Pictorial and Genealogical Record
of Greene County, Missouri • 1893

Together with Bibliographies of Prominent Men of Other Portions of the State, Both Living and Dead

JAMES B. EADS, C. E., LL. D. The United States of America can justly claim the honor of having produced James B. Eads, the greatest of living civil engineers whose genius has triumphed over nature's most formidable obstacles.. He was born in Lawrenceburg, Ind., May 23, 1820, but unfortunately his early education was only such as the common schools of that day afforded, and even this was cut short by an accident which robbed his parents of all their earthly possessions and required his services to assist in the support of the family. When very young his genius began to develop itself and when only eight years old he was interested in all kinds of machinery. When he was nine years old his father removed to Louisville on an Ohio River steamboat, the engineer of which observed that the lad was deeply interested in the action of the engine and kindly explained to him its parts and powers, and the information thus gained furnished him much food for thought. Before he was twelve years old he took to pieces and readjusted the family clock and a patent- lever watch, using only an ordinary pocket knife. Machinery possessed so great an attraction for him that his father provided for him a small work-shop and a set of tools and there much of his time was spent in constructing, inventing, fitting, molding and adapting pieces of mechanism to his various wants. Out of these labors came steam engines, fire engines, electrifying machines, and a host of similar articles, all of which showed that the boy had genius, and only lacked skill gained by practical experience. At the age of thirteen, while accompanying his parents to St. Louis, the steamer on which they sailed was burned and Mr. Eads and his family escaped with only the clothing they had on their persons. Being left penniless it became necessary that each member of the family should contribute to the general support and James at once became a vender of fruit, peddling his merchandise from a basket in the streets. During this time he did not neglect to cultivate his genius and his leisure hours were spent, as, before, in evolving new ideas from his busy brain. In the winter of 1833 he built a locomotive, which was simply an ingenious toy, having as a motive power a concealed rat tied by the tail on a tread-wheel, with a hole in front through which the motor was trying to make its escape. His miniature mercantile operations were of short duration for he soon obtained a situation with Messrs. Williams & Duhring, then one of the first dry goods establishments of the West and he availed himself of the kindness extended. to him by Mr. Williams and made good use of' that gentleman's extensive and carefully selected library. Here he laid the foundation of that vast store of knowledge he has since acquired and which enabled him, later in life, to achieve the first rank among the civil engineers of the nineteenth century. When nineteen, failing health compelled him to seek another occupation, and having stored his mind with useful facts regarding civil engineering, mechanics, machinery, etc. he was well fitted for the life he was subsequently to lead. During nearly all the following eighteen years he was on the river in some capacity and in 1842 he formed a connection with Case & Nelson, boat builders, and for a number of years was employed with a working vessel to recover cargoes from sunken boats. His first effort was near Keokuk where a boat had gone down in eighteen feet of water and after various experiments had been tried Mr. Eads devised a diving-bell of very simple construction, to-wit: a whiskey barrel with one head knocked out and the open end so loaded with led as to sink it regularly. The diver refusing to risk his life in this frail construction Mr. Eads himself descended and brought up some of the cargo from the wreck. After this a rapid improvement was made in diving bells and the work was soon reduced to an effective system along the Mississippi and its tributaries. In 1843 Mr. Eads disposed of his interest in this business and began the manufacture of glassware in St. Louis, the first factory of the kind to be established west of the Mississippi, but difficulties interposed which neither ingenuity nor industry could remove and the effort was abandoned in 1847. Mr. Eads then returned to the river and became a member of the firm of Eads & Nelson, whose capital amounted to about $1,500, but within ten years such was the successful management of the business that the capital had increased to the value of nearly one-half million dollars. In 1854 Mr. Eads went to Europe-for the benefit of his health, but in 1857 owing to continued ill health his connection with Mr. Nelson was dissolved and he retired from business with a well earned competence. When the Civil War began it became of the highest necessity that the Mississippi River should be controlled by the Union forces and Mr. Eads' extensive knowledge of the business and of the river were soon called into play. After some experiments had been tried in the way of war vessels for the Mississippi, the Quartermaster-General, in July, 1861, issued proposals for building an iron-clad fleet for the service and Mr. Eads was found to be the best and lowest bidder. Seven boats were to be built of six hundred tons burden, to draw six feet, carry thirteen heavy guns, to be plated with iron two and one-half inches thick, and to steam nine knots an hour, and sixty-five days were allowed in which to complete them. The work was performed according to contract, and the energy and skill of one man had built and equipped eight gun-boats and successfully launched them on the river. They were capable of resisting powerful batteries and of clearing the river of all piratical and contraband crafts. The Government was by no means prompt in refunding to Mr. Ead's the money he had spent in constructing these vessels and at the time they run the batteries of the Island No. 10, they were really the property of Mr. Eads. His services were again called into requisition in 1862 by the Navy Department and he constructed a number of musket-proof vessels and built four heavy mortar boats. The aid be lent the Government during this time cannot be over estimated, for without his assistance the Mississippi could not have been opened to navigation. For rest and the recovery of his strength Mr. Eads went to Europe while the war was in progress, but in 1865 he returned and two years later became chief engineer of the St. Louis & Illinois Bridge Company, and owing to his practical and creative genius, the long cherished scheme of a bridge across the Mississippi River was realized in July, 1874, work having fairly begun on the bridge in 1868. Caissons were used in the construction of this bridge and marked a new era in civil engineering. The bridge is a model of grace and beauty, and what is far more important, strength, and is the perfection of modern civil engineering. Notwithstanding the marvels wrought by his genius, it was reserved for him to grasp and control the mightiest river of the world, to direct its currents and to remove the obstructions to navigation it had itself formed, thus opening a ship channel to the sea. In 1874 he proposed to Congress the creation at his own and associates' expense, of a wide and deep channel to the Gulf of Mexico and this work was to be paid by the Government as certain widths and depths were attained. As usual his design was attacked with much virulence by the press and by brother engineers, but Mr. Eads' demonstrations were stronger than the sayings of others and on the 3d of March, 1875 the Act was approved, authorizing him to open the South pass (a more difficult one than the one he had selected), by jetties; for which he was to receive $500,000 when the channel was twenty feet deep and two hundred feet wide, and other payments when. still greater depths and width had been secured. He at once began the work and as it progressed, one after another of its opponents came to see the feasibility of the project and the absolute certainty of ultimate success. In recognition of the pre-eminent merits of Mr. Eads, foreign scientific associates have done themselves the honor to enroll his name as an honorary member of their bodies; potentates have done honor to his overmastering genius, and the University of Missouri has voluntarily conferred upon him the degree of Doctor of Laws. Although he has never been robust he yet gives promise of many years of usefulness. He is possessed of the loftiest virtues as a citizen and he adorns every station he endeavors to fill, as well as the age in which he lives.


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