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The Builders

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James Buchanan Eads

James Buchanan Eads, one of the most outstanding civil engineers of the 19th century, is most widely known as the builder of the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, Missouri. An innovative inventor, Eads is noted for his development of diving bell techniques to salvage sunken steamboats. During the Civil War, he designed and built a fleet of ironclad gunboats. His most noteworthy achievement was the construction of a jetty system at the South Pass of the mouth of the Mississippi, enabling New Orleans to become a deep water port.

Eads was born near Lawrenceburg, Indiana in 1820. At the age of 18, he secured the position of mud clerk on the steamer Knickerbocker and began his life long involvement with the river.

As a clerk on a Mississippi River steamboat, Eads' attention was attracted by the numerous losses of boats and cargoes. In 1842 he patented an adaption of the diving bell and engaged in the salvage business. He built the first of a series of "bell boats" bearing the name Submarine and became very successful.

In 1856 he went to Washington where he offered to clear the western rivers of snags for a modest annual sum. The bill passed the House of Representatives, but was defeated in the Senate. Eads was not easily discouraged, however, and formed the Western River Improvement Company. By 1857 there were 10 "submarines" in the company's fleet.

As the Civil War threatened, he anticipated the strategic importance of the Mississippi and advanced a radical idea - ironclad boats. The U. S. Government was slow to recognize the merits of his proposal, but he eventually secured the contract and built the boats in record time. In February 1862, his novel craft were used to spearhead a Union offensive against Forts Henry and Sonelson, becoming the first ironclads to fight in North America.

In 1865, Congress authorized the construction of a bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis. The St. Louis and Illinois Bridge Company was formed in 1866, and Eads was named chief engineer even though he had never before constructed a bridge. Eads' bridge was revolutionary in both design and construction. His blueprints called for a steel arch bridge of three spans, 502, 520, and 502 feet respectively, supported by four piers. These spans would become the longest constructed up to that time.

He pioneered the use of structural steel in bridge building and was the first American to utilize pneumatic caissons in underwater construction. The Eads Bridge, with its record span and novel construction techniques, was recognized as a landmark engineering achievement and officially opened on July 4, 1874. Although Eads only built one bridge, his design and innovative methods of bridge construction were widely emulated.

Government attention to the improvement of navigation at the mouth of the Mississippi had begun as early as 1837, but efforts to deepen the channel had proved ineffective. By the 1870's, the problem of channel maintenance had become a nightmare. In February 1874, Eads made a formal proposal to open the mouth of the river by opening a channel 28 feet deep between the South-West pass and the Gulf. Despite the wide skepticism, an amended bill was approved, authorizing the construction of a series of jetties at the smaller South pass. By 1879 Eads had successfully altered the sedimental behavior of the river, creating a deepened channel for shipping; for all practical purposes, New Orleans had an unrestricted outlet to the sea.

This achievement placed him in the foremost rank of hydraulic engineers. Eads became a technical advisor on river control, and his advice was sought not only by many municipalities in the U. S., but by other governments as well. Eads basic bridge design and innovative methods of bridge construction would be emulated worldwide. James Eads died on March 8, 1887.



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