Modern history


THE STRUGGLE between Eads and Humphreys had become personal, rich with hatred and contempt. At stake was far more than their respective reputations, or how engineers dealt with sandbars at the mouth of the Mississippi River. At stake was the future of the millions of people who were settling in its natural floodplain. And at stake was money. The river meant money, both the money that came from trade throughout the Mississippi valley and the possible development of its floodplain. For the river itself had created enormous potential wealth in the land beside it, depositing sediment—some of the deepest and lushest soil in the world—across its floodplain. In 1857 a geologist predicted: “Whatever the Delta of the Nile may once have been will only be a shadow of what this alluvial plain of the Mississippi will be. It will be the central point—the garden spot of the North American continent—where wealth and prosperity culminate.”

But the trade was limited as long as the river choked its mouth with sandbars, and the land was worthless as long as the river overflowed it at will. In the 1870s the river did just that. The war was one reason. Grant, in his campaign against Vicksburg, had cut levees, including the single strongest in the country. “On the second of February, [1863,] this dam, or levee, was cut,” he later wrote. “The river being high the rush of water through the cut was so great that in a very short time the entire obstruction was washed away…. As a consequence the country was covered with water.”

His act had exposed several thousand square miles to inundation, and it remained naked to the river. The poverty of southern states prevented either repairing destroyed levees or maintaining good ones. At Bonnet Carré, a few miles above New Orleans, the river broke through the levee in 1871; the crevasse would remain open, pouring water into nearby Lake Pontchartrain every flood season, until 1882.

Since the war the lower valley had gone backward, and land that had once produced wealth had gone back to jungle. Development had become a national issue as northern investors became interested. Even Massachusetts Congressman Nathaniel Banks, a Union general, called for action: “If we make the river what it ought to be we will make 40,000,000 acres of the best cotton and sugar lands on the face of the earth in consequence of the necessary improvement of the river—40,000,000 where now 1,000,000 exists. It is inseparable from and incidental to the improvement of the Mississippi river.”

DESPITE EADS, Humphreys seemed in a position to dictate engineering policies toward the river. He had always nurtured his relations with Congress, and had the infrastructure of the War Department behind him. In January 1874 a board of Army engineers formally considered Captain Howell’s report calling for a canal from the Mississippi to the Gulf. This board, which included Warren and, despite an obvious conflict of interest, Howell himself, first rejected Eads’ call for jetties because they had been “exhaustively treated” by Humphreys in his Physics and Hydraulics“and there is nothing more to add.” The board then endorsed Howell’s plan.

The board’s vote was 6 to 1, the lone dissenter the board’s chairman, Colonel John Barnard, who urged further study of jetties. Barnard had actually once declined appointment as chief of engineers, urging that his mentor Fred Delafield be appointed instead. Delafield had been named, but when he retired, Barnard was not offered the post again. Humphreys was. And Humphreys immediately began making Barnard’s life difficult. Barnard later called Humphreys’ appointment “my death blow…. Every door to promotion or recognition closed.”

Barnard’s dissent would later give Eads leverage, but for the moment Humphreys ignored it. On January 15, 1874, just as the Corps was demanding the St. Louis bridge be torn down, Humphreys advised Congress: “The canal is the only project that will meet the commercial, naval, and military demands of the United States. Its feasibility has never been doubted by anyone, and only on account of its cost have other methods been heretofore recommended. These other methods have always been regarded as experiments, and the reliance has been that, if they failed, the canal, as a final resort, was certain. I believe the time has come when that which appears certain should be tried first.”

ENGINEERS HAD in fact tried everything and failed. The problem was unique. The Mississippi was not alone in having sandbars block its mouth. Bars also blocked other deltaic rivers, including the Danube, the Rhône, the Vistula, and the Maas. But the Mississippi was the only river in the world that had “mud lumps.” Likely caused by the extreme weight of new sediment settling on the bottom, they could rise suddenly enough to lift a ship as it passed, and they usually had a volcano-like cone spewing gasses and liquid mud. Humphreys’ Physics and Hydraulics described them as “masses of tough clay, varying in size from mere protuberances looking like logs sticking out of the water to islands several acres in extent. They attain height from three to ten feet above the Gulf. Salt springs are found upon them, which emit inflammable gas.”

The Corps of Engineers had begun its efforts to open a shipping channel through the bars in 1837. Like the French, the Spanish, and the State of Louisiana before the Corps, it tried dragging harrows across the bar to stir it up, then dredging. After eighteen years of watching the Corps fail, the New Orleans magazine De Bow’s Review in 1855 called for jetties, noting: “If a fleet of 1,728 boats, each freighted with 500 tons of mud, were to sail down the river daily and discharge it into the Gulf of Mexico, it would be no more than the equivalent to the average daily operation of the river. A well-constructed dredge of 16 horse-power, under favorable circumstances, will raise 140 tons of mud an hour.”

Finally, in 1856, with a unanimous vote from the West and South, Congress overrode a presidential veto and appropriated $330,000 to open the river. The Corps hired a contractor to try jetties, but after two years of work an Army inspector found “only a scattering of piles…[that] remain to mark the position of the dam which was to control the ‘mighty river.’”

In disgust, the New Orleans Picayune condemned jetties as “a foolish attempt…so useless that its continuance should awaken remonstrance from all whose interests are identified with the commercial prosperity of the city of New Orleans.”

The Army voided the contract with the jetty builders and hired a famous dredge, the Enoch Train, to clear the way. Its hull added water like a modern submarine to lower itself and two huge propellers into the bar; the propellers were to churn up the bottom and make removal of the mud easy. But the ship’s engines lacked enough power to turn the propellers in the heavy mud. Next a scraper dredge designed by an Army engineer was used. It broke. In 1860 the Army tried harrows, and failed.

As soon as the war ended, demands from southerners and westerners to open the river’s mouth began anew. In 1867, at a huge river convention at St. Louis, Eads demanded the “improvement of the Mississippi River and its great tributaries…. Not a dollar should be voted by the representatives of this great Valley for any public works while these great rivers remain neglected.” Two years later, at another convention in Louisville, former Union General William Vandever warned, “The West is waking up! The child has become a man, and a mighty man at that!… The Mississippi is our institution…. We say to the politician, if you are not loyal to it, we will abolish you…. The North and the South will shake hands on that.”

Under intense political pressure, Humphreys put his faith in two new monster dredges built expressly to attack the sandbar. The first was the Essayons, completed in 1868. Her name meant “Let us try” and was the motto on the emblem of the Corps of Engineers. She tried, which is all one can say for her.

On her maiden voyage to the bar, as she pulled away from the New Orleans dock, the Essayons’ engines broke down. She drifted into a wharf and shattered a yawl. Two weeks later, after two more false starts, the ship finally left New Orleans. It took her two weeks to travel the hundred miles downstream to the river’s mouth. A log floating with the current would travel the distance in no more than a day and a half. Once there, the dredge worked for two days, then returned to New Orleans for repairs. Nonetheless, an Army engineer reported, “I am well satisfied, and her final success needs no further demonstration to my mind.”

But in three out of the next ten months, the Essayons worked at the bar not a single day; in the other seven months she worked from one and a half to fifteen and a half days. In March 1869 the New Orleans Picayune snorted: “It is idle for us to rely upon the government dredge machine….[T]he most she can do is break her propeller, and steam up to the city for another.”

Two years later the Army dredges were still breaking down regularly. In 1871 a New Orleans businessman wrote Humphreys, “[T]he Essayons has done nothing…. From last October 28th to date April 19th, she has worked in November, 47 hours 30 minutes, December 18 hours 55 minutes, January 27 hours, February 13 hours 55 minutes, March 20 hours 15 minutes, and been up in the city 70 days…. Is not the West and the Mississippi River of enough consequence to be heard at the War Department?”

Humphreys scribbled on the letter, “This is a tissue of falsehood.” But the information in it came from the log of the Essayons.

Whenever the channel was open, the Corps claimed success. One prominent New Orleans businessman was less sure, telling a Corps officer that a ship captain “told me yesterday there was eighteen feet of water over Southwest Pass. I asked what had caused that—he said ‘God.’ How do you account for it?”

Captain Charles Howell, who was in charge, blamed failure on sabotage by tugboats, which dragged ships across the bar for outrageous fees; an open channel would put them out of business. Once Howell complained to Humphreys that a tugboat tried “to run the Essayonsdown.” In fleeing, she broke more blades. He became a laughingstock. It infuriated him.

The New Orleans Chamber of Commerce, with the weight of commercial bodies throughout the Mississippi valley behind it, demanded a new approach. Since jetties had already failed, it insisted that the Corps try an idea first proposed in 1832: a canal connecting the river to the Gulf. A board of Army engineers had given it serious consideration in 1838. The Chamber declared, “Its construction is a necessity for the commerce of the Mississippi Valley.”

Finally, tired of failure, Howell and the Corps adopted the canal idea as their own. Virtually the entire Mississippi valley backed the plan.

BUT ON FEBRUARY 12, 1874, Eads arrived in Washington from St. Louis and made an extraordinary promise. The canal proposed a shipping channel 18 feet deep. Eads told congressmen and reporters he could build jetties that would produce a shipping channel 28 feet deep, deep enough to accommodate the largest oceangoing ships. Almost as important, he promised a channel 350 feet wide, allowing ships room to pass freely; in contrast, the canal would force ships to queue in single file. He also offered to build his jetties for $10 million, compared to the estimated $13 million total cost for the canal.

Then Eads made the most extraordinary offer of all. He proposed to build the jetties at his own risk. The government would pay him nothing until he achieved a channel 20 feet deep, 2 feet deeper than the canal’s goal. Then he would get $1 million, and $1 million more for each additional 2 feet in depth until 28 feet was reached; the remaining $5 million would be paid out in the future for maintenance.

Yet Eads’ offer was condemned throughout the Mississippi valley, nowhere more so than in New Orleans, a city desperate to build up its port. Congressman J. Hale Sypher of Louisiana expressed a widely held view when he warned that the people of the Mississippi valley “are not in condition of mind to tolerate further nonsense…. The safe rule for Congress to follow is the precedent established and followed for twenty-five years—to act upon the [Army] engineers’ reports authorized by Congress.” In New Orleans, Caleb Forshey, Humphreys’ former assistant on the Delta Survey, asked the New Orleans Picayune, “Can it be possible at this late date, after 35 years of tampering with dredges, jetties, and stirrings, the Congress can be staggered by the proposition of any man, and especially one who has never given the subject personal investigation?” Editorially, the Picayune added, “Never was an honest proposition more inopportune.”

Even the Missouri congressional delegation rejected Eads’ jetties and supported the canal.

Had the idea come from any other individual, it would likely have died. But it came from Eads. Earlier, in the face of intense opposition from so-called bridge experts, he had persevered. Now the bridge, weeks away from opening, stood as one of the engineering triumphs of the century. He would persevere again.

“In talking over any project he gave it long, careful and thorough examination, looking at it from all sides,” said one of his assistants. “When once his mind was made up it never changed; once having stepped forward he never took a backward step, no matter what obstacles confronted him; his faith never wavered…. He never became discouraged for a moment, no matter how dark it looked.”

To convince Congress to accept his proposal, Eads first had to reverse the position of his own Missouri delegation. To do so he returned briefly to St. Louis, met with editors, reporters, bankers, manufacturers, and shippers and swung them to his side. Armed with a barrage of publicity and wires of support from the state’s most powerful men, he went back to Washington and began a lobbying campaign as skillful as any of the twentieth century. Results were immediate.

On February 9, 1874, Missouri Congressman William Stone had introduced a bill calling for the canal. On February 22 he introduced a bill calling for Eads’ jetties. Stone’s reversal marked the switch of the entire state delegation. From this solid core Eads reached outward, to other Mississippi valley congressmen and to other newspapers, while his close friends in the Blair family—one was a senator, another ran the Washington Globe—and Missouri Senator Carl Schurz, a former Union general who knew Humphreys well and had contempt for him, weighed in. Relentlessly, Eads buttonholed members of Congress, playing cards with them, dining with them, drinking with them, joking with them, and, when needed, testifying before them. “Socially Mr. Eads was one of the most charming men who ever came to Washington,” observed the New Orleans Times-Democrat, while the New York Times reported that he was “using all those peculiar methods so well-known to those having long experience in working up legislation such as he is now attempting to secure…dinners, costly bouquets and baskets of flowers sent to their wives.” He also bought influence, for example, in return for lobbying help, secretly agreeing to share his profits with James Wilson, an engineer close to Belknap as well as to many members of Congress and even Humphreys.

Slowly, he gathered support and, one at a time, votes.

Humphreys fought back. Both Eads and Humphreys knew that the winner of the battle over the jetties would determine policy for the entire Mississippi River. So Humphreys tried to push through canal legislation quickly, citing the fact that on March 31 forty-seven ships were waiting at the mouth of the Mississippi to enter or leave the river.

The debate over engineering details grabbed the attention of the nation. Through the spring and summer of 1874 newspapers spread hydraulic theories across front pages, not only in river cities such as St. Louis, New Orleans, Davenport, and Cincinnati but in Chicago, Boston, and New York. Congressman Stephen Cobb of Kansas called Mississippi River improvements the single most vital issue for his constituents. Massachusetts Congressman Rockwood Hoar demanded action.

And increasingly, the debate became one of civilian versus military engineers. Privately, even some Army engineers were aghast at Humphreys’ position. One was Barnard, the sole dissenting vote on the board that recommended the canal. He confided to General C. B. Comstock: “I need not say this is for your eyes alone…. The plan submitted to the Chief Engineer by Howell and by him to the board simply ignored the engineering science of the present…. The incompetence from first to last with which the thing has been handled by the [Corps] has thrown it irrevocably into the hands of politicians.”

Civilian engineers saw the issue as an opportunity to strip the Corps of its power. For years they had attacked it as rigid, even incompetent. West Point had been using the same engineering textbook since 1837 (and would use it for two more years), a period of enormous and rapid technological change that included such advances as the telephone. Now with a specific issue and a champion, members of the American Society of Civil Engineers exerted what pressure they could on Ead’s behalf.

Meanwhile, one senator declared: “Every attempt that has ever been made to induce the Corps of Engineers…to listen to the recommendations made by the ablest civil engineers in the country has been resisted with an obduracy that is beyond belief. I state it here from my own knowledge that the Chief of Engineers has refused to allow any civil engineer to approach him who differed from him in opinion.”

A second senator echoed him: “Thirty-seven years ago the Engineer Department of the Army took the matter in hand, and…today the depth of water is no greater than it was then. In other words, they have effected nothing…. The civil engineers…, men who have tunnelled mountains, run our railroad tracks thousands of feet above the level of the sea, built the foundation of our magnificent bridges, and whose triumphs are among the most resplendent of our glorious Republic—we insist that they shall have an opportunity to offer their genius and skill to the country.”

But calls for more power to civilian engineers only made Humphreys dig in further. He insisted that jetties would have to fail for several reasons. The land near the mouth of the river was too soft to sustain the jetties’ weight, he argued, and therefore they would sink into the ocean bottom. Even if they did not sink, his second argument was that “the real bed of the river, upon which rest the moving sandbars” was composed of a “hard, blue, or drab-colored clay…nearly insoluble, resisting for years the strong current of the Mississippi.” If that argument proved in error, Humphreys had still a third: even if the jetties cut a deep channel through the bar itself, the river would simply deposit its sediment further out in the Gulf, beyond the jetties, creating a new bar. Thus the jetties would have to be extended ad infinitum. Humphreys informed Congress, “The annual advance will not be less than 1200 feet.”

But Eads knew the river in a way that separated him from Humphreys and all other men. Humphreys may have tasted the clay dredged up from the bottom of the river. Eads had spent years walking along that bottom, had been embraced by the river, had come as close to being part of it as it was possible to do and live. He had salvaged wrecks on the sandbar itself, walked the bottom there. He knew. He called Humphreys’ views “absurd.”

Some Eads opponents charged that jetties would confine the river so much they would raise flood heights in New Orleans—the identical objection to the levees-only policy voiced by its opponents. Paul Hebert, former governor of Louisiana and a West Point graduate, pleaded to senators: “We have laid before you the results of science and experience; we come now with prayer. Would you, can you, honorable Senators, at such a moment contemplate or tolerate the half insane proposition of strangers who can know nothing of our inexorable enemy, to dam his waters at the mouth by jetties that must inevitably send back the flood waters like a tide to the very city of New Orleans or beyond…? Do not, we pray, permit us to be destroyed.” And Forshey confessed that the Mississippi had caused “disasters and failures” in his own projects and warned Congress that the river would similarly teach Eads “modesty and humility in the presence of the gigantic torrent.”

Eads responded with scorn: “Disasters and serious accidents are always evidence of bad engineering. I have no confession of disaster or failure to make, for in my dealings with the Mississippi I have had none…I am sure I have not learned ‘modesty and humility in the presence of the gigantic torrent.’ Nor do I believe that it can be controlled by modesty and humility…. I believe [man] capable of curbing, controlling and directing the Mississippi, according to his pleasure.”

Then, carefully, logically, in testimony before a Senate committee and in well-distributed writings, he rebutted every argument against him. And always there was his unanswerable offer: if he did not succeed, the government paid nothing.

Immediately after Eads’ testimony, Louisiana’s Senator Rodman West, a longtime canal advocate, announced his support of jetties. The New Orleans Chamber of Commerce condemned him as a traitor and mounted an effort to defeat him; meanwhile, his conversion marked the complete rout of Humphreys in the Senate.

Humphreys still had strength in the House. The day the House voted, Humphreys circulated a letter stating that recent measurements proved his theory that a new sandbar would develop beyond the jetties. Also, despite his earlier charge that the jetties would cost $23 million, he now claimed that Eads’ offer of $10 million would give him a profit of $7 million.

The House rejected jetties and passed the canal bill. The Senate refused to consider a canal. The two houses finally compromised by creating a new board of engineers including three from the Army, three civilians, and one from the U.S. Coastal Survey. This board spent six months studying the bar as well as jetties in Europe. Eads, though not in direct contact with them, followed them through Europe. In January 1875, by a vote of 6 to 1, the board recommended jetties.

But it did not give Eads total victory. Just before the Mississippi reaches the sea, it splits into three main channels, or passes. He had offered to build jetties for $10 million at Southwest Pass, which carried most of the river’s water and, hence, its potential power. The board estimated the cost for construction and twenty years’ maintenance there at $16,053,124, and therefore recommended building jetties at the South Pass, where it estimated the cost would be $7,942,110.

Eads did not want to work at South Pass. It was the smallest and shallowest of all the river’s main outlets. He feared that a current powerful enough to dig a channel 28 feet deep and several hundred feet wide could destabilize not only the jetties but the pass itself. And at Southwest Pass, nature provided 14 feet of water over the sandbar. At South Pass, only 8 feet of water covered the bar. Finally, a shoal in the river blocked access to South Pass; removing the shoal would be more difficult than building the jetties themselves.

He made a counterproposal, offering to build the jetties, again at the larger Southwest Pass, for $8 million, $2 million less than his earlier offer and less than half the board’s estimate. And he guaranteed to deepen the channel to 30 feet instead of 28.

But now that Eads had won on the principle of the jetties, Humphreys and congressional allies spread more rumors about excessive profits and wrote a new jetties bill so restrictive that they believed Eads must reject it. In a memo to Humphreys, an aide explained: “The accompanying discussion of Mr. Eads’ project has for its chief object the presentation of an argumentum ad hominem which…does not aid in solving scientific questions…. The suggestions of what the bill should be, of course, do not imply a desire that it should pass, but merely to suggest amendments that would defeat the purpose of its projector and render it unacceptable to him.”

This bill required Eads to use the South Pass, produce a 30-foot-deep channel, and do it for $5 million, with an additional $1 million to be held in escrow for up to twenty years. He would receive nothing until Army engineers certified that a channel 20 feet deep existed—2 feet deeper than the goal of the canal. For this he would get only $500,000. Subsequent payments would be made in 2-foot increments until 30 feet was reached. Then Eads would receive $100,000 a year for maintenance for twenty years.

If Eads refused to accept the terms, the Corps of Engineers would build the jetties. If Eads was wrong, he would be ruined both financially and professionally. Even if his engineering theory was correct, the financial strictures could make his success impossible. But if he succeeded, his success would be total.

Eads accepted.

Meanwhile, on March 23, 1875, at a victory dinner in St. Louis attended by 400 powerful men, Eads made a speech that epitomized the nineteenth century’s linear certainty, and its hubris: “If the profession of engineer were not based upon exact science, I might tremble for the result…. But every atom that moves onward in the river…is controlled by laws as fixed and certain as those which direct the majestic march of the heavenly spheres. Every phenomenon and eccentricity of the river, its scouring and depositing action, its caving banks, the formation of the bars at its mouth, the effect of the waves and tides of the sea upon its currents and deposits, are controlled by laws as immutable as the Creator, and the engineer needs only to be assured that he does not ignore the existence of any of these laws, to feel positively certain of the result he aims at.”

Then Eads promised to “undertake the work with a faith based upon the ever-constant ordinances of God himself, and so certain as He will spare my life and faculties for two years more, I will give to the Mississippi river, through His grace, and by application of His, laws, a deep, open, safe, and permanent outlet to the sea.”

Great as that goal was, even more was at issue. And Humphreys, not a man to have for an enemy, was not finished.

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