THE VALLEY of the Mississippi River stretches north into Canada and south to the Gulf of Mexico, east from New York and North Carolina and west to Idaho and New Mexico. It is a valley 20 percent larger than that of China’s Yellow River, double that of Africa’s Nile and India’s Ganges, fifteen times that of Europe’s Rhine. Within it lies 41 percent of the continental United States, including all or part of thirty-one states. No river in Europe, no river in the Orient, no river in the ancient civilized world compares with it. Only the Amazon and, barely, the Congo have a larger drainage basin. Measured from the head of its tributary the Missouri River, as logical a starting point as any, the Mississippi is the longest river in the world, and it pulses like the artery of the American heartland.
To control the Mississippi River—not simply to find a modus vivendi with it, but to control it, to dictate to it, to make it conform—is a mighty task. It requires more than confidence; it requires hubris. It was the perfect task for the nineteenth century. This was the century of iron and steel, certainty and progress, and the belief that physical laws as solid and rigid as iron and steel governed nature, possibly even man’s nature, and that man had only to discover these laws to truly rule the world. It was the century of Euclidean geometry, linear logic, magnificent accomplishments, and brilliant mechanics. It was the century of the engineer.
Two engineers in particular spent most of their lives and much of the nineteenth century attempting to control the Mississippi River.
Andrew Atkinson Humphreys labored for eleven years over a massive and revolutionary report about the river that, combined with bloody triumphs in the Civil War, earned him the position of chief of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and an international reputation. In Vienna, Paris, and Rome, royal scientific societies made him an honorary or corresponding member. In the United States he became an incorporator of the National Academy of Sciences, Harvard gave him an honorary doctorate, and the American Journal of Science and the Arts called his report “one of the most profoundly scientific publications ever published…a monument [to] unwearied industry and accuracy.”
James Buchanan Eads had a reputation even greater. In 1876, Scientific American spoke of his “commanding talents and remarkable sagacity,” termed him a “man of genius, of industry, and of incorruptible honor,” and called upon him to seek the presidency of the United States. In 1884, Britain’s Royal Society of the Arts awarded him the Albert Medal; others so honored had included Napoleon III, Louis Pasteur, Lord Kelvin, and Sir Henry Bessemer. In 1932 deans of American colleges of engineering named him one of the five greatest engineers of all time, ranking him with the likes of Leonardo da Vinci and Thomas Edison.
Humphreys and Eads were the two most powerful and influential engineers ever to work on the Mississippi River. Both intended to leave a mark on the river and on the land and people beside it. But each wanted to leave his mark, and only his. And they disagreed over nearly everything involving the Mississippi.
One had genius; the other had power. Eads’ pleasure was to make the river obey his will. Humphreys’ pleasure was to stop him, and implement his own plans for the river. Their fight turned bitter with hatred, and their disagreement split the Mississippi valley and put technical engineering arguments on front pages across the nation. The consequences of their fight are still felt on the Mississippi today.
LIFE DID NOT TREAT James Eads kindly starting out, but he was not one who accepted reverses. In the winter of 1833, thirteen years old, Eads arrived in St. Louis with his mother and two sisters. His father, a dreamer and a drifter, would appear later. As their steamboat approached the wharf, the boiler exploded, and the steamer sank. Terrified and freezing, coughing up water so muddy that one could taste its grit, the family was pulled from the river. It was Eads’ first intimate experience with the Mississippi River, and he would not forget it; years later, it was said, he chose the point where he reached shore that night to begin his great conquest of the river.
That first winter the family was destitute. To help support his family, James sold apples on the street and never again attended school. But he learned, with St. Louis itself his teacher.
The city represented a bizarre, uniquely American mix of raucous frontier and European sophistication, and it taught boldness, confidence, and breadth of vision. With the Mississippi River before it, with a thousand miles of empty green prairie and the Missouri River stretching west behind it, the city sat at the nexus of North and South, East and West. Its location had already attracted and helped make such legends as Mike Fink, king of the river in keelboat days; Kit Carson, the frontier scout; and John Jacob Astor, the Manhattan organizational mastermind whose vast western enterprises made him the richest man in America. On the street men spoke French, Polish, Italian, German; by 1860, 40,000 Germans would live there. Creoles recently returned from Paris wore French fashions, while white men and Indians recently returned from the Rockies wore buckskin. For always in St. Louis there was the West. While Washington Irving was impressed with the city’s gardens overflowing with trees and flowers, the sound of harpsichords muted by closed windows, its old French neighborhood, its coffeehouses and billiard halls, he and other eastern visitors were astounded by the casualness with which people traveled to the Rocky Mountains.
Eads, apprenticing in the streets, near the docks where goods were traded, amid the bustle of peddlers and wagons and spontaneous auctions, learned business first: salesmanship; the difference between honest dealing and sharp practice; and the fact that a piece of information could make a man a fortune, if a man had the sophistication to understand it and the guts to risk all for it. He watched fortunes made and lost, and saw that a man’s character could turn losing positions into winning ones, and the reverse.
He also learned from books. The owner of a mercantile house hired him to run errands, was impressed by his mind, and allowed him to use his library after work. Here Eads spent night after night. Mathematics and geometry interested him the most—the angles of things, the relationships of things. He experimented with equations, read every mathematical treatise he could find, exhausted the library, experimented in a workshop of his own. He made a six-foot-long working model of a steamboat complete with engines and boilers, a working model of a sawmill, a working model of a fire engine, a working electrotype machine.
He had the passion of the lonely, an intense focus on the few things he cared about. He taught himself chess, became one of the city’s best players, and engaged in simultaneous games allowing his opponents a board but playing himself without one. There was something lonely about chess as well, and brutal, and he gave no quarter. But with chess and machinery, it was as if when he beheld a thing he saw deep inside it, as if in his mind he took it apart and put it back together. He understood weaknesses, flaws, tensions, strengths. His understanding went beyond the merely mechanical to the internal logic of a thing, and even beyond that to fundamental principles that dictated a result.
By now Eads’ father, Thomas, had appeared in St. Louis. Thomas had spent his adult life moving, first down the Ohio River, now up the Mississippi, staying in one place long enough to try a trade—farmer, boardinghouse keeper, merchant—and fail. Then he had moved on, always westward, always closer to the frontier. Such was the pattern of his life. After three years in St. Louis he wanted to move on again. With his family he boarded one more steamboat, taking his wife and daughters along, and steamed farther into the wilderness, to try again.
James chose to remain in St. Louis, alone. Unlike his father, he dug in, rooted, persisted; he would center the rest of his life on St. Louis and the Mississippi River. He was determined, whatever the price, to succeed. The man who gave him his first adult job as “mud clerk,” the lowest officer on a steamboat, would remember Eads’ “towering ambition.”
He was sixteen years old.
HIS FIRST SUCCESS would have satisfied most men. In achieving it, he acquired an understanding of the Mississippi no man shared.
He began a salvage business. At the time, boiler explosions, snags, fire, giant whirlpools that could swallow a small steamboat, and even pirates made travel on the river so dangerous that a French visitor called a trip on the Mississippi “more dangerous than a passage across the ocean, not merely from the United States to Europe, but from Europe to China.” A shipper said, “The history of the world presents no example of an amount of destruction of loss of property and loss of life equal to that which yearly occurs on the western rivers.”
Salvage operations existed on some rivers and on the Great Lakes. None existed on the Mississippi because of unique difficulties: light does not penetrate the muddy Mississippi more than a few inches, so men had to operate blind, and the river made locating wrecks nearly impossible, both because currents could quickly move them far downstream and because the enormous sediment load the river carried could quickly bury a boat under tons of sand.
Eads believed he could solve the problems. He designed a new salvage vessel modeled after snag boats built by Captain Henry Shreve. Shreve, a giant on the river, had created the steamboat age by designing a boat with engine and boilers above deck, thus creating shallow-draft vessels—small steamboats might draw as little as one foot of water—that could navigate both the Mississippi and its far shallower tributaries. In another engineering feat Shreve even altered the channel of the Mississippi itself—and opened a controversy that lasted a century—by creating a “cutoff,” carving a straight channel through an S curve in the river, shortening and straightening it and accelerating the movement of water. The snag boats he built had derricks capable of lifting great trees out of the water, and he used them to clear the river and tear up a great 40-mile-long raft of timber that clogged the Red River.
Like Shreve’s snag boats, Eads’ salvage craft would use twin hulls connected by a flat platform, and a derrick. But the derrick was farther back from the bow and the hulls farther apart to allow Eads’ boat to straddle a sunken cargo and, with improved leverage, to lift it. To allow men to spend long periods on the river bottom searching for hulls, Eads also designed a diving bell and, although men already worked underwater using various kinds of snorkel-like apparatuses, he is generally credited as its inventor.
Barely twenty-two years old, without introduction of any kind but with drawings in hand, Eads walked into the St. Louis offices of boatbuilders Calvin Case and William Nelson and showed them his designs. Short, thin, intense, Eads impressed with his precision, which extended to meticulous dress. “From young manhood,” wrote an admirer, “he had felt that it was due to one’s self and one’s friends to look one’s best; and he had also realized the practical value of good appearance.”
Then he asked them to build a ship and several diving bells for him—for free. In payment he offered to make them partners in the salvage business he intended to start. His enthusiasm, energy, and compelling logic made success seem inevitable. Andrew Carnegie himself would later marvel at “the personal magnetism of the man…. It is impossible for most men not to be won over to his views, for a time at least.” Case and Nelson agreed to his proposal.
Before the vessel was finished, Eads was offered a contract to salvage several hundred tons of lead. He took it, and soon demonstrated his willingness to commit his entire soul to, even risk his life for, his own idea.
With his boat not ready, he jury-rigged a crane on another and hired a professional diver with experience on the Great Lakes who brought his own equipment. But when the diver went down, the current brushed him aside. Repeated attempts proved useless. Eads went to a nearby town, bought a 40-gallon whiskey barrel, and converted it to his diving-bell design. The diver refused to enter the water in it. Eads put on the bell and descended to the bottom. The experience changed him, and through him man’s policy toward the Mississippi River, forever.
Without light, Eads could not see the river. He felt it. The bottom sucked at him while the current embraced him in darkness and silence. The current also buffeted, whipped, bullied, pulled. A diver had to lean against it, push against it. Unlike the wind, it never let up. He later wrote: “I had occasion to descend to the bottom in a current so swift as to require extraordinary means to sink the bell…. The sand was drifting like a dense snowstorm at the bottom…. At sixty-five feet below the surface I found the bed of the river, for at least three feet in depth, a moving mass and so unstable that, in endeavoring to find a footing on it beneath my bell, my feet penetrated through it until I could feel, although standing erect, the sand rushing past my hands, driven by a current apparently as rapid as that on the surface. I could discover the sand in motion at least two feet below the surface of the bottom, and moving with a velocity diminishing in proportion to its depth.”
Once on the bottom, he located the lead, tied a cable around one 70-pound pig at a time, and raised it. His business quickly boomed. Master of a vessel, he became known as “Captain Eads,” and soon operated a fleet of salvage boats. Always he was improving them. Several could empty a sunken steamboat of water with centrifugal pumps of his design, then raise the entire ship from the bottom. From the great sandbars that formed at the river’s mouth in the Gulf of Mexico north to Iowa, Eads personally salvaged wrecked ships and walked the bottom of the Mississippi River. He came to know the river and its currents in ways more intimate than any captain or any pilot or any engineer. The river had unveiled secrets to him alone. Already his vision had gone beyond mechanical devices. He was beginning to formulate theories about the river, and about the great forces within it.
In 1845, at the age of twenty-six, Eads married and left the river briefly. He sold his business to his partners and started the first glass factory west of the Mississippi. It failed quickly, the only real failure of his life. At the age of twenty-seven, owing $25,000, he borrowed $1,500 more, bought back a share of the salvage business, and returned to the water. He quickly recovered financially, telling his wife, Martha, that they need not join the gold rush to California since they had found gold on the river bottom.
He seemed to hate the separation from his wife. When away, he worked incessantly, even Christmas Day and in all weather. “It requires little short of a hurricane to keep me from working,” he wrote her. His wife sent poems back, calling to him. In “To an Absent Husband” she pleaded, “[C]ome to our cottage—my husband come home /…come to thy children,…thy wife.”
Yet he could not leave the water. His company owned twelve boats, and usually they worked different locations. He captained one boat and hired men to run the others. He could have hired another captain and spent far more time with his wife. Instead, he continued to work the river and dive himself. His passion seemed divided now, between his family and the Mississippi.
He remained away for weeks, even months, at a time. His only son died; still he stayed out on the river. His wife fell ill, and he wrote her: “I do hope and pray my beloved wife that I will never again so long as life lasts, leave you even for a day when you are as ill as when I left you. It is almost totally inexcusable.” But he did stay away. Finally, they went on vacation to Vermont. Returning home aboard a steamboat in 1852, Martha died of cholera. Eads was thirty-two years old. He left his two baby daughters with his sister-in-law and went back on the river.
More than ever he poured himself into his work. Despite the dozen ships and several hundred men under him, he continued to dive himself. He did so with a new fury, going, an assistant worried, into “dangerous and exposed places where the men refused to go.” While his fortune grew on land, he walked the river bottom, alone in the silent and turbulent darkness. And then in 1853, a year after his wife died, saying he was ill, he gave up diving forever and entered the surface world.
IN ST. LOUIS, Eads made his presence felt. His salvage operation had already made him known throughout the Mississippi valley, but now he reached even wider. In 1856, when the federal government stopped removing snags from the Mississippi, he bought the government snag boats for $185,000 and proposed to do the same job. Lobbying efforts in Washington the following year failed to get a government contract—Mississippi Senator Jefferson Davis opposed giving one to a man “whose previous pursuits gave no assurance of ability to solve a problem in civil engineering.” So Eads formed a syndicate of fifty insurance companies stretching from New York to New Orleans to finance his operation privately. Also in 1856 his mother’s first cousin James Buchanan, for whom Eads was named, was elected president of the United States.
One year later, at the age of thirty-seven, Eads retired with a fortune exceeding $500,000 in cash, again blaming ill health. But he remained active. He was now a man of substance, owner of a mansion with parklike grounds on Compton Hill. His friends included congressmen, senators, publishers, big businessmen. Demonstrating what seemed more a sense of responsibility than love, he married his widowed cousin, who had four children; they had no children together, and he spent little time with her. He became a founding director of the St. Louis Philharmonic Society. He was active in the St. Louis Merchants Exchange (the city’s chamber of commerce). He became involved in railroads, director of a major bank. He had come very far indeed from the boy who sold apples on the street.
In 1860, James Buchanan Eads was forty years old, his face framed by whiskers that met under his chin, and bald. He was sensitive about his baldness and rarely appeared in public without a skullcap. Though he looked frail, his years working the river had given him, one observer noted in surprise, “iron muscles.” Everything about him, from his clothes to his desk, was disciplined, clean, and orderly to the point of obsessiveness. “Really he seems to have been a point too precise,” his grandson said. “He was just the opposite to those geniuses whose great brain shows itself by a sloppy exterior. Eads was never sloppy, even at home.” In a photograph from the period he appears wise, possessing a kind of inner peace, yet he also seems intense, ascetic, with a disciplined and driven air.
He was also hard, his hardness creating turbulence around him. Others would call him unreasonable and rigid. He conceded nothing and pursued everything with ferocity. Even when playing chess with his grandson, he yielded nothing, and advised, “Never let even a pawn be taken.” In later photographs he usually appeared tight-lipped; one man described his mouth as “shut[ting] so emphatically that it made plain his intention to do, in spite of all, what he believed could and should be done. [His mouth] admitted no trifling. When it spoke seriously it spoke finally.”
And he was still willing to risk everything on himself. With a cheerfulness that understated the price he was willing to pay, he wrote, “Fortune favors the brave. ‘Drive on’ is my motto.”
He had created, in his own person, a great and powerful machine capable of extraordinary accomplishment. Emerson Gould, a steamboatman and investor who knew Eads for sixty years, later wrote: “Whatever credit is due him as an engineer, or for his mechanical and inventive genius, all sink into insignificance when compared to his ability as a financier. Upon that all his success depended…. His ability to avail himself of the skill, of the experience and the brains of all with whom he came in contact, was phenomenal and enabled him to succeed in any mechanical proposition suggested…. To plan and execute, no man was his equal.”
The machinery of Eads’ person was lying dormant, unused, restless. The Civil War was about to change that.
AS SOME IN MISSOURI talked of secession, Eads and a handful of powerful men including Edward Bates, Francis Preston Blair, Benjamin Gratz Brown, and James Rollins met regularly in each other’s homes to plot stratagems to keep Missouri in the Union, and strategy in case of war. Bates would become Lincoln’s attorney general; Blair, whose father edited the Washington Globe (his home, Blair House, lies across the street from the White House and is now used to house visiting heads of state), Brown, and Rollins would become U.S. senators. Eads argued for building ironclad steamboats, seizing the Mississippi River, and dividing the South. The others listened.
In April 1861, immediately after the firing on Fort Sumter, Bates, already in Lincoln’s cabinet, sent Eads a note marked “confidential…. Be not surprised if you are called here suddenly by telegram. If called, come instantly.” A few days later Eads was in Washington, presenting detailed plans for ironclads to Lincoln and the cabinet. Both the War Department and the Navy listened attentively. When the Army requested bids to build seven ironclad gunboats, Eads made the low bid and promised to deliver the boats in sixty-five days. He won the contract.
Eads had never built a gunboat or worked with metal and needed thirty-five boilers, twenty-one steam engines, hundreds of tons of metal, and thousands of board-feet of lumber. He had no shipyard, no machine shop, no foundry, no factory, and lacked the capital to begin, but within two weeks he had 4,000 men in St. Louis working seven days a week, with more thousands working in machine shops as far away as Cincinnati. When the government failed to pay him as required by the contract, Eads used personal funds and money raised from friends to pay subcontractors.
Although he could not deliver the seven gunboats in sixty-five days, he did deliver eight in one hundred days. The eighth one was the queen of his salvage fleet converted into a monster ship of war, 200 feet long with a 75-foot beam—wider than any oceangoing vessel. When it and the other ships arrived late in 1861 in Cairo, Illinois, for final outfitting, Commodore Andrew Foote reported to the quartermaster general that it “is greatly superior to any gunboat I have ever seen. Every officer here pronounces her the best gunboat in the Union.”
Eads arrived in Cairo himself with his warships and gave Ulysses S. Grant, a brigadier general waiting to push south, and his officers a tour of the ironclads. Grant had no intellectual curiosity and seemed sometimes dull and torpid, but he got along well with Eads and shared one trait with him. When he moved toward his purpose, his energy rumbled with volcanic and frightening force, powerful enough to move not only men but events. The ships seemed like Grant somehow: lumbering, squat, ugly, angry-looking, and sinister, and if slow and difficult to maneuver upstream, they also moved with inexorable power. Troops called them “turtles.” And Grant was grateful that Eads, who still owned the boats—the Army had not paid for them—allowed them into combat. They performed magnificently. In February 1862, with minimal involvement of Grant’s infantry, the gunboats bombarded Fort Henry on the Tennessee River and Fort Donelson on the Cumberland River. The forts surrendered, marking the first major Union victories of the war and significantly enhancing Grant’s reputation.
Eads’ reputation grew as well. During the war he built twenty-five ships, and Admiral David Farragut, before the battle of Mobile Bay, pleaded with Navy Secretary Gideon Welles, “Only give me the ironclads built by Mr. Eads, and we will see how far Providence is with us.” Eads also designed a rotating, steam-driven gun turret that became an engineering classic and precursor to modern battleship guns. The Navy quickly chose it over the turret designed by John Ericsson for his better-known but inferior ironclad, the Monitor, and also asked Eads to go to Europe to study navy yards there. He was received everywhere, including by Bismarck in Prussia, and possibly had access to the secretive Krupp works, where experiments with steel weapons and new steel-making processes were being conducted. American ordnance experts with whom he worked definitely had that access.
As the war ended, James Eads was among the most prominent and powerful men in the entire Mississippi valley. Eight hundred guests attended the wedding in 1867 of his daughter to the son of a former mayor; police were needed to hold back throngs of the uninvited curious. He put together a syndicate to buy the National Bank of Missouri, the largest bank in the West, served as president of the Mound City Life Insurance Company, controlled a railroad that was reaching west to Kansas City and north into Iowa’s grainfields, and cofounded a company to bridge the Missouri River. In 1871 the book Great Fortunes and How They Were Made devoted an entire chapter to Eads in a section titled “Capitalists”; other chapters in the section considered the likes of Cornelius Vanderbilt, John Jacob Astor, and Daniel Drew.
The war proved Eads brilliant and formidable. But the war had also created opportunity for another man, a man with whom Eads would fight a personal war for control of the Mississippi River.