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James Buchanan Eads

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1872. Arrangements for Erecting Bridge Over The River Mississippi at St. Louis.
1873. Gun Carriage with Pneumatic Elevating Gear.
1873. Gun Carriage with Pneumatic Elevating Gear.

James Buchanan Eads (1820-1887)

American bridge designer and hydraulic engineer.

1820 Born on 23 May at Lawrenceburg, Indiana

1887 Died on 8 March at Nassau, Bahamas

Best known for his bridge across the Mississippi at St Louis.


1887 Obituary [1]

JAMES BUCHANAN EADS 1 was born at Lawrenceburgh, Ind., U.S., on the 23rd of May, 1820.

His father, Thomas C. Eads, was engaged in business in Lawrenceburgh, but, meeting with reverses, in a few years moved to Louisville, Ky., and soon afterwards to St. Louis-when young Eads was about thirteen years of age. The steamboat on which they took passage was burned, and their household goods, which constituted nearly all their property, were destroyed. It was a singular coincidence that this boy, under such distressing circumstances, should have been put ashore upon the very spot where he afterwards located the west abutment of the great bridge that gave him such wide reputation.

Young Eads at once sought employment, and was fortunate in obtaining a position as clerk in the mercantile house of Williams and Durings. The senior member of the firm, Mr. Williams, took great interest in the lad, and, noticing his eagerness for knowledge, placed at his disposal a well-selected library. Eads promptly availed himself of this kind offer, mostly spending his evenings in study. He was even then earnestly devoted to mechanical and civil engineering investigations. There is no doubt that he indigence of his family through these early years assisted materially in developing that self-reliance which all through his life was one of his marked characteristics, and also gave an additional incentive for the acquisition of useful knowledge. While occupying the position with Mr. Williams, his father fitted up for him a shop in the basement of their dwelling, where he put his mechanical ideas into form by building a veritable steamboat about 6 feet in length, with boilers, engines, and all necessary machinery for its own propulsion. He launched it in Choteau’s pond, now Fourteenth Street, St. Louis, and had the satisfaction of seeing it navigate the pond by steam-power.

At the age of eighteen, in 1838, he obtained the position of purser of a steamboat on the Mississippi River, and took advantage of his opportunities to become intimately acquainted with steamboats in all their details. This experience led him to devise means for saving the wrecks of boats and barges that were found all along the river. In 1842 he built a diving-bell boat for recovering cargoes. After successfully performing such work, and testing the appliances to his satisfaction, he fitted out a much larger boat, for lifting the entire hull, cargo and all. He formed a company to carry on "wrecking" operations, and took personal charge of the business, which covered the whole river, from its mouth at the Gulf to Galena, and up the tributaries of the river. He engaged in this work for about three years, and then, in 1845, sold out his interest and built the first glass-works in the Mississippi Valley ; but his hard-earned fortune was swept away in the collapse of this undertaking, and he found himself ruined financially, and $25,000 in debt. He borrowed $1,500 from his creditors and resumed the business of raising wrecks.

In 1849 twenty-nine steamers were burned at the St. Louis levee, most of which he raised and removed. This business was so fortunate and lucrative, that in 1859 he found himself with a fortune of nearly half a million dollars, with his creditors long before this paid off in full. The business required his presence and direction constantly. Its drafts upon his ingenuity were always met by the very best practical appliances demanded in each particular case, and he personally superintended the work, often going down in the diving bell when his men were unwilling to do so. Small of stature, and to appearance frail and wanting in physical strength, he yet showed remarkable endurance under physical and mental trials that very few possessed. These experiences, and the intimate knowledge gained of the currents, sediments, and other conditions of the Father of Waters,” enabled him in later years to combat successfully errors founded on ignorance of those facts which had clearly revealed to him the laws which controlled the great river.

Mr. Eads’ first proposition to the United States Government was made in 1856. He proposed to Congress to open, and keep open, the channels of the Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Arkansas Rivers, for a term of years by removing wrecks, snags, and any other obstructions. The bill giving him this contract passed the House of Representatives, but did not pam the Senate, that body failing to take action. At this time his health failed, and for several years he was more or less of an invalid. Up to this period he might be said to have been at school. Few men, with or without the advantage of a liberal education, have had so valuable an experience, or have made better use of their opportunities. It was a characteristic of his genius to understand quickly the natural laws whose operations came within his observation and experience, and to evolve new and better appliances than then existed for performing work under these laws. Therefore, with this peculiar and intimate experience with the river and the craft that plied upon it, and with constant study of principles and details, not only as they fell under his eye and practice, but in books, of which he was a great reader and a close student, he was at forty a graduate in the great school of hard, practical experience, and ready to grapple successfully with the grand problems which were now thrust upon him for prompt and effective solution. He had no diploma which he could hang on the wall as his evidence of graduation, but his mental training and fitness for work were of more value to him than any collegiate parchment. Mr. Eads was in the true sense of the word a “self-made” man, and his great success as an engineer was largely due to that incentive to work and study engendered by the hard vicissitudes of his early life.

At the beginning of the American Civil War, three days after the surrender of Fort Sumter, Attorney-General Bates &rote to Mr. Eads as follows : “Be not surprised if you are called here suddenly by telegram. If called, come instantly. In a certain contingency it will be necessary to have the aid of the most thorough knowledge of our Western rivers and the use of steam on them, and in that event I have advised that you be consulted.” The message alluded to soon followed the letter, and Mr. Eads went immediately to Washington. As a result of conferences with President Lincoln and members of the cabinet, he proposed to place gun-boats on the rivers, stating the kind of boats, and also specifying the location and character of land batteries.

In August, 1861, the proposal of Mr. Eads, made in response to an advertisement of the Quartermaster-General, who had called for bids for a number of iron-clad boats, was accepted. The Department decided to construct seven vessels, each of about 600 tons ; draught, 6 feet ; speed, 9 miles per hour ; plating, 24 inches thick, and an armament of thirteen heavy guns. The casemates slanting back at an angle of about 35’ from the water line, extending entirely around the boat, formed a quadrilateral gun-deck. The contract was signed on the 7th of August to construct these seven vessels ready for armament in sixty-five days. The conditions, and especially the want of facilities for complying with them, would have discouraged any but the most courageous and self-reliant. Most men would have considered such a task impossible. The foundries, forges, rolling-mills, saw-mills, and machine-shops were closed ; the workmen were enlisting in the service ; all the arts of peace were suspended, and the dissensions of the border States had prostrated all business. The materials which were to be put into these gun-boats were yet in their native condition in the forest and in the ore ; even the rolls for the plates had to be made. According to Boynton’s History of the Navy during the Rebellion” this notable work was thus carried out. Within two weeks not less than four thousand men were engaged in the various details of construction. Neither the sanctity of the Sabbath nor the darkness of night were permitted to interrupt the work. The men on the hulls were promised a handsome bonus in money for each one who stood steadfastly at the work until it was completed, and many thousands of dollars were thus gratuitously paid by Mr. Eads when it was finished. On the 12th of October, 1861, the first United States ironclad, with her boilers and engines on board, was launched in Carondelet, MO., in forty-five days from the laying of her keel. She was named the “ St. Louis,” by Rear-Admiral Foote, in honour of the city. The “Cincinnati,” “Louisville,” ‘‘Mound City,” ”Cairo,” and “Pittsburg,” followed in rapid succession. An eighth vessel, larger, more powerful and superior in every respect, was also undertaken before the hulls of the first seven had fairly assumed shape. Thus one individual put in construction and pushed to completion within one hundred days a powerful squadron of eight steamers, aggregating 5,000 tons, capable of steaming at 9 knots per hour, each heavily armoured, fully equipped, and all ready for their armament of one hundred and seven large guns. The fact that such a work was done is nobler praise than any that can be bestowed by words.

In April, 1862, designs were solicited by the Navy Department from Mr. Eads for light-draught armoured vessels with rotating turrets for use on Western rivers. He submitted plans on his own designs, especially for the turrets and machinery for handling the guns, and constructed in all fourteen heavily armoured gun-boats. He also converted seven transports into what were called “tinclads,” or musket-proof gun-boats ; and he built in addition four heavy mortar-boats.

His next work was the construction of the arched bridge over the Mississippi River at St. Louis.’ Since its construction, in the years 1867-74, many important bridges have been built and deep foundations sunk, but at the time the work was commenced on this bridge there were no well-known precedents for some of its principal features or dimensions. The sudden changes in the river bed at this point made it necessary to go to the bed rock for the foundations of the piers. The base of one pier is 136 feet below high water, and it was sunk through 90 feet of sand and gravel ; another is 130 feet below high water, and it went through 80 feet of sand. The piers were massive structures, one of them weighing 45,000 tons. The central span is 520 feet in the clear, and the two side spans 502 feet. The plan of the superstructure is a ribbed arch, carrying a double-track railway with a broad wagon way above. By the requirements of the Act of Congress the clear height was fixed at 50 feet above the City Directrix. To show how doubtful was considered the practicability of erecting spans of the length required, the following extract is given from the resolutions adopted by a convention composed of twenty-eight of the leading civil engineers of the United States, and whose names were appended to the report of the convention : " Resolved, that we as practical engineers cannot conscientiously recommend to the parties in interest to venture upon the construction of spans of as great length as the maximum one prescribed by law " (500 feet). Mr. Eads, however, so clearly proved the correctness of his plans, and showed that engineers of international reputation had designed even longer spans, which had been approved by their brother engineers, and that there were in existence at the time bridges whose spans were nearly equal to his proposed plans, that the Bridge Company were fully satisfied with his designs, and he proceeded with the construction of the work.

The St. Louis Bridge wa8 scarcely completed when Mr. Eads turned his attention practically to a subject that had been in his mind since his proposition to the Government in 1856 to open up and maintain the channels of the rivers. This was the opening of the mouth of the Mississippi River, where the sand-bars lying at the embouchure of the passes into the Gulf had become a serious obstruction to the commerce between the Mississippi Valley and the ocean. In February 1874, he made a formal proposition to Congress to open the mouth of the Southwest Pass and to maintain the channel. This he agreed to do at the sole risk of himself and associates. The attacks upon his proposition from all sides, and the gallant and victorious fight which he waged single-handed in Congress and out of it, have already become a part of the history of this important work, and need not be repeated. The work was commenced in the summer of 1875, and the construction lasted about four years, the channel demanded by the contract with the Government having been obtained in July 1879. Its dimensions were: depth, 26 feet with a width of 200 feet at that depth, and a central depth of 30 feet without regard to width. Mr. Eads brought to the construction of this important work the same genius that had characterised his management of the St. Louis Bridge. No obstacle, whether of an engineering or a financial character, dismayed or even discouraged him. His knowledge of the laws of currents, his predictions of complete success by working in accordance with these laws, his unalterable determination to achieve success, and his unfaltering faith in the darkest hours of that work, were indelibly impressed upon the minds of his intimate associates, so that, whatever his detractors said, those who knew him best felt the inspiration of his consummate skill, and a repose in his unswerving confidence in the final result. The unselfish patriotism and desire to promote the welfare of his country are seen in nothing more than in his persistent efforts to secure the improvement of the Mississippi River from the Gulf to the mouth of the Ohio. Some of the most laborious years of his life were spent in efforts to obtain the legislation from Congress necessary to inaugurate a comprehensive system of river-improvement under a mixed commission. It is not enough to say that he did more than any one to accomplish this; it is only the truth to say that-without .his untiring efforts neither the commission nor the improvement-works would have existed. In the clearest and most convincing manner he stated the plan of improvement in documents addressed to Congress and in addresses before public meetings in the Mississippi Valley. Between 1874 and 1879 he outlined one of the most comprehensive plans ever devised by a hydraulic engineer. By untiring efforts he at last brought about a public sentiment in favour of the improvement and obtained the necessary Congressional action. The Commission was appointed in 1879 and presented its preliminary report February 7th, 1880. He was appointed on this commission, and served two years, when his failing health and the cares of other important business compelled him to resign and go abroad. The channel at the mouth of the Mississippi River was obtained in July 1879. The Panama Canal Congress was held in May of the same year.

The attention of the civilized world was being directed, as never before, to an interoceanic transit-way. Mr. Eads conceived the idea of extending the Mississippi River, commercially speaking, into the Pacific Ocean and of opening up to the eastern coast of Mexico and the States bordering the Gulf and to the great valley of the Mississippi, the rich markets of the Pacific, and at the same time to connect the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the United States by the shortest possible route by way of the Tehuantepec Isthmus, where a crossing for ships would effect a saving of 2,000 miles over the Panama route, and 1,500 miles over the Nicaragua route. As a canal was impracticable at Tehuantepec, he proposed to build a ship-railway for the transportation of ocean vessels over the 140 miles of land that separate the Gulf of Mexico from the Pacific Ocean. He at once began the preliminary plans for the work, and made a careful study of the subject in the fall and winter of 1879.

On March 9th and 13th, 1880, he appeared before the Select Committee of the House of Representatives on Interoceanic Canals, and replied to Count de Lesseps, who was advocating the construction of the Panama Canal. In his remarks, Mr. Eads explained in considerable detail his plans for a ship-railway, and contended that it was entirely practicable.

On August 11th, 1880, he delivered an address before the San Francisco Chamber of Commerce on the “Interoceanic Ship Railway,” in which he said :- “Standing in your presence to-day, and conscious of the full import of my words, I declare to you (1) that a ship-railway can be constructed at one-half the cost of a canal with locks and in one-half the time. ,2. That when completed, the railway can be maintained and operated at a cost not exceeding that of a canal. 3. That your largest vessels with their cargoes can be safely carried from ocean to ocean in one-half the time required for a passage through the canal.” He then gave additional reasons for his preference for a railway.

In November 1880, he went to Mexico, and obtained a valuable concession from the Mexican Government for building a ship-railway. He instituted the preliminary surveys by the assistance of that Government, and accompanied the engineering party to the Isthmus on board a Mexican Government vessel which had been placed at his disposal. In March 1881 he made known his views on this subject in the North American Review, and explained and enforced the controlling principles at considerable length. In the winter of 1881 he made a proposition to Congress to build the railway at his own expense and at his own risk, provided the Government would guarantee a dividend of 6 per cent. for fifteen years after he ha.& by the actual construction and operation of the railway, proved its practicability. His views of the feasibility of the railway were supported by the professional opinions of a large number of practical experts both in the United States and in England, and the Senate and House Committees favourably reported on the bill, but the Senate failed to take action upon it. In 1885 Mr. Eads obtained a modification of the concession from Mexico, by which that Government guaranteed that one-third of the net revenue should amount to $1,250,000 per annum, and granted several other important changes which increased the value of the concession. He then introduced a new bill in Congress by which, when the Ship Railway should be entirely completed and put into operation, transporting large ocean vessels fully laden, the Government guaranteed that two-thirds of the net revenue should amount to $2,500,000, Mexico having guaranteed the other third. This bill was favourably reported on by the Committees of the two Houses before the end of that session, but in the last session of Congress it was deemed advisable to exclude all guarantee clauses and to ask for a simple charter. Mr. Eads went to Washington in January 1887, although in very poor health, to secure the passage of the Act, confidently believing that it would ensure the raising of the capital, in the States and in England, necessary to build the railway. He was not able to remain in Washington, and by the advice of his physician and friends, sailed for Nassau, N.P., Bahamas, where he died after a short illness on the 8th of March, 1887. In addition to these more important undertakings, Mr. Eads examined and reported upon many engineering projects.

In March 1878, at the request of the City Council of Jacksonville, Florida, he made a report upon the practicability of deepening the channel through the bar at the mouth of the St. John's River. After the construction of the South Pass Jetties he was requested by the people of Galveston to formulate a plan and take a contract from the United States Government to improve that harbour. He gave long and careful attention to the project, but Congress was not willing to grant a contract for the work. At the request of the Canadian Government he examined the harbour of Toronto, and made plans for its improvement. At the solicitation of the Mexican Government he made surveys and elaborate plans for the improvement of the harbours of Vera Cruz and Tampico. He examined into the problem of the drainage of the Sacrament0 River, as Consulting Engineer of the State of California.

In 1884, by request of the Mersey Docks and Harbour Board, he appeared before a Committee of the House of Lords and gave his testimony as to the effect of the terminal works of the Manchester Ship Canal upon the estuary of the Mersey and the bar at Liverpool. He brought to the solution of this question that same keen insight into hydraulics and the same close application that had made him so successful in America.

The Emperor of Brazil, Dom Pedro II., held Mr. Eads in high esteem, and made a special visit to the South Pass Jetties when he was in the United States. He afterwards offered Mr. Eads the position, which was given on his recommendation to the late Mr. W. Milnor Roberts, Past President Amer. Soc. C.E., M. Inst. C.E. About two years ago Mr. Eads was requested by the Brazilian Government to examine the mouth of the Rio Grande do Sul and to make plans for its improvement, but ill-health and pressing business prevented his acceptance of the offer. In 1884 the Albert Medal of the Society of Arts was conferred upon him in recognition of his great services in improving the water-communications of North America, and the valuable aid thereby rendered to the commerce of the world.

Mr. Eads was elected a Member of the American Society of Civil Engineers on the 16th of December, 1868 (Fellow on the 30th of March, 1870), and was Vice-President from January 18th, 1882, to January 17th, 1883. He was made a Member of this Institution on the 4th of May, 1869 ; Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in 1879, and a Member of the British Association in 1884. He was a member of the Society of Arts, of the Engineer's Club of St. Louis, and of the American Geographical Society. He was for two years President of the Academy of Science of St. Louis. The inventive genius of Mr. Eads is shown in the fact that nearly fifty patents were issued to him by the Governments of the United States and of England for useful inventions in naval warfare, bridge-foundations and superstructure, dredging-machines, navigation, river- and harbour-work, and ship-railway construction.


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