The Passing of “Captain Eads,” a Renowned Inventor and Civil Engineer

March 8, 1887

James Buchanan Eads, an internationally renowned inventor and civil engineer, died at the age of 66 while vacationing in the Bahamas. Eads had been born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, in 1820. He was named after his mother’s cousin James Buchanan, who was a U.S. congressman at the time and would go on to become the 15th president.

Eads attended school until he was 13, and then entered the world of work to help support his family. One of his first jobs was at a dry-goods store. His employer there was somebody named Barrett Williams, who allowed the teenager to spend time reading books in his personal library above the store. Eads immersed himself in books dealing with such subjects as physical science and civil engineering.

Eads subsequently made his fortune thanks to a diving bell that he created for use in retrieving goods that had ended up at the bottom of rivers. (A diving bell is an open-bottomed chamber designed to transport divers down into and up from deep waters.) Eads also created special boats for lifting up the remains of sunken ships. He focused these efforts on the Mississippi River. Due to his fleet of boats and salvage craft, along with what became his detailed knowledge of that river, Eads was dubbed “Captain” by the rivermen there. He would be widely known as “Captain Eads” for the rest of his life.

During the Civil War, Eads put his knowledge of the Mississippi River to effective use on the Union’s behalf by assisting with the defense of that critical water route. He constructed ironclad ships that successfully served the Northern cause both along the Mississippi River as well as in such other locales as the Gulf of Mexico.

After the war, Eads designed what many regard as his greatest achievement – a combined road and railway bridge spanning the Mississippi River and connecting St. Louis, Missouri, and East St. Louis, Illinois. The building of what is now called the Eads Bridge took place between 1867 and 1874. The structure was the first major bridge with steel as its primary material. Measuring a total of 6,442 feet (1,964 meters) in length, it was also the world’s longest arch bridge when completed.

To help prove the bridge’s safety and strength prior to its official opening on July 4, 1874, an elephant and later 14 locomotives were each moved across that structure without incident. The bridge, which remains in use, was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1964 and listed as a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark by the American Society of Civil Engineers in 1974.

Eads’ other noteworthy accomplishments during the course of his productive life included developing a wooden jetty system for the stretch of the Mississippi River between New Orleans and the Gulf of Mexico. In narrowing that part of the river, the system sped up and deepened the water there and consequently allowed for year-round navigation in that region.

Not all of Eads’ ideas proved successful. A case in point was his proposal for a large railway system across the Mexico-based Isthmus of Tehuantepec to carry ships from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean. This ambitious idea never even left the blueprint stage. Nonetheless, “Captain Eads” has continued to be widely honored for all that he did achieve. Port Eads, Louisiana, is named for him, for example, and the section of U.S. 50 that runs through his birthplace of Lawrenceburg is called Eads Parkway.

Photo Credit: The Jefferson R. Burdick Collection, Gift of Jefferson R. Burdick (made available under the Creative Commons CC0 1.0 Public Domain Dedication at Creative Commons — CC0 1.0 Universal)

For more information on James Buchanan Eads, please check out James Buchanan Eads (1820 – 1887) | Structurae

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