James Buchanan Eads

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James Buchanan Eads
James Buchanan Eads - Brady-Handy.jpg
James Buchanan Eads
Born (1820-05-23)May 23, 1820
Lawrenceburg, Indiana
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Nassau, Bahamas
Nationality American
Occupation Civil engineer
Spouse(s) Martha Nash Dillon (m. 1845–52)
Eunice Hagerman Eads (m. 1854–87)
Children Two daughters, one son, three step-daughters
Awards Albert Medal (1884)

Captain James Buchanan Eads (May 23, 1820 – March 8, 1887) was a world-renowned[1] American civil engineer and inventor, holding more than 50 patents.[2]

Early life and education

Eads was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana,[3] and named for his mother's cousin, future President of the United States James Buchanan. He grew up in St. Louis, Missouri.

James Eads was largely self-educated; at the age of 13, he left school to take up work to help support the family. One of his first jobs was at the Williams & Duhring dry-goods store run by Barrett Williams. Williams allowed the young Eads to spend time in his library, located above the store. In Eads's spare time, he read books on physical science, mechanics, machinery, and civil engineering.


Eads made his initial fortune in salvage, by creating a diving bell for retrieving goods from the bottom of rivers that were sunk there by riverboat disasters, especially along the busy Mississippi River. He also devised special boats for raising the remains of sunken ships from the river bed. Because of his detailed knowledge of the Mississippi (the equal of any professional river pilot), his exceptional ability at navigating the most treacherous parts of the river system, and his personal fleet of snag-boats and salvage craft, he was afforded the much prized courtesy title of "Captain" by the rivermen of the Mississippi and was addressed as Captain Eads throughout his life.[4]

Civil War

In 1861, after the outbreak of the American Civil War, Eads was called to Washington at the prompting of his friend, Attorney General Edward Bates, to consult on the defense of the Mississippi River.[5] Soon afterward, he was contracted to construct the City-class ironclads for the United States Navy, and produced seven such ships within five months:[6] St. Louis, Cairo, Carondelet, Cincinnati, Louisville, Mound City, and Pittsburgh.[7] He also converted the river steamer New Era into the ironclad Essex. The river ironclads were a vital element in the highly successful Federal offensive into Tennessee, Kentucky and upper Mississippi (February–June, 1862). Eads corresponded frequently with Navy officers of the Western Flotilla, and used their "combat lessons learned" to improve vessels during post-combat repairs, and incorporate improvements into succeeding generations of gunboats. By the end of the war he would build more than 30 river ironclads.

The last were so hardy that the Navy sent them into service in the Gulf of Mexico, where they supported the successful Federal attack on the Confederate port city of Mobile. All senior officers in the Western Theater, including Grant and Sherman, agreed that Eads and his vessels had been vital to early victory in the West. The first four gunboats were built at the Eads' Union Marine Works in Carondelet, Missouri. The next three were built under Eads' contract at the Mound City (Illinois) Marine Railway and Shipyard.[8] Ead's vessels were the first United States ironclads to enter combat. On January 11, 1862 the Eads-built ironclads St. Louis and Essex fought the Confederate gunboats CSS General Polk, CSS Ivy, and CSS Jackson at Lucas Bend, on the Mississippi River. Subsequently, on February 6, 1862, Eads' ironclads captured Fort Henry on the Tennessee River.[9] This was over a month before the combat actions of the ironclads CSS Virginia and USS Monitor during the March 8–9, 1862 Battle of Hampton Roads.

Mississippi River bridge

Eads Bridge, St. Louis

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Eads designed and built the first road and rail bridge to cross the Mississippi River at St. Louis. The Eads Bridge, constructed from 1867 through 1874, was the first bridge of a significant size with steel as its primary material, and it was the longest arch bridge in the world when completed. Eads was the first bridge builder to employ the cantilever method,[citation needed] which allowed steam boat traffic to continue using the river during construction. The bridge is still in use today, carrying both automobile and light rail traffic over the river.

Mississippi River designs

The Mississippi in the 100-mile-plus stretch between the port of New Orleans, Louisiana and the Gulf of Mexico frequently suffered from silting up of its outlets, stranding ships or making parts of the river unnavigable for a period of time. Eads solved the problem with a wooden jetty system that narrowed the main outlet of the river, causing the river to speed up and cut its channel deeper, allowing year-round navigation. Eads offered to build the jetties first, and charge the government later.[10] If he was successful, and the jetties caused the river to cut a channel 30 feet deep for 20 years, the government agreed to pay him $8 million. Eads was successful. The jetty system was installed in 1876 and the channel was cleared in February 1877.[11] Journalist Joseph Pulitzer, who had known Eads for five years, invested $20,000 in this project.[12]

A flood in 1890 brought calls for a similar system for the entire Mississippi Valley. A jetty system would prevent the floods by deepening the main channel. However, there were concerns about the ability of water moving through a jetty system to cut out the rock and clay on the river bottom.[13] Top officials of the Army Corps of Engineers lobbied Congress for levees and flood walls of their own design, which exacerbated these disasters, and against Eads' jetty system, which would have reduced these disasters.[citation needed]

Other work

Contemporary illustration of Eads' proposal for an Interoceanic Ship Railway

Eads designed a gigantic railway system intended for construction at the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, which would carry ocean-going ships across the isthmus from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean; this attracted some interest but was never constructed.

In 1884 he became the first U.S. citizen awarded the Albert Medal of the Royal Society of the Arts.

Eads died in Nassau, Bahamas, aged 66. He was buried in Bellefontaine Cemetery in St. Louis, Missouri.


The towns of Eads, Colorado and Port Eads, Louisiana are named for him.

U.S. Route 50 through Lawrenceburg, his hometown, is called Eads Parkway in his honor.

The American Association of Civil Engineers memorialized Eads with a tablet honoring him in the Colonnade of the Hall of Fame at New York University.

Eads is memorialized at Washington University in St. Louis by James B. Eads Hall, an handsome 19th-century building long associated with science and technology. Eads Hall was the site of Professor Arthur Holly Compton's Nobel Prize–winning experiments in electromagnetic radiation. Today Eads Hall continues to serve Washington University as the site of a number of facilities including the Arts and Sciences Computing Center. Eads Hall was the gift of Captain Eads's daughter Mrs. James Finney How.

Each year the Academy of Science of St. Louis awards the James B. Eads Award recognizing a distinguished individual for outstanding achievement in science and technology.

Eads is recognized with a star on the St. Louis Walk of Fame.[14]

Eads' great Mississippi River Bridge at St. Louis was designated a National Historic Landmark by the Department of the Interior in 1964 and on October 21, 1974 was listed as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers. It was also awarded a Special Award of Recognition by the American Institute of Steel Construction in 1974 on the 100th anniversary of its entry into service.


  1. How 1900: p. 105. "His reputation was world-wide."
  2. How 1900: pp. 118-119.
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  4. How 1900: p. 12.
  5. How 1900: pp. 25-26. Eads received "a telegram calling him to Washington for consultation on the best method of defending and occupying the Western rivers."
  6. Gunboats on the Mississippi
  7. How 1900: pp. 32-33.
  8. "Ironclads", St. Louis County, Missouri, US GenNet
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  10. Eads Jetties Plaque, Fort Jackson, LA.
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External links