James Buchanan Eads
James Buchanan Eads was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, in 1820. In 1833, his family moved to St. Louis where he went to work for a local store owner. Eads received little formal education, but using the store owner’s personal library, Eads educated himself on engineering, technology, machines, and river transportation.
In 1837, Eads became a steamboat clerk. He was soon involved in an accident that sunk the boat and its cargo. An all too common occurrence in that day, the bottom of the Mississippi River was already littered with hundreds of ships. Convinced these vessels could be retrieved, Eads built a salvage boat and diving bell. Eads’ salvage business made him tremendously wealthy.
Eads became an expert on river currents and their effect on the river’s bed. In 1868, Eads used his extensive knowledge to design the first bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis. He pioneered the use of a new metal compound – steel – to build the longest arched spans ever conceived. Upper and lower decks accommodated vehicular and rail traffic, respectively. He opened a new chapter in civil engineering by using the largest pneumatic caissons employed to date to anchor the bridge's mid-river limestone piers in bedrock deep below the river floor. The Eads Bridge opened in 1874 and remains in use today.
Eads’ reputation as a master of river engineering was sealed when his construction of jetties at the mouth of the Mississippi successfully eliminated sandbars plaguing traffic at the port of New Orleans. News of his success spread worldwide. In 1932, the Deans of American Colleges of Engineering named Eads one of the five greatest engineers of all time.
On March 8, 1887, at age 66, James Buchanan Eads collapsed and died. Newspapers around the country mourned his passing, recognizing him as a giant of inventiveness and reasoning. From his youth, Eads had understood that the nation’s prosperity depended on building infrastructure based on daring new technology. That the United States became a technological and economic powerhouse by the end of the 19th century was due in large part to the vision, ingenuity and audacious confidence of people like James Buchanan Eads
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