James Buchanan Eads was born in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, on May 23, 1820. He came to St. Louis when he was 13 years old. The boat trip to St. Louis ended in disaster when the boat caught fire. The family was left with only the clothes on their back.
The financial needs of his family required young Eads to work, but he studied mechanics and other scientific books at night. In 1842, Eads developed a partnership with Case & Nelson boatbuilders. Their business involved rescuing wrecked boats and cargo from the Mississippi River. This was quite profitable as insurance companies would often pay a large portion of what was recovered to Eads and his company. In addition, freight that had been wrecked for five years belonged to whoever found it.
At the age of 26, Eads married Martha Dillon, the daughter of a wealthy St. Louisan. After a brief run at establishing a glass factory, Eads continued and expanded his wreck recovery business, making him very wealthy. In 1857, he retired from the wreck recovery business because of his poor health. His wife passed away about the same time. Two years later he married the widow of his first cousin.
Civil War Years
With the outbreak of the Civil War, James Eads oversaw the construction of ironclad gunboats for the War Department from the spring of 1861 to the spring of 1864 from his boatyard in Carondelet. He constructed boats at an incredibly fast pace that put pressure on the city’s carpenters and ironworkers. This included the Excelsior Stove Works owned by the Filley brothers, who switched their production from stoves to cannons and iron plating in support of the war effort. Eads received his first contract from the War Department in August 1861 thanks to a letter from General Frank Blair to his brother-in-law army quartermaster general, Montgomery C. Meigs. The contract asked for seven boats. While his original timetable stipulated that the boats would be ready for crews in 65 days, they were not sent until late November 1862, and weren’t accepted into service until January 15, 1863.
It wasn’t even a month before the ironclads would prove their effectiveness, aiding General Grant in the taking of Confederate Fort Donelson and Fort Henry, and again in the taking of New Madrid and Island No. 10. Eventually Eads would produce 14 of the 22 ironclad gunboats used during the Civil War. These boats would be integral in securing Union control of the Mississippi and opening the river to commerce by July of 1863.
In 1867, James Eads formed an organization dedicated to building a bridge across the Mississippi River in St. Louis. This bridge would be the largest arch bridge every built. Seven years later that goal had been achieved. James Eads died on March 8, 1887, and the headline in the Augusta Chronicle read “The Greatest Engineer in the World Is Dead.” In the 1930s a group of deans from prominent engineering schools selected the five best engineers of all time. They were Leonardo da Vinci, James Watt, Ferdinand de Lesseps, Thomas Edison, and James B. Eads.