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There Is No Substitute for Leadership: The Case of James B. Eads

It is a story that appears again and again in American history. In America, determination and a better idea can change history and life for the better. One great, but lesser known example, is the life of James B. Eads and his bridge.
There Is No Substitute for Leadership: The Case of James B. Eads
James Eads. Colorized. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints Collection]

It is a common misconception that the United States is a democracy. In reality, our Constitution is based upon republican principles that protect the individual and posterity from the tyranny of current popular opinion. The American System has enabled individuals with initiative to overcome all odds to achieve great ends. Our history is a continuing process of promethean endeavors. Individuals bet their Lives, Fortunes and sacred Honor on impossible achievements that succeed despite the naysayers, doubters, and outright saboteurs.

One great, but lesser known example, is the life of James B. Eads. You might remember him as the builder of the Mississippi ironclad navy that, in concert with General Grant’s army, secured the national inland water routes for the Union in the Civil War. Or you might have heard that he succeeded in removing the sandbar barriers which had blocked the Port of New Orleans from trading with the world. Or maybe you’ve heard that he died while building a ship-transporting railroad across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec in Mexico. In each of these endeavors he was forced to hazard all his resources to personally ensure the success of his projects and overcome stiff opposition. 

The Eads Bridge

150 years ago, on July 4th, 1874, the first continuous bridge to cross the Mississippi was opened and dedicated by President Grant at Saint Louis. General Sherman hammered in the final golden spike into its double-tracked rails. That bridge is now known as Eads Bridge, for it was primarily the result of his determination to overcome both technical problems and wave after wave of sabotage/opposition. It is a story that appears again and again in American history. In America, determination and a better idea can change history and life for the better. This is the true meaning of Make America Great Again.

A man stands on an ice gorge with Eads Bridge in the background on January 10, 1875. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints Collection, N13897]

Far upriver, in the much narrower channel between Rock Island and Davenport, a low, single track railroad swing bridge had been constructed in the 1850s. That single track contributed to Lincoln’s decision to begin the transcontinental Union Pacific from Council Bluffs on the opposite side of Iowa–but that is another story. So, for the following nearly 20 years, from Rock Island all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, the only way to cross the Mississippi was to take a ferry. Railroads simply dumped their cargos on the floodplain across from Saint Louis.

The ferry owners, boatmen, and Chicago railroads were happy to maintain the status quo; they worked to erect a political roadblock to deter the building of a bridge. Missouri banned both suspension bridges and drawbridges. Illinois specified that at least 2 spans had to be 350 feet wide, or that at least one span had to be 500 feet wide. And there were the physical difficulties. There had never been a bridge arch of more than 250 feet. On the Illinois side, bedrock was 120 feet below the high water mark. The river current rushed at more than 12 feet per second, and in spring, giant piles of ice would come crashing into everything.

Enter James B. Eads

Eads was not a “trained engineer,” and he was not a builder of bridges. He had assumed that when the railroads reached the floodplain across from Saint Louis, the railroads would build a bridge. They wouldn’t. It would take a very unusual genius to build that bridge.

In 1833, as a 13-year-old boy, he headed to Saint Louis with his mother and siblings aboard a steamboat. But the night before the scheduled arrival, the boiler exploded and the boat sank, so the family escaped with just the clothes on their backs. After selling apples on the street for a while, he got a job with a drygoods seller, who had a room full of books. Though his schooling had been cut very short in Ohio, he began to read through his employer’s growing library. 

Five years later, he took a job on a steamboat. But before the season had ended, his boat was sunk by a snag in the river. For the second time, he had barely escaped with his life from a sinking steamboat. He began to think about all of the valuable cargos which littered the bottom of the Mississippi. How could he build a diving bell and boat that could allow him to walk on the bottom of the river, find wrecks, salvage valuable cargos, and clear the river for easier navigation. After 3 years of work on the idea, he found a Saint Louis shipbuilder who would partner with him to build his machinery. So he spent many years walking on the bottom of the Mississippi and its tributaries salvaging wrecks and clearing snags. Thereby, he became the most knowledgeable person on the ways of the river and its flows of silt. And he kept improving his bell and boat designs, developing a small salvage fleet, and becoming a wealthy entrepreneur on the river.

When Southern states began to arm against the Union, he proposed, designed, and built the ironclad river navy.

James B. Eads in an 1850 Matthew Brady photograph. Credit: Public Domain

After the war, he and other visionary Saint Louisans could see that because of the single track bridge at Rock Island, the first transcontinental railroad was bypassing Saint Louis. Because of its location at the junction of the Missouri and Mississippi Rivers, his city had long been the gateway to, and capital of, the West. Without a bridge, the river trade would be superseded by rail; with a bridge the rail and river systems could reinforce each other.

With all of the natural and political constraints imposed on anyone who might attempt to design and build a bridge there, people came to regard it as an impossibility. Precisely that “impossibility” sparked Eads’ interest. He was used to solving difficult problems with unique and unprecedented measures. He was confident that if there were a way to build that bridge, he and his team could figure it out, and solve the problem. He took up the challenge, sought out the materials that could support railroads across 520-foot gaps, produced a breakthrough design, issued a detailed report on it, and led the political fight to actually build it.

The Human Obstacles

A Chicago builder put forth a competing ugly 6-span truss design, put through a bill in the Illinois legislature to give his own company the “exclusive right” to build a bridge at Saint Louis, and called together a convention of engineers who gave “unqualified disapproval of spans of five hundred feet . . . for which there was no precedent.” [p. 105]

For the first time in the new world, Eads used caissons to cut through the silt to reach bedrock at more than 90 feet below the level of the water. No one anywhere in the world had ever used caissons to go so deep. By the time that the work had reached 76 feet below water level, workers began to suffer from what we now know as the bends. Time in the caissons had to be cut down to 2 hour shifts. Nevertheless, several workers died from its effects.

Andrew Carnegie’s bridge company was hired to supply the steel components and erect the arches. The President of the company, a famous engineer, had previously refused to approve “the entirely unsafe and impractical design.” [p. 130] Nevertheless, the company took the contract and subcontracted the production of the steel components. Up until that time, steel had only been produced in small batches. It was a craft, not a scientific industry. Eads’ team designed elaborate test machinery to test every part. Initially, the parts produced were failing their tests. Many alloys from several companies were tried before a steel was found that would meet Eads’ specifications.

Then Carnegie moved to abrogate the contract. He said that use of the new steel violated their contract. More money and equipment were handed over to Carnegie to keep him at work. Next, an assembly of all interested parties was held in New York. There, Carnegie proposed that an experienced engineer be given authority to change the design. It was agreed to appoint a Pennsylvania engineer to review the design. But the Pennsylvania engineer could find no significant faults to remedy.

Then another threat from Carnegie, and another additional payment to him.

Public Domain circa 1873

Next, as the arches began to rise across the river, a steamboat company filed a complaint with the Secretary of War. A board of engineers was convened to examine and report on the bridge. A report was issued recommending that a canal and drawbridge be built “behind the East Abutment of the Bridge.”[p. 149] The report went to Congress, with the approval of the Secretary of War.

Eads, even though he had supported President Grant’s opponent in the election, went to see the President. Grant was shocked at the campaign to stop the bridge, ordered the War Department to desist, and took a trip to Saint Louis to see the work and visit Eads.

Again, as the first upright which was to support the upper deck was installed, Carnegie slowed construction. Another special payout was required to enable completion of the bridge. On April 15, 1874, the upper roadway was completed. It was agreed that Carnegie would be paid a bonus if the upper roadway were opened to the public on April 18. But at midnight, Eads’ team was informed that Carnegie would not open the bridge until payment was received. He had the workmen tear up the west end of the roadway in preparation for defense of his claim on the bridge. Another meeting was held in New York, and Carnegie agreed to open the bridge on May 23rd.

For a year after the bridge’s completion, the railroads boycotted it. Even though the toll for the bridge was half the cost of ferrying freight across the river, the railroads continued to dump and pick up freight on the Illinois side and let others worry about logistics west of the river.

The St. Louis skyline as seen from the top deck of Eads Bridge. [Missouri Historical Society, St. Louis, Photographs and Prints Collection, N41317]

With little toll revenue, and in the wake of the Panic of 1873, Eads’ company, the Illinois and St. Louis Bridge Company and its bridge, filed for bankruptcy, and was sold for 20 cents on the dollar. As a consequence, the National Bank of the State of Missouri failed.

But the purpose of the project had not been to make a profit. The purpose had been to alter the economic geography of the nation. Though it took time for the railroads and steamboats to adjust to the new geography, the bridge met its objective.

Twenty years later, in 1894, the new Saint Louis Union Station rail terminal became the largest and busiest rail terminal in the world. Today, the Eads Bridge is the heart of the regional light rail network, and continues to provide road and pedestrian passage across the river.

Washington Roebling had visited the bridge construction site and adapted Eads’ caisson system to the Brooklyn Bridge that he was to build. More bridges would be built at Saint Louis and down the Mississippi to New Orleans.

The Eads Bridge at Saint Louis, 2009 - Credit: CC BY-SA 3.0 by Kbh3rd

And the bridge’s requirement for unprecedented quality and quantities of steel dragged the crucible iron industry out of the era of small scale craft operations, into the realm of scientific mass production. At least some of the extra payoffs to Carnegie went into building his Edgar Thompson steelworks, which began mass-production of steel in 1875–the year after the opening of the bridge.

Individual people, none with a claim to perfection, have gone ahead of their time and pulled the rest of the world forward. Many are anonymous, but many can be named: Franklin, Washington, Hamilton, Fulton, Douglass, Lincoln, Eads, Carnegie, Edison, Westinghouse, Wright, Einstein, de Forest, Ford, Rickover, von Braun, LaRouche, Musk, Trump, etc. Let us strive to join their ranks and create a better future!

For more information about Eads and his bridge, see Road to the Sea by Florence Dorsey. Bracketed page numbers in the text above refer to pages in her book. 

Also see: https://eadsbridge.corellcreek.org/design_and_construction.html