Modern history


IN 1866, HAVING CHAMPIONED the Army against civilian critics and having been honored by scientific societies throughout the world, Andrew Atkinson Humphreys became chief of engineers of the U.S. Army. Ironically, by then there was no scientist left within him. Only the soldier remained.

He cared now only about obedience, power, and rank. Rank in particular obsessed him. The Army shrank after the war, and officers returned to their permanent rank. Some brevet major generals became captains again. Humphreys, a brevet major general, fell only to brigadier general, a rank that automatically went with his command. Yet he resented even this. He began lobbying congressmen to make the chief of engineers a major general, arguing that his duties were “far more onerous, extensive, and responsible than of any department commander.” Unsuccessful in that, he then asked the secretary of war that he “be relieved from duty as Chief of Engineers and assigned to command under my brevet rank,” although he soon wrote to “beg leave to withdraw” that request.

Inside the Corps his rule was absolute. He sought to have all engineering officers formally “detached” from the Army, thus making them answerable only to him. This effort earned him a reprimand, but he still sent a chilling message to underlings when one of the Corps’ civilian engineers, a man named Daniel Henry, invented a new instrument to measure water outflow; it gave far more precise results than a method Humphreys himself had developed for the Delta Survey. A scientist would have welcomed the advance, and the innovation was important enough to be displayed later at the 1876 Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. But when Henry used the new method in Army work, Humphreys relieved Henry’s military commander—a general—of his command for allowing its use, and forced Henry out of his job.

Humphreys tolerated no criticism. Even less would he tolerate a rival. But a rival far more formidable than anyone he had ever encountered was emerging.

Humphreys and this rival would soon meet in a great collision over control of the Mississippi River. The rival was James Buchanan Eads. Their collision began over a bridge.

THE CONSTRUCTION of what came to be known as the Eads Bridge at St. Louis was an epic in itself. The story began with money, and commerce. Prior to the Civil War, steamboats from St. Louis could navigate 15,510 miles of rivers, and an enormous and growing river trade seemed to guarantee the city’s future, helping the city grow from a population of 77,860 in 1850 to 160,773 in 1860 and 310,864 in 1870. Of railroads, the Missouri Republican said in 1854, “It may be properly assumed that trade, shipping, or business cannot be diverted by mere artificial means, from channels which nature…[has] given it…nor can any amount of capital supply the place of the rivers which constitute her great highways.”

But capital built railroads and railroads made Chicago explode. Its population skyrocketed from 4,479 in 1840, to 29,963 in 1850, 109,260 in 1860, and, officially, 298,977 in 1870. (Chicagoans charged, probably correctly, that St. Louis boosters manipulated the 1870 numbers to keep Chicago from surpassing St. Louis in population.)

The competition between the two cities, and between steamboats and railroads, was vicious. It came to a head when railroads bridged rivers. The first bridge across the Mississippi came in 1856 at Davenport, Iowa. Poorly designed, it was promptly hit by a steamboat, which sank (Eads salvaged it). St. Louis interests financed a famous lawsuit, seeking to tear down the bridge as a hazard to navigation. Abraham Lincoln argued for the railroad. His success—actually, a hung jury—was a major blow to river transport, and to St. Louis.

But as a result, the Corps of Engineers demanded, and Congress gave it, authority to review future bridges over the Mississippi to ensure their safety to shipping.

The Civil War meanwhile cut off St. Louis from much Mississippi River trade. Chicago took up the slack, and more. In 1860, not a single Chicago mercantile house did $600,000 worth of business a year; in 1866, with several bridges across the upper Mississippi open or under construction, twenty-two Chicago firms did over $1 million worth of business. The St. Louis Merchants Exchange finally recognized that without a railroad bridge across the river at their city, its business would evaporate; the exchange asked Eads to chair a subcommittee to reconcile bridge and steamboat interests.

Though long identified with steamboats, Eads was intrigued with bridging the Mississippi. He knew more about the river than any man who had ever lived. His experience with ironclads and naval artillery had taught him much about iron, and even about the then experimental metal steel.

After studying the problem, Eads proposed an arched bridge made of steel with either one span of at least 600 feet, or two of at least 450 feet. At the time he made this recommendation, not a single steel bridge existed anywhere in the world; in addition, the proposed arches would be the longest in the world. But on April 18, 1866, in the Merchants Exchange Building, his subcommittee adopted his proposal unanimously. Such was the faith St. Louis businessmen had in Eads.

An existing company already owned a state charter to build a bridge, but after a year in which it made no move toward actual construction, Eads and his associates bought it. He became the company’s chief engineer. Suddenly, things began to move swiftly.

First, Eads met with his old friend Missouri Senator Benjamin Gratz Brown, who won congressional authorization for the bridge over opposition from ferries, steamboats, railroads with established connections, and Chicago politicians. The authorization passed, Brown said, only because it stipulated at least one span of at least 500 feet or two of at least 350 feet, which was considered “impossible…. In fact, the utterance was then and there boldly made that the genius did not exist in the country capable of erecting such a structure.”

Eads had never built any bridge, and this would have the longest arches ever built, with a material never before used for such a purpose—indeed, the British then forbade the use of steel in bridges. It would span the Mississippi below the mouth of the Missouri, after that river’s tremendous volume joined the upper Mississippi. No bridge on the upper Mississippi itself nor anywhere else crossed a comparable flow of water.

Yet in an expression of almost suicidal self-confidence, Eads decided to design this bridge himself. He did hire outstanding assistants, including Henry Flad and W. Milnor Roberts, who both later became presidents of the American Society of Civil Engineers. But the basic design was his, many of the calculations his, many of the technical innovations his.

His plans called for a center arch 520 feet wide resting on piers sunk to bedrock, and two side arches 502 feet wide. The key to success would be steel. Steel was as revolutionary as his plans. Though Eads probably knew more about steel than any engineer in the world, and most metallurgists, it was still a new medium; not until 1867—the year Eads committed himself to the metal—was the open-hearth process even developed.

This did not reassure. Bridges built by experienced engineers, including Ellet, across lesser rivers had already collapsed, costing lives and money. In fact, roughly one out of every four bridges built in this period collapsed. The cost estimate for the St. Louis Bridge approached $6 million. Almost certainly it would rise. Eads would need to find capital not only in New York and Boston, but in London and Paris. To build investor confidence Eads hired as consulting engineer Jacob Linville, former bridge engineer for the Pennsylvania Railroad and president of the Keystone Bridge Company, which Linville and Andrew Carnegie had formed. But after examining the plans in July 1867, Linville said: “I cannot consent to imperil my reputation by appearing to encourage or approve its adoption. I deem it entirely unsafe and impracticable.”

Linville’s criticism was only one blow. A few weeks later a rival bridge builder tried to undermine further Eads’ ability to raise capital by convening a meeting in St. Louis of twenty-seven engineers. Their report announced “unqualified disapproval of spans of five hundred feet…for which there is no engineering precedent”; it was printed as a pamphlet and distributed nationally.

Yet Eads never took a backward step. Elmer Corthell, a third Eads assistant who later became president of the American Society of Civil Engineers, wrote of him: “It is absolutely certain that no obstacle of an engineering, financial or any other kind ever for a moment disturbed or discouraged him. His complete knowledge of the conditions and the forces he was dealing with gave him unfaltering faith in the plans of the work, and yet there was something more than knowledge…. There was genius of the highest order that gave to him unalterable determination…and a sublime faith in what he always believed were the clearly written laws of the Creator.”

Eads answered his critics three ways.

First, he fired Linville and eliminated the position of consulting engineer.

Second, he gathered in the financial resources at his immediate command—mostly investors who had faith in him personally—and, on August 21, 1867, began construction of a cofferdam even as the twenty-seven engineers met. Supposedly, he chose as the site the same spot on which he had first landed in the city, dragged wet and destitute from the river three decades before.

Third, he prepared his first report to the bridge company directors. The report, actually an open letter to investors, typified Eads. Much of the force of his personality lay in his ability to explain the most esoteric science in terms an intelligent layman could grasp. The report began, “Anyone who can be made to understand the principles of all mechanical powers, the lever, can readily comprehend the explanation I propose making.” Step by step, each one laid with mathematical certainty atop the preceding, he presented his plans. Reaction around the world in engineering journals was, finally, universal praise. Newspapers published the plans. They were talked about everywhere.

And he applied his charm. He charmed the roughest of men working on the bridge; although he always carried a knife and pistol around them, they addressed him as “J.B.” and he competed with them in weight-lifting contests on the blacksmith boat—he finished second. He was professional and focused on the task in the extreme, explaining, for example, that an employer must “have constant control of his temper, and be able to speak pleasantly to one man the next moment after having spoken in the harshest manner to another, and even to give the same man a pleasant reply a few minutes after having corrected him. Self must be left out of the matter entirely, and a man or boy spoken to only as concerns his conduct; and the authority which the controller has over the controlled, used only when absolutely necessary, and then with the utmost promptness.”

More important, he charmed investors in New York, London, and Paris. His logic made the boldest goal seem attainable. His enthusiasm made it seem inevitable. Even Andrew Carnegie was charmed and first became involved in international finance selling the bridge’s bonds in London.

The bridge rose. In the late 1860s and early 1870s, nearly 2,000 men were swarming about on twenty-four large derrick-equipped barges and boats and scaffolding as the steel and masonry took shape. (Thirteen men who worked as deep as 125 feet below the surface would die of caisson disease, later known as the bends, caused by nitrogen bubbles forming in the blood under pressure; problems continued until Eads’ personal physician cut the shifts to forty-five minutes.) Thousands more worked in quarries in New England and machine shops and foundries in Pittsburgh, Wheeling, and Philadelphia.

But the money pressure did not abate. The estimated cost was soon up to $9 million. In one crisis the arches had to be closed by a certain date or the bridge would collapse financially. Temperatures of 100 degrees had caused the steel to expand, making it too long by fractions of an inch. Eads was in London negotiating a new loan from Junius Morgan, J. Pierpont’s father, when his assistants wired that even applying hundreds of tons of ice had failed to cool and contract the metal. Eads had anticipated the problem and wired back the solution (telescoping the metal and screwing it into place, in the same way one might adjust a shower rod). Eads astounded Morgan when he, supremely confident of success, left for Paris without waiting to hear the result.

Eads made only one compromise. The same Jacob Linville whom he had fired as a consultant was president of the Keystone Bridge Company, an iron and steel contractor. His partner was Carnegie. Both Linville and Carnegie had close ties to the Pennsylvania Railroad, which was represented on the bridge company’s board. Eads also needed Carnegie’s financial connections. So Eads made the Keystone company chief contractor. Carnegie knew the pressures on Eads and repeatedly squeezed him, demanding new financial concessions and secretly maneuvering to control—and milk—every subcontract. Typically, Carnegie wired one steel maker not to inform Eads “about our confidential efforts to throw the steel contract your way…no one knows about this in St. Louis and no one should know.”

But Eads pushed Carnegie as well. Eads was demanding, demanding of everyone, demanding of seemingly impossible standards. Each individual piece of key materials—not random samples from a production run—was tested. Eads’ assistant Flad invented a testing machine capable of detecting deformations of 1/200,000 of an inch, a heretofore unimaginable tolerance. In one instance, the Keystone factory worked for six months to produce a single steel plate good enough to test. It failed.

To William Taussig, chairman of the bridge company—Eads was nominally only chief engineer—Carnegie complained, “The very machinery to make the raw material has in large part to be created…. Your man of decided real genius is the most difficult to deal with practically…. Nothing that would please and that does please other engineers is good enough. Capt. Eads must only require the custom of the trade…. You must keep Eads up to requiring only what is reasonable and in accordance with custom.”

Eads cared nothing for custom. He drove on, turning to an other company that pioneered chrome-alloy steel, a product he helped develop. The bridge rose up and reached across the river.

Then, abruptly, six years after Congress had specifically authorized the bridge and years after the Corps of Engineers had approved the plans for it and construction had begun, the Corps threatened to tear the bridge down.

IN REALITY, the Army’s objection had little to do with the bridge. It had to do with who would control the Mississippi River.

The fight for control began on May 13, 1873, when Eads read a resolution he had written, endorsed by the city’s businessmen, to a huge river convention in St. Louis attended by a dozen governors, more than one hundred members of Congress, and several thousand delegates representing every commercial interest in the Mississippi valley.

The bridge made Eads the biggest man at the convention. The sight of it was more eloquent than any acclaim, and it was the talk of the delegates. Its piers had long since been sunk to bedrock, and now its steel arches, like dancers whose outstretched arms did not quite touch each other, extended across the great river, while hundreds of men teemed about on giant derricks and great workboats.

But Eads said nothing about the bridge. Instead, he addressed the problems at the mouth of the Mississippi River, where sandbars were choking commerce.

The bars were not a new problem. In 1718 the French had noted, “It is necessary, by all sorts of methods, to open the entry of the river.” In 1859, General Winfield Scott, commander of the Army, had examined the sandbars and found thirty-eight ships in the river trying to get into the Gulf, twenty-one in the Gulf waiting to get into the river, and three ships aground on the bar itself; another fifty ships were waiting to depart New Orleans. One of the ships at the bar had been waiting eighty-three days. Bad as that situation was, the problem—like the floods—was growing worse. Larger and larger ships were being blocked more and more often.

The Corps of Engineers had been trying different approaches for forty years to solve the problem. None had succeeded. Only recently the Corps had pronounced the sandbar a permanent, immovable barrier. So it planned to outflank it by building a canal to connect the river to the Gulf. The canal idea had gained nearly universal support throughout the Mississippi valley, from Louisville to Davenport and especially in New Orleans, where the issue of the sandbars was of vital concern.

So his words were controversial, even inflammatory. When Eads rejected the canal idea, he declared, “The solution of this problem, it is believed, will be achieved…by a system of jetties.”

Eads called for constructing two parallel piers far out into the Gulf. This would narrow the river and increase its current, and Eads believed that the concentrated current would cut its own channel through the bar. In 1837, Eads had watched this happen in St. Louis. Sandbars had grown into tree-covered islands so large that they threatened to cut the city off from the river. Robert E. Lee, then a captain in the Army engineers, had built a jetty into the river that directed the force of the main channel against the islands. They had quickly melted away. Now Eads wanted to do the same thing at the Mississippi’s mouth.

Eads made few converts at the convention. But after the convention many delegates, including Eads, members of Congress, and reporters from major Mississippi valley and eastern papers, traveled to New Orleans to examine the sandbar.

There Captain Charles Howell of the Corps of Engineers, author of the report calling for the canal, took them on a two-hundred-mile roundtrip to the mouth of the Mississippi. Eads spent the entire trip explaining to an interested audience why jetties were superior to the canal. Howell, increasingly irritated by this civilian who questioned the judgment and authority of the Army engineers, immediately reported the interference to Humphreys.

Humphreys was already warding off plans pushed by critics to create a U.S. Geological Survey and transfer to it the Army’s authority to survey the West, and—an even more serious attack—to transfer control of the Mississippi River from the Corps to a new commission of both Army and civilian engineers. In resisting these proposals, Humphreys had advised a subordinate: “We must get ready for a combat at the next session [of Congress]—not only defensive but offensive if necessary…. The contest must be sharp and merciless.”

He had won those contests. In triumph he turned to Eads.

Eads considered his comments about the canal and jetties impersonal, a question of science, efficiency, and truth. Humphreys considered them a personal insult directed at the single greatest failure, and embarrassment, of the Corps.

But Humphreys had never engaged a man like Eads. In his own way Eads was colder than Humphreys, far larger of vision and thus impersonal. Eads was, said a friend, “a bitter and unrelenting foe…. To him the unfolding of great and correct principles was more than personal friendships. His beliefs were his friends.”

HUMPHREYS INTENDED to teach Eads a lesson, and his weapon was the Army’s authority over obstacles to navigation on the Mississippi. He wielded that weapon when a formal complaint about the bridge was filed with Secretary of War William Belknap by the Keokuk Steamboat Company and several ferries, each of which would be hurt by competition from the bridge. Belknap, who later resigned after the House voted to impeach him over an unrelated matter, was from Keokuk and a partner of the steamboat line’s owners. The charge was that some of their steamboats had smokestacks too high to fit under the bridge. Ten years earlier a solution to this problem had been found: smokestacks could simply be hinged, and lowered when passing under bridges.

Although the bridge complied precisely with the earlier congressional legislation and plans for the bridge had been widely discussed for years and approved by both Belknap’s predecessor and Humphreys himself, now, a few weeks after Eads first criticized the canal idea, Humphreys ordered a board of Army engineers to investigate the complaint.

Major G. K. Warren was the board member closest to Humphreys. His own career, once filled with such promise, had been derailed a few days before Appomattox when he had been unfairly relieved of his command. He had not only worked under Humphreys on the Delta Survey but fought beside him during the war, and Humphreys was helping him convince a board of inquiry that he should not have been relieved. Warren may also have felt personal animosity toward Eads. Eads was suing Warren’s brother-in-law Washington Roebling, the great engineer building the Brooklyn Bridge; Eads had given Roebling a tour of his own work, and Roebling had then used caissons similar to Eads’ design. Finally, Warren himself was building a railroad bridge at Rock Island, Illinois, which would compete with the St. Louis bridge.

The Army board convened at St. Louis on September 2, 1873, without officially informing the bridge company of its inquiry and while Eads was in England raising capital. In a small room with Warren suggesting appropriate answers, bridge opponents presented two full days of choreographed testimony. Then Warren drafted a statement for bridge opponents to sign saying that “the river interests” considered the bridge “a serious obstruction to navigation.”

Only then, late on a Friday afternoon and minutes before the scheduled end of the hearing, was Taussig, chairman of the bridge company, invited to speak. He asked for an additional day of hearings to allow experts and steamboatmen who did not object to the bridge to testify, requesting “as many hours as the complainants had had weeks with which to prepare their testimony.”

Warren snapped, “If a thousand steamboat men should come and say that this bridge was no obstruction, it could not change my opinion.” The request for another day of testimony was denied.

A week later the board issued its report. Humphreys quickly approved it. It was merciless indeed. Eads had criticized a canal near the river’s mouth. The Corps would now ram a canal down his throat. The report not only concluded that the bridge would obstruct navigation but stated: “The Board have very carefully considered the various plans proposed for changing the present structure but find none of them satisfactory. They would therefore recommend that a canal be formed behind the east Abutment of the Bridge.”

Humphreys was ordering Eads to build a canal with a drawbridge so ships could go around his bridge. It was an absurdity, but Humphreys had the authority to require it. Only an order from the secretary of war or the president, or an act of Congress, could prevent it.

From Europe, Eads began his counterattack, generating a flurry of condemnations of the Corps by steamboat owners and captains. Then he returned and, with Taussig, went to Washington.

On an unseasonably hot morning in the fall of 1873, they walked into the White House and with some trepidation asked to see President Grant. Just before the war Taussig had blocked the hiring of the then-struggling Grant as superintendent of county roads in St. Louis County, ironically because his father-in-law was a prominent southern sympathizer. The preceding year Eads had publicly supported Horace Greeley for president, against Grant. But Eads and Grant had always liked each other. And Eads had smoothed the way with Grant’s private secretary General Horace Porter. Porter, who had captured Jefferson Davis at the end of the war, was leaving the government; he and Eads would soon reach a secret agreement giving Porter a share of Eads’ profits on a venture he was about to propose.

Grant received Eads warmly, clasping his hands in both of his own. But he addressed Taussig as “Judge,” his title when he rejected Grant’s job application—an indication that Grant remembered. Taussig froze. Then Grant laughed, saying he bore no grudges, “since I prefer my present position to that one.”

They sat in Grant’s office while a steward served coffee. Eads recounted everything that had happened, along with the technical issues. Grant sat back, listening. He knew Humphreys well enough from the war. After half an hour he summoned his secretary of war.

Within moments Belknap appeared. He saw Eads and blanched. Grant asked curtly: Did the bridge not conform to the congressional legislation? Had it not already received approval from the War Department? Belknap conceded both points, but pleaded for Grant to review the papers relating to the case. Coldly, Grant said: “I do not care to look at the papers. You certainly cannot remove this structure on your own judgment…. If your Keokuk friends feel aggrieved let them sue the Bridge. I think, General, you had better drop the case.”

Belknap reddened, bowed briefly, and left.

A few weeks later Grant was in St. Louis. He visited Eads at the bridge. The great arches were complete but only narrow planks connected them, where the roadway would be. It was a cold damp November day. They took a walk single file along the planks with the wind blowing, each of them holding their hats, walking past whistling wire ropes, the white-capped river far below them. Grant was in good cheer. They retired to the work shed. Eads opened brandy and they drank, smoked cigars, and played cards, and spoke of the past.

DESPITE GRANT’S ORDER, Humphreys did not quit. In January 1874 the Corps issued a new report, rejecting as insufficient its own earlier recommendation of a canal, calling the bridge a “badly designed…monster…Justice demands that the bridge must come down.”

The bridge would not come down. Eads simply ignored the order. The bridge opened July 4, 1874, on schedule, with a great celebration attended by 300,000 men and women. It spanned the river with clean and powerful symmetry, the design as simple and elemental as the river itself, and it would carry trains for a century. An extraordinary architectural and engineering achievement, Richard Kirby and Philip Laurson in their book The Early Years of Modern Civil Engineering call it “[O]ne of those remarkable advances which speed the progress of an art or science…an achievement out of all proportion to its size.” The tremendous attention focused on the bridge created instant confidence in steel and helped fuel an explosion in demand for it. In 1867, when Eads started construction, America produced 22,000 tons of steel; in 1874, when he finished, America produced 242,000 tons. But no tribute could say more than Louis Sullivan, the first great modern architect, father of the phrase “form follows function.” (To him, function included not only utility but man’s aspirations and ideals.) As a child in Chicago, he said, his “soul became immersed” in the bridge. “I followed every detail of design, every measurement…with the intensity of personal identification …here was Romance, here again was Man, the great adventurer, daring to think, daring to have faith, daring to do.”

EVEN BEFORE THE BRIDGE OPENED, Eads embarked upon another great adventure. He had begun his career riding on the surface of the Mississippi. Then he had penetrated its depths, walked its bottom. His bridge had gone deeper than the bottom, into the bedrock below it, while enveloping it above. Now he intended more: to make the river obey his will and to transform it into a tool for his own use. If in the course of pursuing this new adventure Humphreys happened to be destroyed, that would be, as they said in New Orleans, lagniappe.

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