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Eads Bridge, an engineering marvel, spans the Mississippi River at St. Louis. /Michael C. Snell photo.

Spanning time
From building a monumental bridge to deepening the channel at New Orleans, James Eads forever changed the face of the Mississippi

Published: Sep/Oct 2002
By Sally M. Snell

Eads was an intrepid inventor who designed a diving bell out of a whiskey keg to search the river bottom for cargo from shipwrecks. /Mississippi River Museum Dubuque
In the mid-19th century, his contemporaries said it would be impossible to build a bridge across the Mississippi River. But James Buchanan Eads–a driven and innovative visionary–would prove them wrong.

The United States grew in leaps and bounds during the 19th century. As the nation expanded westward, railroads forged a path across the continent, but with no bridge to carry them, trains stopped at the eastern shore of the Mississippi across from St. Louis.

There were plans for bridges at ports north of St. Louis, but in order for the city to remain a strong economic port, an east-west connection over the Mississippi at St. Louis would be vital.

Many thought it would be impossible. Steel had not yet been utilized as a main structural component. No other material was suitable for the load-bearing requirements and wide spans necessary for such a bridge. Because river commerce was crucial to the economy, the bridge could not interfere with river traffic.

In 1874, Eads, a self-taught man with no previous bridge-building experience, achieved the impossible. So how did he do it?

He developed an unprecedented set of specifications for steel components and created tests to ensure that each piece met his exacting mechanical demands. He became the first American to use pneumatic caissons to construct bridge piers underwater. And he kept shipping lanes open during construction by cantilevering the unjoined arch sections until the final pins were in place.

The result is a three-span bridge constructed of tubular steel. The outer spans are 537 feet, and a central span is 552 feet. It is considered to be an engineering monument.

Shipwrecks and gunboats

Eads was born in Indiana in 1820 and moved to St. Louis when he was 13. He had no formal education but was an avid reader. His interest in the river blossomed at 18 when he took a clerk’s position on a steamboat.

Eads could see the profit in clearing snags and salvaging steamboat wrecks off the Mississippi River. The pay was lucrative–earning up to 75 percent of cargo value–but finding the cargo scattered along the bottom of the wide and muddy waters of the Mississippi was no easy task. Always an intrepid entrepreneur and inventor, Eads developed a kind of diving bell out of a weighted whisky keg. A pump onboard a boat supplied air through hose connections. Though awkward, this apparatus allowed Eads to walk along the river bottom and feel blindly for cargo.

Eads’ innovative mind and interest in river traffic became vital to the Union during the Civil War. Eads could foresee the importance of a river navy and developed a plan to build armored gunboats for the War Department out of a shipyard near St. Louis. Eads was concerned that without them, the war would essentially cut the Mississippi River in half. When War Department payments on his contracts were late, Eads financed supplies and labor himself, and soon seven of his gunboats were completed. The boats won several decisive victories for the Union. Among them were winning Fort Henry along the Tennessee River.

Clearing the channel

For most of our nation’s history, the Mississippi has been a vital shipping lane. The river was fierce and wide and the outlet to the Gulf filled with sediment, grounding boats at low tide and hindering passage between the Gulf and the river.

A canal was the most popular proposal when Eads came forward with a plan to build a jetty that he said could be built for significantly less money and with better results. Though Eads had vocal detractors, he was awarded the jetty contract at the South Pass south of New Orleans.

Eads built the jetty by sinking yellow pine and willow “mattresses” at South Pass. After these mattresses had naturally filled with sediment, Eads bound their sides with rubble and capped them with concrete. The jetties encouraged the river’s current to dig a deeper channel and release its sediment farther into the Gulf where it would not obstruct traffic.

The jetty was completed in 1879. Twenty years afterward New Orleans trade had increased 100 percent.
Not all of Eads projects were successful, but there can be no doubt that his passion and ingenuity forever changed the Mississippi. Look for his star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame, 6635 Delmar Boulevard.

To learn more about Eads’ projects, and the Mississippi River itself, visit the Missouri History Museum in St. Louis, the Mississippi River Museum in Dubuque, Iowa, and the Mississippi River Museum in Memphis, Tenn

And of course, no visit to St. Louis is complete without viewing the Eads Bridge, north from the levee by the Gateway Arch.

Also see: Massive rehab of Eads Bridge is nearing completion

Sally Snell is a contributor from Topeka, Kan.

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