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James Buchanan Eads

Posted to Maritime Musings (by on July 12, 2013

A pioneer in marine salvage and construction of vessels and bridges

James Buchanan Eads (1820-1887) was a civil engineer and inventor.  He was named for his mother’s cousin, Representative James Buchanan, who later was elected President.  Growing up in St. Louis, he was largely self-educated.  Eads made his initial fortune with the invention of a diving bell, which he used for salvage of cargoes and other valuables from riverboats sunken in the Mississippi and Ohio Rivers – and there were plenty of wrecks to choose from at that time.  He then devised specialized riverboats to raise wrecks or major portions thereof.  Following the lead of James Miller Shreve, he built and operated a number of snagboats to remove log jams from waters of the Upper Mississippi River.  With the outbreak of the Civil War, the federal government hired him to build iron-clad riverboats for use on the western rivers.  His iron-clad vessels were instrumental in Union victories in the western theater, where their use preceded the 9 March 1862 battle between the USS Monitor and the CSS Virginia.  Eads’ vessels did not get the same cachet, though, because they mostly engaged shore batteries and the few Confederate vessels they encountered were not similarly clad.  After the war, the western portion of the nation significantly opened to migration and commerce, but the Mississippi River proved an impediment to expansion of the railroads.  To address this, Eads designed and built the first major bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis.  The Eads Bridge, still in use today, was the first large bridge in the world to be constructed of steel.  To minimize the impediment to river traffic, he built the bridge with what was then the longest arch in the world.  Because of the depth of the river and its strong current, Eads used pneumatic caissons, inadvertently resulting in a number of the workers suffering what is now called the bends from rapid decompression.  His use of cantilever supports allowed riverboats to transit through the site during the seven-year construction period.  The public was nervous about the safety of this radically-innovative bridge.  When it was finished on 14 June 1874, an elephant was borrowed from a traveling circus and led across the bridge.  Then, 14 locomotives transited the bridge, one after another.  All doubts were thus erased.  After that, Eads was asked to tackle the problem of frequent shoaling of the Lower Mississippi River below New Orleans.  He constructed a series of jetties that channeled the water into the center of the river, increasing the current and eliminating the accumulation of silt.  

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