Born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, on May 23, 1820, James Buchanan Eads became an engineer of great renown, remarkable for the variety of his accomplishments. This controversial “nonengineer” became a vice president of the American Society of Civil Engineers and a leader in creating civil works in the latter half of the nineteenth century. In recent years historians have found a renewed interest in this unusual and intensely dedicated man.
At the age of twenty-two, Eads persuaded two St. Louis boatbuilders, Calvin Case and William Nelson, to enter into a partnership with him in the salvage business. The new company constructed a diving bell designed by Eads, a variety of mechanical equipment, and a twin-hulled salvage boat known as a “submarine.” Eads was his own diver much of the time. Salvage operations provided him with many opportunities to stress metal and machinery to its limits. His “testing laboratory” was a full-scale enterprise designed to raise and salvage cargo and hulls from the scouring currents, whirlpools, and water boils of the sediment-laden Mississippi.
A specialist in the salvage of boats sunk in the Mississippi River, Eads also built some of the first “ironclad” steamboats used in battling the Confederacy during the Civil War. These jobs gave him experience in working underwater and with iron and steel, talents that proved invaluable in building the nation’s first major steel bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis. Many of Eads’s accomplishments were thought impossible by his well-educated contemporaries. Although he was not formally educated, Eads was very knowledgeable, and he read everything available on machinery, materials, and hydraulics.
Two of Eads’s Mississippi River works are still functioning today, serving people and commerce. The first project is Eads Bridge at St. Louis, which has carried rail and vehicular traffic since 1874. The beauty and grace of its design continues to delight artists and photographers.
The second project is the jetties at South Pass, one hundred miles beyond New Orleans, at the end of the Mississippi delta. Following a great controversy with the Army Corps of Engineers, the jetties were constructed so that the flow of the river keeps the channel from filling with silt. Ships continue to travel daily through this deep channel.
Early in the Civil War, Eads became convinced that ironclad gunboats would be essential to the Union war effort in controlling the rivers. Although his initial efforts were rebuffed, the government finally advertised for bids. Taking the contract at a low price, Eads organized a workforce of four thousand men and delivered the first boat in four months. In the course of building more boats, he invented a steam-actuated rotating gun turret.
Eads foresaw that railroads would be the main transportation system for the latter half of the nineteenth century, just as canals had been for the first half. To make St. Louis the major East-West rail center, a bridge was needed across the fifteen-hundred-foot, fast-flowing Mississippi. There was no precedent for such a bridge.
Business and political disputes loomed as the bridge concept became imminent. The Wiggins Ferry Company stood to lose its monopoly on moving freight and people across the river. Powerful railroad financiers were less than enthusiastic. Chicagoans believed that such a bridge would cut into their city’s increasing importance as a rail center. Political opponents mustered enough force for a congressional bill in 1865 that would limit the authorization to a bridge that “spans no less than five hundred feet and minimum clearance of fifty feet.” They were confident such requirements would doom the project.
Instead, Eads announced his unprecedented plans: ribbed arches with spans of 502, 520, and 502 feet made from a recently invented but as yet unproved alloy called steel were to be the main superstructure. Foundations were to be based on bedrock to ensure stability during spring floods and winter ice jams. On the basis of those preliminary plans, Eads was elected chief engineer of the St. Louis and Illinois Bridge Company.
“Impossible and impractical” was the opinion of many citizens and the engineering establishment. Eads, aware of his own limitations, had the mathematical theory and calculations checked by a nationally prominent mathematician, William Chauvenet at Washington University in St. Louis. Less than fourteen months after erection of the superstructure began, the strength of the bridge was dramatically demonstrated to the public on July 2, 1874. Fourteen locomotives with their tenders full of coal and water were coupled together, seven on each track. They moved back and forth across the bridge, stopping at the middle of each span. A tremendous citywide celebration was held on dedication day, July 4, with a five-hour parade followed by a fireworks display.
The railroad companies chose to boycott Eads Bridge and continue transferring freight across the Mississippi by ferryboat, which ultimately forced Eads’s company into bankruptcy only four years after the bridge opened to traffic. The $10 million structure was bought at auction for only $2 million by English bondholders, who formed a new company. In 1881 Jay Gould’s Missouri Pacific became the sole lessee of the bridge and assumed all its debts; the lease was transferred in 1889 to the Terminal Railroad Association of St. Louis.
Eads died on March 8, 1887, at the age of sixty-six in Nassau, in the Bahama Islands.
Belcher, Wyatt Winton. The Economic Rivalry between St. Louis and Chicago, 1850–1880. New York: Columbia University Press, 1947.
Eads, James Buchanan. Papers. Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis.
Eads, James Buchanan, and Martha Nash Dillion Eads. Letters. State Historical Society of Missouri.
Kouwenhoven, John A. “Eads Bridge: The Celebration.” In The Eads Bridge. Princeton, NJ: Art Museum, Princeton University, 1974.
Scott, Quinta, and Howard S. Miller. The Eads Bridge. St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 1999.
Williams, J. Wayman. “James B. Eads and His St. Louis Bridge.” Civil Engineering 47:10 (October 1977): 102–6.
Woodward, Calvin. A History of the St. Louis Bridge. St. Louis, 1881.
Published June 30, 2023; Last updated July 1, 2023
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