James Buchanan Eads: Grant’s Ironclad Designer and Tamer of the Mississippi

By John E. Carey

When the deans of American colleges of engineering were asked in the early 20th century to name the top five engineers of all time, James Buchanan Eads was among them; the list also included Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison. He may have been the finest self-educated engineer of all time. Yet Eads also made himself a skilled fund-raiser, diver and inventor and an able leader.

The Eads family was so poor during the 1820s in St. Louis that young James, named for his mother’s cousin who would later become president, had to quit school to sell apples in the street. He then was hired as a clerk in a dry-goods store. The owner gave him access to his personal library, thus stirring the mind and imagination of a gifted young man.
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Above: The Eads Bridge

Eads’ lifelong relationship with the mighty Mississippi began in 1838, when he joined the crew of a riverboat. Realizing how many boiler-driven vessels were subject to fires or explosions, Eads entered the salvage business four years later. He was not interested in salvaging ships, however. He laid claim to the valuable cargoes strewn across the floor of the great river and made himself a millionaire.

Eads pioneered a diving bell that permitted divers to walk on the bottom of the Mississippi, and he was the first to risk using his invention, a perilous undertaking. He also became an expert in Mississippi River currents, silt and sand.

In April 1861, as the Civil War began, both the Union Army and Navy scrambled to find a way to fortify the Mississippi and penetrate the Confederacy. Military leaders summoned Eads to Washington, and in August, after months of study and negotiation, he signed a contract to design and build seven ironclad gunboats.

Eads’ first four ironclads sailed downstream to Cairo, Ill., in November 1861 under the command of the U.S. Navy. He had produced a novel kind of American warship in fewer than 100 days.

In February 1862, under the command of Navy Flag Officer Andrew H. Foote, Eads’ gunboats bombarded and contributed to the capture of Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River in a joint attack with troops led by Ulysses S. Grant, then a little-known brigadier general.

On Feb. 4 and 5, Grant landed his divisions in two locations near Fort Henry, a Confederate earthen fort on the Tennessee River with outdated guns. One division went ashore on the east bank of the Tennessee River to prevent the Confederate garrison’s escape. The second division landed on the Kentucky side to occupy the high ground, which would ensure the fort’s fall.

As Foote’s seven gunboats began bombarding the fort, Brig. Gen. Lloyd Tilghman, commander of the garrison, realized that it would be only a matter of time before Fort Henry fell. Leaving the artillery in the fort to hold off the Union fleet, he withdrew nearly all his men to Fort Donelson, 10 miles away.

Foote slowly sailed the Eads gunboats closer and closer to Fort Henry, maintaining a tremendous barrage. Returning to the fort, Tilghman found the gunboats within 400 yards. The vessels continued lobbing shells into his fortifications, and Tilghman capitulated.

Fort Henry’s fall opened the Tennessee River to Union gunboats and shipping as far as Muscle Shoals, Ala.

Ten days later at Fort Donelson, Confederate Gen. Simon Buckner realized his force was beaten by Grant and the gunboats. He requested surrender terms. “No terms except an immediate and unconditional surrender can be accepted,” Grant famously replied.

After the fall of Donelson, the two major water routes in the Confederate west, bounded by the Appalachians and the Mississippi River, became Union highways for movement of troops and materiel. These were the first major Union victories of the war. Eads’ gunboats played a key role.

The gunboats were put to work bombarding the most crucial remaining Confederate stronghold: Vicksburg, Miss. The city fell on July 4, 1863. The combined Army-Navy operation, the first of its kind by U.S. military forces, opened the Mississippi to the sole use of Union forces.

After the war, St. Louis fell behind Chicago as a commercial center in the Midwest. Chicago enjoyed easy east and west railway service, while St. Louis was cut off by the Mississippi River. The city fathers in St. Louis decided they needed a railroad bridge spanning the river. Eads gladly created a design. As chief engineer of the St. Louis Bridge Co., he would become instrumental in building the bridge and reinvigorating the economy of St. Louis.

Eads created a design to compete with a proven method of bridge-building submitted by Brooklyn Bridge designer John Roebling. The Eads plan called for a span longer than any existing bridge, with a triple arch founded on bedrock. The design called for one arch 520 feet long and two arches of 502 feet. If built, it would become the world’s first major steel bridge.

Eads’ critics sent his plan to a board of 27 leading civil engineers for review. The group unanimously condemned it. Eads had stolen a march, so to speak, however, and already had begun construction on the west abutment, where bedrock was just 47 feet below the high-water line. Eads used compressed-air pneumatic caissons to build the west and east piers and the east abutment. He wasn’t the first American builder to use pneumatic techniques, but he would be the first to attempt such a deep penetration using compressed air.

The drawing for the east abutment called for penetration to 136 feet below high water. Unfortunately, the job produced a first – the introduction of “caisson disease,” also called “the bends.” This agony affected 80 of the crew’s 352 sandhogs, and 15 died. Eads again showed his mental acuity, however, developing slower ascent methods and limiting the men’s time at depth to lessen the effects of the bends.

To prevent obstruction of river traffic during construction, Eads developed new methods of bridge building. He used a tieback system that introduced cantilevering to American bridge construction. The bridge’s three arches each consisted of four 18-inch steel tubes composed of steel staves bound together by steel hoops. The massive structure was completed in 1874 at a cost of more than $10 million. The bridge supported two rail lines, with a 54-foot-wide pedestrian promenade above.

Even before Eads had finished his bridge in St. Louis, he became intrigued by another engineering challenge. At New Orleans, every time the “bar” – the blockage of silt and sand in the delta – made passage into and out of the Gulf of Mexico impossible, ships lay at anchor and moored to piers, filled with idle crewmen and stevedores. Commerce came to a standstill. Often, more than 60 ships sat near New Orleans for days while waiting to cross the bar. New Orleans fell to eighth on the list of most productive American port cities.

Eads said he would find a solution, but he didn’t know when he started that he would have to fight the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers every step of the way.
He went to work on one of the largest engineering challenges in the United States. He pledged that he would find a way to remove the silt from the Mississippi River delta without using clumsy and costly dredging boats. He proposed a method to use nature and the river’s own flow to “cleanse” the water.
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City Class Gunboat circa 1864

Eads proposed to Congress that he would create a channel 28 feet deep and 300 feet wide through the river’s southwestern pass. He also wanted a contract to maintain the passage for 10 years. He offered to finance the work himself until his channel reached 20 feet. After that, he wanted $1 million with incremental $1 million payments for each additional foot of depth produced until the channel reached 28 feet. His maintenance fee would then be $500,000 a year for 10 years.

Eads said he could deepen the channels of the Mississippi by narrowing and restricting the flow of the water. The Corps of Engineers, led by Gen. Andrew Atkinson Humphreys, wanted no part of Eads’ scheme. The corps wanted to dredge and build a canal.

Eads had clashed with Humphreys before, over a proposal to build a canal around his bridge in St. Louis. The end of that dispute had come easily when Eads called on his old friend President Grant. The president had sided with Eads, killing Humphreys’ plan.

Eads went to work raising the money for his Mississippi delta project. He hired the Grand Republic, one of the most luxurious steamers of her day. He planned to wine and dine investors and politicians while showing them that his initial jetties were, in fact, deepening the channel. Humphreys sent his own man from the Corps of Engineers, armed with facts and figures disputing every claim Eads made. Humphreys successfully undermined Eads’ fund-raising effort.

In the end, Eads narrowed the south pass of the Mississippi in 1875 by building jetties.

The restricted flow increased the speed of the river, flushing sediment into the gulf. Within eight months, the channel at the sandbar deepened to 13 feet. By August 1876, the channel was 20 feet deep. By 1879, the South Pass Channel was 300 feet wide and 30 feet deep. The force of the river completely removed the sandbar.

The final project of Eads’ enormously productive career – a maritime link between the Atlantic and Pacific oceans – never came to fruition. (His audacious accomplishments are recounted in detail in John M. Barry’s fine book “Rising Tide.”) Eads had proposed not a canal, but a railway to carry oceangoing ships in cradles and huge flat cars across
Mexico’s Isthmus of Tehuantepec. The Mexican government endorsed the plan and, largely because of Eads’ reputation and record of success, the House voted for the idea, but the Senate defeated the bill.

Had he lived a few more years, we might today be able to see huge ships crossing the Sierra Madre del Sur by rail. We’ll never be sure whether Eads might have been successful with this wild idea. He had never failed before, though.

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