but one after another had been discouraged by Eads’s specification of strict uniformity. Linville, the skeptical president of the Keystone Bridge Company, probably would have refused the contract had it not been for his ambitious vice president, thirty-five-year-old Andrew Carnegie, who subcontracted the steel to the Butcher Steel Works of Philadelphia and reserved the wrought-iron skewbacks for his newly formed Carnegie and Kloman Company. The Butcher superintendents were soon vehemently protesting Eads’s rigid specifications, and Carnegie was angrily complaining, “Nothing that would and does please engineers is good enough for this work.” Ultimately Butcher had to give up. The Chrome Steel Works of New York took on the job, but demanded more money, which brought on a minor financial crisis. Eads’s estimate of five million dollars for the bridge was proving too low, a normal occurrence then and now in large engineering projects.

However, an independent engineer appointed to do a cost study found no important changes to recommend, and Eads pushed ahead. Through the spring and summer of 1873 the steel tubes of the arches moved farther and farther out over the river, supported by cantilever cables made of steel bars an inch thick. Now a final problem was presented: How could the arch halves be joined at midpoint? As usual, Eads had already planned the solution. He had ordered each steel tube to be lengthened by a factor of 1.000363, to produce the extra necessary to take the compression after removal of the cantilever cables. The final two steel tubes of each arch rib he would truncate by five inches, and have screw threads cut inside. A short wroughtiron plug, fitted with two sets of threads, could be screwed into one tube, then screwed out to screw into the opposing tube. A steel band would confer superior strength on the joint.

Late that summer Eads again sailed for Europe, this time to float a new loan on the London market. He undertook the negotiations with Junius Morgan, the enterprising Yankee who had founded one of London’s leading financial houses. Before agreeing to the additional financing, Morgan asked for new evidence of progress in the construction—the closing of an arch. Eads told him that the first arch would be closed by September 19.

In St. Louis, Eads’s assistant Colonel Flad had thought up his own solution to the arch-closing problem. Flad’s idea was to hump the arch slightly, by pulling back on the cantilever cables. Once the joining ribs were brought together end to end, the cables could be loosened and the arch would assume its correct shape. Eads had given approval to the idea, holding his own method in reserve. Unfortunately a spell of unseasonably warm weather hit St. Louis that September, causing the steel tubes to expand rather than contract as Flad had calculated they would. He could not hump the arch high enough to achieve the joint. The Colonel did not give up easily. He built a wooden trough under the ribs and filled it with thirty thousand pounds of ice; then he tried again.

In London, Eads knew nothing of Flad’s difficulties. Confident that his screw-plug would work in any weather, he had the audacity to go off to Paris for a holiday, leaving Morgan himself to open the expected cable from Flad. It arrived on schedule, September 19; the arch was closed. Flad had finally given up on his ice-cooling and had used Eads’s screw connection.

Eads returned to the United States to find his bridge menaced from another quarter. The steamboat companies, competing for speed records, were feeding their fires with a draft from chimneys one hundred feet high. Since the clearance under Eads’s bridge was only fiftyfive feet at high tide, the boat operators were badgering the War Department to order a canal built around the bridge, at the bridge company’s expense. This preposterous demand received favorable support from Secretary of War William W. Belknap, a worthy who three years later was impeached for accepting bribes. Eads appealed to President Grant, who quieted Belknap in short order. The steamboat companies resigned themselves to the simple and obvious solution of hinging their smokestacks for passage under the bridge.

Shortly afterward Grant visited St. Louis and accompanied Eads and Flad on a tour of the bridge, walking the precarious plankway laid from arch to arch as coolly as he had ever reconnoitered Confederate lines, and joining Eads for brandy and cigars at the bridge office.

Early in 1874 Eads visited New York to reassure the bondholders and bankers that the job was nearly finished. He had just retired to his hotel room when a bellboy appeared with a telegram. It was from Theodore Cooper, the young engineer in charge on the site. The arch ribs had begun to break. Two tubes in the recently completed first span had ruptured.

On the eve of a very important financial meeting, this was truly stunning news. Refusing to panic, Eads sat down under the gaslight and thought. Finally he figured out the problem. The steel cantilever cables, which were scheduled to be removed all at once within a few days, were contracting in the cold and pulling the ribs up and back. He dashed off a telegram to Cooper: loosen the cables. Next morning he addressed the investors with his usual confidence.

It was the last of Eads’s construction problems, though not quite the last of his troubles. Carnegie’s men lagged at their work on the roadway over the completed span until they were encouraged by a bonus, and a farcical confrontation took place when Carnegie barricaded the bridge entrance to make sure of collecting his money. The final cost of the bridge was figured at $6,536,729.99.

The roadway was opened for pedestrians on May 24, 1874; ten days later carriages could cross. Shortly after, at the grand opening, a locomotive proceeded across the lower deck bearing Eads, company officials, and General William Tecumseh Sherman, the Army’s Chief of Staff, who drove the last railroad spike on the Illinois side. On July 2 Eads demonstrated the bridge’s strength by packing the structure with fourteen locomotives, which was as many as he could borrow. On the Glorious Fourth, a hundred rounds from Simpson’s Battery signalled a parade of floats and costumed marchers—the St. Louis brewers, bakers, stove-makers, buggy manufacturers; temperance clubs, German singing societies, the U.S. Cavalry from Jefferson Barracks, and all the local fire departments—a fifteen-mile-long procession to a triumphal arch near the bridge portal, which was topped by a medallion portrait of Eads and the somewhat partial inscription, “The Mississippi discovered by Marquette, 1673, spanned by Captain Eads, 1874.” The President applauded from the reviewing stand as steamboats, hung with bunting and formed in a rainbow arc, blew their whistles.

The elaborate pageantry was justified, for the Eads Bridge was more than the world’s first steel-arch bridge and the biggest bridge ever built up to that time. It was the first important steel structure of any type in the world, and as such it prefigured a revolution in construction. It involved the first significant use of compressed air in America; even in the twentieth century, sand hogs have seldom labored at greater depths.

Eads might now have rested on his laurels. Instead he embarked on another highly controversial project—creating a permanent channel through the Mississippi delta. The river, which flowed deep and swift past New Orleans, widened, slowed, divided, and crawled through three long “passes” in the delta before creeping over a huge sand bar into the Gulf of Mexico. Ships by the score congregated inside and outside the passes waiting for deep enough water to permit them to be towed over the bar. Any number of solutions had been proposed, including, in 1872, the recommendation of a commission of army engineers that an expensive canal be cut through the left bank of the river. Eads argued that one of the passes, properly jettied, could be made navigable at far less cost. A violent controversy followed in Congress and the press. Ultimately Eads was given congressional approval, but with the stipulation that he must work in the small South Pass rather than the large Southwest Pass. Despite this handicap, Eads accepted the job, damming up a bayou to increase the flow in South Pass and constructing a pair of curving two-mile-long jetties of willow-brush mattresses and river mud. At the end of four years he had produced a channel thirty feet deep and two hundred feet wide. The New Orleans Times-Democrat admitted that “New Orleans can never forget … that it ridiculed the idea that any man could bridle the current of the Mississippi.”

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.

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