|This Week in History
May 23 - 29, 1861
James Eads, Lincoln's Riverboat Captain, Takes on the Mighty Mississippi
In the spring of 1861, President Abraham Lincoln called James Buchanan Eads to Washington, to consult with him on the Union's best offensive and defensive strategy for America's western rivers. Eads, born on May 23, 1820, was a cousin of the traitorous James Buchanan, but unlike his relative, he held strong pro-Union sentiments. More than any man alive at the time, Eads knew the potentialities and dangers of the western rivers, especially the Mississippi, and it was this knowledge that President Lincoln wanted to tap.
Eads had gone to work at an early age, but had the good fortune to work for a dry-goods store owner who let him use his library in his spare time. In 1838, Eads could resist the call of the Mississippi no longer, and became a purser on a steamboat which made the St. Louis-New Orleans run. In between his duties, Eads worked on inventing a diving bell, which he patented and which became very useful in the salvage business which he founded in 1842. In addition, Eads designed a twin-hulled boat, equipped with derricks and pumps, and convinced a St. Louis boatbuilding firm to produce it in return for a partnership in the salvage business.
The snags and sandbars in the western rivers brought many a steamboat to the bottom, and Eads became expert at rescuing their cargoes and, later, even raising the ships from the riverbed. In his salvage business, Eads learned valuable lessons about the strength of the Mississippi's currents, and about the characteristics of the other rivers he navigated, including the Missouri, Ohio, Tennessee, and the Cumberland.
Writing about one dive he made beneath the Mississippi, Eads wrote: The sand was drifting like a dense snowstorm at the bottom. "At sixty-five feet below the surface I found the bed of the river, for at least three feet in depth, a moving mass and so unstable that, in endeavoring to find a footing on it beneath my bell, my feet penetrated through it until I could feel, although standing erect, the sand rushing past my hands, driven by a current apparently as rapid as that on the surface, I could discover the sand in motion at least two feet below the surface of the bottom, and moving with a velocity diminishing in proportion to its depth." This finding was to serve him well in one of his later projects.
Eads became convinced that the destructive action of the Mississippi, and indeed all rivers, could be successfully combatted. In 1856, when the Federal government abandoned its snag-clearing program, he submitted a proposal to Congress which stated that he would remove all the snags and wrecks from the Mississippi, Missouri, Arkansas, and Ohio Rivers, and keep the channels open for a set number of years. The new snag-clearing bill passed the House, but it was defeated in the Senate through the opposition of Jefferson Davis, who said that it would be a mistake to take up the proposal of a person "whose previous pursuits gave no assurance of ability to solve a problem in civil engineering."
Abraham Lincoln had no such problem in utilizing Eads' talents. When the President met with him in 1861, Eads stated that control of the Mississippi and its lower tributaries was the key to the war in the West. He proposed building a fleet of armor-clad gunboats, and when the War Department called for bids, he contracted to construct seven iron-plated steamships of 600 tons each, ready for their guns in 65 days.
Within two weeks, Eads had 4,000 men, in locations all over the Union, working on various aspects of the construction, and he launched the first gunboat, the "St. Louis," in 45 days, 20 days earlier than the contract stipulated. The other six followed quickly, and they were in service on the western waters months before the famous fight between the "Monitor" and the "Merrimac" in the eastern theater of war.
The little armored fleet, which could navigate in six feet of water, was put into service on the Tennessee River, where it helped capture Forts Henry and Donelson. The fleet then steamed to the Mississippi, where it captured the Confederate fortress of Island No. 10, defeated enemy ironclads in two stiff battles, and joined forces with Admiral Farragut's ocean-going warships at Vicksburg to cut the Confederacy in two. Farragut cabled the War Department, "Only give me the ironclads built by Mr. Eads, and I will find out how far Providence is with us."
As the Civil War was ending, plans were underway for expanding America's railroads. A railroad bridge, made famous by Abraham Lincoln's legal battle to establish its right to exist, already spanned the Mississippi at Rock Island, Ill., but there was no bridge on the wider part of the river near St. Louis. The Illinois Railroad had reached East St. Louis many years before, but freight had to be ferried across the bridgeless river. In 1865, Congress authorized the construction of a bridge at St. Louis, calling for a 500-foot center span and 50 feet of clearance. Twenty-seven of the country's leading civil engineers said the project was impracticable, but one of the construction companies hired James Eads as its engineer.
Eads proposed that the St. Louis Bridge be built with tubular steel arches, even though no structure of any kind had yet been made of steel. The center arch would rest on two piers sunk to bedrock, with another pier at each shore. The arches would carry a double-decked roadway, with carriages above and railroad trains underneath. To make the project even more daunting, the bed of the Mississippi fell off sharply from west to east, so that the easternmost pier might have to go down 100 feet or more to bedrock.
In 1869, Eads travelled to France to talk with a French engineering firm that might bid on the superstructure of the bridge, and while there, he inspected the construction of a deep-foundation bridge where the pneumatic caisson was in use. When he returned to St. Louis, Eads had William Nelson, who had built his old twin-hulled salvage vessel, construct the necessary caissons. But the French engineers had neglected to tell him about the serious medical problem known as "the bends."
As work on the eastern pier required the men to go deeper and deeper, several started to have painful cramps. Eads shortened shifts, required long rest periods, and enforced strict rules on nutritious diets and long overnight sleeping time, but in vain. When one of the workers died, Eads was horrified and called in his personal physician, Dr. Jaminet and added a floating hospital. The doctor himself, during an inspection of the caissons, was struck with the bends and, after his recovery, analyzed the problem. He hit on the solution of requiring slow decompression, and it saved the men's lives.
Captain Eads had promised that he would not block the Mississippi while he was building the bridge, but this presented a difficult problem. Arched bridges were built by supporting the arch during construction by "centering;" that is, building timber supports for it in the river. Eads solved the problem by cantilevering the arches out from the piers, holding them suspended by cables and timber supports built on top of the piers.
This seemed to work well until one winter day he was notified that the arch ribs had begun to break and two tubes in the first span had ruptured. Eads sat down and thought the problem through, and concluded that the steel cantilever cables, which had not yet been removed, were probably contracting in the cold weather and in the process were pulling the steel ribs up and back. He told his assistant inspector to loosen the cables, and the rupturing stopped.
When the day came for the supporting cables to be removed, the riverbanks were lined with people wondering whether the bridge would collapse. But the huge arches settled safely into place, and on May 24, 1874, the highway deck was opened to pedestrians. In early June, the first locomotive crossed on the lower deck, carrying Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, who drove the last spike on the Illinois side of the river. On July 2, Captain Eads demonstrated the strength of the bridge by running 14 locomotives and tenders back and forth across it. On July 4, a massive parade wound its way to the bridge portal, which bore the inscription: "The Mississippi discovered by Marquette, 1673; spanned by Captain Eads, 1874." In the shadow of the St. Louis Arch, the bridge still stands today.