How James B. Eads Conquered the Mighty Mississippi

23, May 2017

The Mississippi River has beckoned millions of people to settle up and down its fertile banks, inspiring countless creative works. It has been personified in song, and its ever-changing nature has been used as a metaphor for life itself. But James Buchanan Eads didn’t find inspiration on the Mississippi’s surface—he found it below.

Sepia-toned full-body portrait of James B. EadsJames B. Eads, ca. 1860. Missouri History Museum.

Shortly after arriving in St. Louis in the early 1830s, the Eads family lost everything when a steamboat carrying their possessions caught fire and sank to the bottom of the Mississippi. Eads, then 13 years old, subsequently dropped out of school to work in a local dry-goods store and help support his family. Ultimately, the absence of a formal education suited his preferred way of learning, which was through action rather than words.

As an adult, Eads embarked on a flurry of entrepreneurial engineering. He designed a salvage boat that could pluck scraps from the river’s depths and a diving bell to ease him down to its murky floor. In the early 1860s, Eads won a government contract to build ironclad gunboats for the Civil War. He amassed 4,000 men to help build them, then invented a steam-powered rotating gun turret for good measure.

Author T. W. Hoit called Eads “a godlike though a self-made man” for his ingenuity, but not everyone was so effusive. “Impossible and impractical” was the more common refrain used to describe the intrepid inventor. Nonetheless, when the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge Company was selected to build a bridge to connect Missouri and Illinois, Eads was named chief engineer of the project.

The backlash was swift. Steamboat owners argued that the bridge would snarl river traffic and insisted their boats’ smokestacks were too tall to fit underneath the structure. The Wiggins Ferry Company, at the time the only means of transporting people and goods between St. Louis and East St. Louis, saw the proposed bridge as a major threat to its monopoly. Even railroad bigwigs 300 miles away in Chicago were against the project, convinced it would lessen their city’s prominence as a hub.

A black and white photograph of the Eads Bridge under construction in September 1873, looking northeast.A view of the Eads Bridge under construction in September 1873, looking northeast. Missouri History Museum.

Besides, people said, nobody had ever constructed a bridge using so much steel—certainly not one with three 500-foot spans—and there was simply no way to sink the bridge’s foundation all the way to the Mississippi’s bedrock 100 feet beneath the river’s surface.

Eads was undeterred. His innovative design plans—with calculations checked by Washington University’s second chancellor, William Chauvenet, one of the most respected mathematicians in the country at the time—were unveiled in July 1867. Construction began the following February. It took seven years, cost $6.5 million, and claimed the lives of 16 men.

Political cartoon mocking the slow pace of Eads Bridge constructionAn 1872 political cartoon published in the humor magazine Puck, mocking the slow pace of Eads Bridge construction. Missouri History Museum.

The structure itself came within inches of failure, as Anthony J. Bianculli recounts in Trains and Technology: The American Railroad in the Nineteenth Century, Volume 4:

An interesting problem arose when the last pieces of the first arch were jockeyed into position. Eads had intentionally designed the bridge members so that there would be an overlap of 2 to 3 inches (at 60 degrees Fahrenheit) at the center of the arch so that, when joined and the supporting cables were removed, the arch would be stressed compressively.

But on the day the arches were to be joined in September 1873, the temperature reached nearly 100 degrees. As a result, the metal expanded too much, greatly narrowing the space that was meant to hold the final steel section. Eads attempted to shrink the bridge manually by using 30,000 pounds of ice. When that didn’t work completely, he brought out his failsafe: a threaded, adjustable link used to help close the gap.

The new bridge proved its muster twice. First, an elephant from a traveling circus walked across its span. Later, 14 trains filled with coal and water moved down its railroad tracks. St. Louis celebrated being home to the world's first steel-arch bridge on July 4, 1874, with fireworks and a 15-mile-long parade.

Sepia-toned photo of completed Eads Bridge in 1874The completed Eads Bridge, shot from the Illinois side, 1874. Photo by Robert Benecke. Missouri History Museum.

Nearly 150 years later, the Eads Bridge endures, a symbol of ingenuity standing strong over an unrelenting river that had once taken everything from its creator.

—Kristie Lein, Associate Editor

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