EADS vs. THE MISSISSIPPI and THE ARMY
THE MISSISSIPPI RIVER STOOD AT THE CENTER, literally and figuratively, of the United States’s westward expansion during the nineteenth century. By far the most prominent name in taming the powerful river was James Buchanan Eads. From the 1830s through the 1850s this supremely capable engineer salvaged hundreds of wrecks with a series of ever-larger diving bells, gaining in the process an intimate knowledge of the river’s bottom. When the Civil War broke out, he built a fleet of ironclad gunboats that helped win control of the river for the Union (see “Eads and the Navy of the Mississippi,” Invention & Technology, Spring 1994). And after the war he spanned the river with a gigantic bridge at St. Louis (see “Under Pressure,” Invention & Technology, Spring 1996) As Eads’s bridge neared completion, the middle of the country looked forward to a day when the Mississippi would be a steady, reliable highway for the movement of goods and people. Before that could happen, though, one more problem had to be solved. And the solution would influence both commerce and flood control on the river up to today.
At the Mississippi’s mouth, below New Orleans, the river degenerated into a quagmire, as it deposited the soil it and its tributaries had picked up over thousands of miles in a maze of islands, marshes, and shallows. The biggest problem was a group of huge sandbars that had built up where the river met the Gulf of Mexico, restricting traffic to a few narrow channels. Dredging them was a Sisyphean task, since the river kept endlessly dumping more sand. Eads had an elegant solution. But standing in his way was an opponent at least as formidable as the Mississippi itself: the Army Corps of Engineers and its autocratic head, Andrew Atkinson Humphreys.
After graduating from West Point in 1831, Humphreys had spent five years as an artillery officer and then thirty-five years as a civil and topographical engineer. During this time he planned lighthouses, fortifications, and harbor works on the Delaware and served in the U.S. Coastal Survey, all the while angling for positions of greater authority and power.
In 1850 he got the plum assignment he had been waiting for: conducting a thorough topographic and hydrographie survey of the lower Mississippi. He pursued the work with vigor, compiling reams of data and visiting European rivers for comparison. He even tasted mud dredged from the bottom, noting, “The clay itself has somewhat gritty feel between the teeth and a peculiar taste.” After pausing in the mid-1850s to oversee the government survey of proposed transcontinental railroad routes, he resumed his Mississippi survey, performing fieldwork under the blazing sun in full uniform, which he kept immaculate. The survey culminated in the publication of his Report Upon the Physics and Hydraulics of the Mississippi River (1861), co-written with Henry L. Abbot, which earned worldwide praise.
THEN CAME THE ClVIL War. Humphreys joined the staff of Gen. George McClellan in December 1861, and over the next three and a half years he saw action in the Peninsular and Antietam campaigns, at Fredericksburg and Gettysburg, and at Sayler’s Creek in the conflict’s final days. Theodore Lyman, who served with Humphreys on Gen. George Meade’s staff, remembered him as “an extremely neat man … continually washing himself and putting on paper dickeys.” Charles A. Dana, the Assistant Secretary of War, called him “very pleasant to deal with, unless you were fighting against him, and then he was not so pleasant,” adding that he was “intolerant” and capable of “the most distinguished and brilliant profanity” in the Army. By war’s end Humphreys had been promoted to command of II Corps and had achieved the brevet rank of major general.
Humphreys’s service on the battlefield was as noteworthy as his engineering achievements. He relished the thrill of combat, which only augmented his already considerable vanity. After losing 20 percent of his command in twenty-five minutes and having three horses shot from under him at Fredericksburg, he wrote: “I felt like a young girl of sixteen at her first ball. … I felt more like a god than a man. I now understand what Charles XII meant when he said, ‘Let the whistling of bullets hereafter be my music.’”
He showed a keen appreciation for his own valor, boasting that “as a Division Commander I have done what no other Division Commander has ever done, and I know that my example has taught others what to do.” At one point he wrote, “I hate to be second to anyone.” Another time he whined, “My mortification at seeing men over me and commanding me who should have been far below me has destroyed all my enthusiasm and I am indifferent.” In 1864, when Ulysses S. Grant was appointed over Meade to command the entire Army, Humphreys worried that his own contributions would go unrecognized: “The reputation justly due to those labors, responsibility and deeds will go to General Grant, and not to General Meade, much less to myself. General Grant will reap all the glory, all the reputation of success, and share none of the obloquy of disaster if such should befall us.”
In August 1866, with the war ended, Humphreys was appointed chief of en- gineers of the U.S. Army. His work had been honored by scientific societies throughout the world, but after almost four years of fighting, there was no scientist left in him. Only the soldier remained, and he cared about nothing but obedience, power, and rank. Rank in particular obsessed him. The Army shrank greatly after the war, and brevet promotions were ignored as officers returned to their permanent ranks. Some major generals became captains again. Humphreys fell only to brigadier general, but he resented even that demotion. He unsuccessfully lobbied congressmen to make him a major general, arguing that his duties were “far more onerous, extensive, and responsible than of any department commander.”
Inside the Corps of Engineers Humphreys’s rule was absolute. He unsuccessfully sought to have all engineering officers formally detached from the Army and made answerable only to him. He sent a chilling message to underlings when one of the Corps’s civilian engineers, a man named Daniel Henry, invented an instrument to measure water outflow that gave far more precise results than a method Humphreys had developed. A scientist would have welcomed the advance, but when Henry used the new method in his Army work, Humphreys forced him out of his job and relieved Henry’s superior, a general, of his command.
Humphreys tolerated no criticism. Even less would he tolerate a rival. But a rival far more formidable than any he had ever encountered was emerging, and the two men would soon meet in a great collision. The rival was James Buchanan Eads, and their collision began over Eads’s bridge, which he had started planning in 1866. The following year Eads obtained congressional approval, and after financing had been arranged, the work progressed steadily with occasional interruptions. But then, abruptly, years after the Corps had approved plans for the bridge and construction had begun, the Corps threatened to tear it down.
The fight began on May 14, 1873, when Eads read a resolution he had written, with the endorsement of the city’s businessmen, to a huge river convention in St. Louis. The meeting was attended by a dozen governors, more than a hundred members of Congress, and several thousand delegates representing every commercial interest in the Mississippi Valley.
EADS’S BRIDGE MADE HIM THE biggest man at the convention. Its piers had long since been sunk to bedrock, and now its steel arches extended toward each other from either side of the great river. But in his speech Eads said nothing about his bridge. Instead he addressed the problem of sandbars at the mouth of the Mississippi.
It was 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.” During an 1859 visit Gen. Winfield Scott, commander of the Army, found thirty-eight ships in the river waiting to enter the Gulf, twenty-one ships in the Gulf waiting to enter the river, and three ships aground on the bar itself (which was really a series of bars). Another fifty ships were waiting to depart New Orleans; one of them had been waiting for eighty-three days. And the problem was growing worse, as larger and larger vessels were being blocked more and more often.
The Corps had tried a variety of solutions over the previous forty years. None had succeeded. Only recently the Corps had given up and pronounced the sandbar a permanent, immovable barrier. 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, especially in New Orleans.
So Eads’s words were controversial, even inflammatory. He called for constructing jetties—two parallel piers stretching far out into the Gulf. They would narrow the river and increase its current, which Eads believed would be enough to cut a new channel through the bar. He had watched this very thing happen in St. Louis in 1837. Sandbars had grown into tree-covered islands so big that they threatened to cut the city off from the river. Robert E. Lee, then a captain in the Army Corps of Engineers, built a jetty into the river that directed the force of the main channel against the islands. They quickly melted away. Now Eads wanted to do the same thing at the Mississippi’s mouth, in defiance of the canal advocated by the Corps and its chief.
Eads considered his plan for the river to be a simple matter of science, efficiency, and the truth. Humphreys saw it as a personal insult and reacted accordingly. But he had never faced a man like Eads.
Humphreys intended to teach Eads a lesson, and his weapon was the Army’s authority over obstacles to navigation on the Mississippi. He used this power to attack Eads’s most conspicuous success, his bridge. On the basis of a trumped-up complaint from a group of steamboat men in Keokuk, Iowa, the Corps ordered Eads to build a canal so that ships could go around it. Only Ulysses Grant, now President, could override the decision. Fortunately, Eads and Grant had always liked each other, a friendship that went back to their wartime cooperation in shutting down Rebel forts on the Mississippi. Eads called on the President and presented his case. Grant summoned the Secretary of War and told him to cancel the order. The bridge opened on schedule on July 4, 1874.
But Humphreys had learned at Fredericksburg that one battle does not make a war. He had always nurtured his relations with Congress, and he had the War Department behind him. In early 1874 a board of Army engineers considered a report by Capt. Charles Howell of the Corps that called for bypassing the sandbar by cutting a canal from the Mississippi to the Gulf. The board, which included Howell himself, first rejected Eads’s call for jetties because they had been “exhaustively treated” by Humphreys and Abbot in their Physics and Hydraulics “and there is nothing more to add.” The board then endorsed Howell’s plan by a vote of 6 to 1.
By now the Corps had the entire Mississippi Valley behind it, along with a list of failures. It had first attempted to open a shipping channel through the bars in 1837. Like the French, the Spanish, and the state of Louisiana before it, the Corps tried dragging harrows across the bar to stir it up, then dredging. After eighteen years of watching the Corps fail, the New Orleans magazine DeBow’s Review called for jetties in 1855, remarking: “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.”
THE CORPS HAD EVEN TRIED jetties. In 1856, with a unanimous vote from the South and West, Congress overrode a presidential veto and appropriated $330,000, and the Corps hired a contractor to build jetties, but after two years of work an Army inspector found “only a scattering of piles.” 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 wellregarded dredge, the Enoch Train, to clear the way. Its hull could take on water, like a modern submarine, to lower itself and two huge propellers into the bar. The propellers would then churn up the bottom, supposedly making removal of the mud easy. But the ship’s engines lacked enough power to turn the screws in the heavy Mississippi mud.
Next a scraper dredge designed by an Army engineer was tried. It broke. In 1860 the Army tried harrows. They also failed. After the war, under intense political pressure from the South and West, Humphreys put his faith in two new monster dredges built expressly to attack the sandbar. The first, completed in 1868, was christened Essayons—French for “Let us try,” the motto of the Corps of Engineers. It did try, but with little success. For almost three years it and a sister ship continually broke down, spending much more time in the repair shop than on the river, until Mississippi Valley residents finally lost patience.
THE NEW ORLEANS CHAMBER of Commerce demanded a new approach. Since jetties and dredging had already failed, it insisted that the Corps try a canal, which had first been proposed in 1832. Tired of failure, Howell and the Corps had adopted the canal idea as their own in early 1874. On January 15 Humphreys told 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.” Virtually the entire Mississippi Valley backed him.
But on February 12, 1874, Fads arrived in Washington from St. Louis and unveiled an audacious proposal. The Corps’s canal promised a shipping channel eighteen feet deep. Fads told congressmen and reporters that his jetties would produce a channel twenty-eight feet deep—enough to accommodate the largest oceangoing ships. Almost as important, he promised a channel 350 feet wide, allowing ships room to pass one another freely. In contrast, the canal would force vessels to queue in single file, one direction at a time. He also offered to build his jetties for $10 million, which was $3 million less than the estimated cost of 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. After that he would get a million dollars, and one million more for each additional 2 feet in depth until he reached 28 feet. The remaining $5 million would be paid out in the future for maintenance.
Yet Eads’s offer was condemned throughout the Mississippi Valley, nowhere more than in New Orleans, which was desperate to build up its port. Rep. J. Hale Sypher of Louisiana expressed a widely held view when he warned that the people of the Mississippi Valley were “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.” Had the proposal come from anyone else, it would likely have died. But it came from Eads. Earlier he had persevered in the face of intense opposition from bridge experts. Now his bridge, weeks away from opening, stood as one of the engineering triumphs of the century. He would persevere again.
To persuade 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, where he 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 skillful lobbying campaign.
His close friends in the Blair family —Francis was a senator, while his father of the same name had once run the Washington Globe—and Sen. Carl Schurz of Missouri, a former Union general who knew Humphreys well and disliked him, also lent their support. Eads relentlessly buttonholed members of Congress, playing cards with them, dining with them, drinking with them, joking with them, and, when needed, testifying before them. He bought influence as well as drinks. For example, in return for lobbying help, he secretly agreed to share his profits with James Wilson, an engineer close to the Secretary of War as well as many members of Congress and even Humphreys. Slowly Eads gathered support and, one at a time, votes.
On February 9, 1874, Rep. William Stone of Missouri had introduced a bill calling for the canal. On February 22 he introduced a bill calling for Eads’s jetties. Stone’s reversal signaled the switch of the entire state delegation. From this solid core Eads reached out to other Mississippi Valley congressmen.
Esoterics of engineering became a matter of wide public interest as newspapers spread hydraulic theories across their front pages through the spring and summer of 1874. 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 was still using the same engineering textbook it had adopted in 1837.) But calls for giving more power to civilian engineers only made Humphreys dig in further.
HE INSISTED THAT JETTIES would fail, for several reasons. The land near the mouth of the river, he said, was too soft to sustain their weight. Even if the land proved sufficiently firm, the jetties would not be able to cut a deep enough channel since “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.” And even supposing the jetties did cut a deep enough channel through the bar, Humphreys predicted that the river would simply deposit its sediment farther out in the Gulf, creating a new bar.
Carefully, logically, in testimony before a Senate committee and in welldistributed writings, Eads rebutted every argument. And there was always his unanswerable offer: If he failed, the government would pay nothing. Immediately after Eads’s testimony, Sen. J. Rodman West of Louisiana, a long-time canal advocate, announced his support for jetties. His conversion spelled defeat for Humphreys in the Senate.
BUT HUMPHREYS STILL had strength in the House, and the day that chamber voted, he circulated a letter stating that recent measurements proved his theory that a new sandbar would develop beyond the jetties. Also, despite having earlier charged that the jetties would cost $23 million, he now claimed that Eads’s offer of $10 million would give him a profit of $7 million.
The House rejected jetties and passed a canal bill, which the Senate refused to consider. The two houses compromised by creating a new board of engineers—three from the Army, three civilians, and one from the U.S. Coast Survey—which spent six months studying the bar and inspecting jetties in Europe. In January 1875, by a vote of 6 to 1, the board recommended jetties.
But this decision gave Eads only a partial 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 most of its potential power. The board estimated the cost for construction and twenty years’ maintenance there at $16,053,124 and instead recommended building jetties at South Pass.
Eads did not want to work at South Pass, the smallest and shallowest of the river’s main outlets. He feared that a current powerful enough to dig a channel of the required dimensions there would destabilize not only the jetties but the pass itself. Moreover, at Southwest Pass nature already provided 14 feet of water over the sandbar, while South Pass had only 8 feet. Finally, a shoal in the river blocked access to South Pass, and removing it would be harder than building the jetties.
Eads made a counterproposal: He would build the jetties at Southwest Pass for $8 million—$2 million below his earlier offer and less than half the board’s estimate. He also guaranteed to deepen the channel to 30 feet, instead of 28. But now that Eads had won on principle, Humphreys and his congressional allies were determined to make him fail in practice. While spreading rumors about excessive profits, they wrote a new jetties bill so restrictive that they believed Eads would have to reject it.
The bill required Eads to produce a 30-foot-deep channel at South Pass for $5 million, with an additional million to be held in escrow for up to twenty years. He would receive nothing until Army engineers certified that he’d made a channel 20 feet deep. For this he would get only $500,000. Subsequent payments totaling $4.5 million would be made at each 2-foot increment until the channel reached 30 feet. Thereafter Eads would receive $100,000 a year for maintenance for the next two decades. If he refused to accept these terms, the Corps of Engineers would build the jetties itself.
If Eads was wrong, he would be ruined both financially and professionally. Even if he was right, the financial strictures could make his success impossible. He accepted the terms.
In early May 1875 Eads arrived in New Orleans. He had delayed starting work until the end of the flood season, and the city that had earlier fought him now eagerly awaited him. The morning after he was honored at a grand reception in the St. Charles Hotel, Eads left the comforts of the city behind. With his contractor and business partner James Andrews (a bold and determined man who had worked with him on the bridge) and two other engineers, he proceeded downriver aboard a small steamer.
Below New Orleans the Mississippi River resembles a hundred-milelong arm bent at the elbow, narrowing gradually to Head of Passes. There the river divides into three main channels: Southwest Pass, Pass à l’Outre, and South Pass, each extending like a long, thin finger—the land separating the passes from the sea can be as narrow as a few hundred yards—out into the Gulf.
At Head of Passes the party crossed over a shoal and entered South Pass, which ran in an almost perfectly straight line 700 feet wide for nearly 13 miles, its banks dense with impenetrable reeds ten to twelve feet high, interrupted by an occasional copse of willow trees. This was, geologically, the Mississippi River’s true delta, created as it deposited its immense sediment load. It was the newest land in North America, a mixture of water and earth so soft that it could not support a man’s weight.
Upon reaching the sea, the little vessel anchored. Eads and his lieutenant rowed to shore and walked on the beach. In the steamy heat, clouds of mosquitoes, gnats, and sand flies began swarming around them. They climbed a lighthouse, the only elevation for one hundred miles to the north. From it they could see the whole country. River, land, and sea were barely differentiated. Every inch of land within view could be overflowed by tides or the river. Out in the Gulf, beyond the pass, sandbars and mud deposits were in the process of becoming land. For miles beyond the bars, into the sea, the Mississippi remained distinctly visible.
After three days of study the Eads party left more confident than ever. The bar was made of light, silty sand, and Eads was certain that a strong current could easily cut through it. Equally important, deep water lay beyond the bar, and a strong coastal current ran across it. Sediment flushed out by the jetties would either sink or be swept away. Any unspoken concern that might have existed in Eads’s heart about the formation of a new bar beyond the jetties vanished. He promised a channel deep enough to use by July 4, 1876, thirteen months away.
REGARDLESS OF HIS ENGIneering skill, however, if Eads could not raise capital, or if he had to pay too much for it, he would fail. This was his last remaining weakness, and here Humphreys aimed his final attack. To raise money, Eads organized the South Pass Jetty Company. It looked like a risky proposition. If the jetties succeeded, investors would receive double their investment plus 10 percent; if they failed, investors would get nothing. Eads capitalized the company at $750,000 but planned to raise only what was needed to keep work going until the first government payment. Raising money was not easy, and Eads spent more time courting investors than overseeing construction.
Andrews & Company, of which Eads was a minority owner, agreed to sup- ply the equipment—pile drivers, barges, steamers, housing, office space, materials, and labor—and build and place all pilings, plus 450,000 cubic yards of stone and wood filler, for $2.5 million. Like Eads himself, James Andrews moved quickly. On June 12 he left New Orleans with several dozen men and a steam tug that pulled a pile driver and three flatboats—one for boarding workers and two loaded with material to build housing. One of Andrews’s first acts was to establish direct communication by telegraph with New Orleans. Soon equipment and supplies began arriving at what would ultimately become Port Eads, a small town complete with hotel, offices, and boardinghouses for 850 men.
Five days after Andrews arrived at the river’s mouth, he drove the first piles into the ocean floor. The work went quickly; the crew could drive 176 piles a day. Lumber came from Mississippi and New Orleans; crushed stone, discharged from ships as ballast, came from New Orleans; and limestone, carried in fleets of twelve to twenty barges, came from 1,400 miles upriver, quarried from the blue and gray bluffs of the Ohio River at Rose Clare, Indiana.
By September 9 the guide piling for the east jetty was finished. It extended in a lonely curve of wood two and a third miles into the Gulf. The job had been executed with extraordinary precision: The piles farthest from land’s end stood within a few inches of their planned site. Meanwhile, work on the west jetty had already begun.
Next came the heart of the jetty project, the fascine mattresses. These were made of willow tree trunks—thin, flexible, and straight—which were linked, secured to the guide piling, and sunk. The final product resembled layers of hurricane fencing piled high. Eads expected the river to deposit sediment upon them and eventually make them impermeable. Then they would start to do their work.
Harvesting the willows was the worst job. The trees grew in 6,000 acres of land 30 miles upriver. To get to them, the laborers traveled on a barge, where they slept stacked in bunks. Ventilation was as good as Eads could manage, but in the near-tropical heat, with swarming mosquitoes, the nights were awful and the days worse. The men, half-naked, without shade, chopped down trees and dragged them 200 yards to waiting barges. At every step they sank, sometimes shoulder deep, into the soft mud. Water moccasins and leeches made the water and marsh frightening. Once the barges were full, tugs towed them to the sandbar. There, on an inclined, 100-yard-long platform, men constructed the willow tree mattresses.
EADS’S SUCCESS DEPENDED upon this step, since the river would rip apart improperly built mattresses. And Eads’s profits lay in the novel way he assembled them. The board of engineers had estimated the cost based on techniques developed by the Dutch, who intertwined the willows, virtually weaving them together. Eads and Andrews devised a different process, which they later patented. First they laid out strips of yellow pine 20 to 40 feet long, 6 inches wide, and 2 ½ inches thick. These strips were bolted together, and the willow trees were laid atop them. More layers, each at a right angle to the preceding one, were added; then more strips of yellow pine were bolted on top, and the whole thing was lashed together.
The resulting mattress was 100 feet long, 35 to 60 feet wide (depending upon where it would be placed), and 2 feet thick. Workers could make one in two hours, while the Dutch method required two days. This innovation was what enabled Eads to build the jetties at South Pass at one-half the board’s estimate of the cost.
When a batch of mattresses had been built, workers loaded them onto a barge, which a tug towed to the guide pilings. The men then launched the mattresses, covered them with stone, and sank them flat in layers—as many as sixteen deep.
In less than a year Andrews drove all the guide piles and laid much of the mattressing. The jetties were incomplete walls of willows, not yet filled in with sediment, but already they were compressing the current, increasing its force, and deepening the channel. Yet Eads had received no government payments, and his initial capital was running out. To attract more, he hired the luxurious steamer Grand Republic for her maiden voyage on May 2, 1876, to carry investors and the press to the jetties.
MEANWHILE CHARLES Howell, Eads’s old antagonist, was 30 miles away dredging Southwest Pass, still trying to achieve 18 feet of water. Howell knew of the Grand Republic’s visit and its purpose. Even though he had no official role in inspecting the jetties, he dispatched an assistant in a steam launch to take repeated soundings at South Pass in full view of Eads’s guests. This assistant then disembarked at Port Eads. A few hours later the Grand Republic also stopped there, and Howell’s man, carrying charts, boarded her. During the long trip back to New Orleans, feigning reluctance, he stood in the saloon and allowed reporters to pry his findings from him.
Eads was claiming that South Pass was 16 feet deep at high tide. The soundings—seemingly official measurements by an Army engineer—showed 12 feet. More important, they also showed a new sandbar forming 1,000 feet beyond the jetties. If the soundings were correct, they proved Humphreys right and doomed the jetties to failure.
The news shot northward up the Mississippi Valley. Stock in the jetty company collapsed. Howell pressed his attack in the New Orleans papers, accusing Eads of bilking investors. Suddenly, for the first time since his wife had died, in 1855, Eads was desperate.
He tried to negotiate a loan. Without it the project could fail. But to get it, he needed the findings of a previously scheduled official inspection to refute Howell’s unofficial one. This took place a few days later, but the Army engineer who performed it refused to show Eads the results of his soundings, insisting that he could give them only to Gen. C. B. Comstock, who had come to Port Eads from Detroit expressly for the survey. Eads asked Comstock for them. He too refused, saying that he “had no authority to divulge my report.” The Secretaries of War and the Treasury were equally unhelpful, as was the superintendent of the Coast Survey.
Eads’s loan negotiations collapsed. By the time the official results were scheduled to become public, there might be no jetty company left.
He had one last chance at a rebuttal. On May 12, 1876, the oceangoing steamer Hudson was due at the mouth of the river. She was 280 feet long and 1,182 tons; she drew 14 feet 7 inches; and her captain, E. V. Gager, was a friend of Eads. Indeed, Gager had once said he hoped to captain the first oceangoing ship through the jetties. There would never be a better time. When the Hudson arrived, Eads, the pilot, and a few reporters boarded her outside the bar. The pilot reported that earlier soundings had indicated sufficient water in the jetties for her to go through, but the tide had turned since then and was ebbing fast. He could not recommend the attempt.
Every moment the water was getting shallower. Gager did not hesitate. He waved the pilot away and ordered, “Head her for the jetties.” The pilot obeyed.
Three hundred men understood what was happening and its significance. Everywhere—on the barges sinking willows, on the shore at Port Eads, on the launches, on the Hudson herself—men ceased what they were doing and watched silently. In a calm sea, with swells barely whitening against the jetties, all was still. Only the ship moved.
“Shall we run in slow?” the pilot asked.
“No!” Gager snapped. “Let her go at full speed.”
The engines churned. The Hudson seemed almost to leap forward. At full ahead, wrote Elmer Corthell, the jetties’ resident engineer, “on she came like a thing of life.”
Her speed increased still further. If Howell’s soundings were correct, she could destroy herself, rip a great gouge out of her bottom. Faster she went, the great white bow wave climbing higher up her hull, her wake swamping the Gulf’s swells, steaming onward, racing the falling tide through the 12,000-foot-long channel. Corthell recalled, “As long as she carried that ‘white bone in her teeth,’ the great wave that her proud bows pushed ahead of her as she sped onward—we knew that she had found more than Major Howell’s twelve feet.”
Then she was through. On the Hudson, on the barges, at Port Eads, the men erupted in cheers and kept cheering. The ship stopped at Port Eads for a brief celebration. Reporters wired their stories the length and breadth of the country. The channel was open!
EADS PRESSED CONGRESS FOR help. The House of Representatives passed a resolution demanding the release of the official survey. The Secretary of the Treasury obeyed. The survey showed 16 feet of water in the channel, and no bar forming beyond the jetties. On October 4, 1876, Eads officially achieved a 20-foot channel. Ships started to use his unfinished channel routinely.
Eads then built a new series of dikes, which increased the slope of the river from 0.24 feet per mile to 0.505 feet per mile, producing, according to the Army report, “a marked scour in the channel.” On March 7, 1877, Cornstock reported 23.9 feet of water there.
The law stipulated that Howell’s dredging at Southwest Pass had to end when the jetties achieved an 18-foot channel. Howell continued dredging in violation of the law. But on August 22, 1877, his appropriation ran out. There would be no more dredging.
Even then the financial pressure on Eads continued. The government dragged its heels, making required payments only after repeated demands. Ultimately Eads lobbied Congress to accelerate the payment schedule, adding to his usual lobbyists Grant’s former secretary Horace Porter and the Confederate general P. G. T. Beauregard. Congress finally pushed forward payment.
While Eads fought for his money, a frustrated Humphreys continued his barrage with blind enmity. In an 1878 letter to Congress he insisted, in the face of all data, that a new sandbar was forming beyond the jetties: “The results actually attained at South Pass disprove the views advanced by Mr. Eads, and confirms [sic] those of the Engineer Department.”
Eads had had enough. He wrote an article for Van Nostrand’s Engineering Magazine, had it reprinted as a pamphlet, and distributed it to congressmen, reporters, and engineers across the country. It was called “Review of the Humphreys and Abbot Report,” and it was crushing. Eads derisively subtitled sections “The laws of gravity ignored,” “How the wonderful discovery was made,” and “No relation between cause and effect!” He used Humphreys’s own data to deliver blow after blow, describing his calculations as “totally wrong,” “mathematically … a blunder that would disgrace a boy in High School,” and, finally, “The mistake made by Humphreys and Abbot is one unpardonable in the merest tyro in the science of dynamics.”
Two years earlier a Prussian engineer had written an article in the same magazine attacking the same report. The two men had written a forty-threepage rebuttal. But now Abbot warned against replying to Eads at all, arguing, “a reply might advantage him … make an end of it.” Only at Humphreys’s insistence did Abbot finally write up a rebuttal. It was ignored by all except Humphreys’s most loyal supporters.
On June 28, 1879, Congress created the Mississippi River Commission, a mix of Army and civilian engineers, to control the entire river. It was informally called the Eads Commission, and Eads was named as a member. Both private parties and state governments would have to obey it. Upon the bill’s passage Humphreys resigned as chief of engineers and retired from the Army. One week later U.S. Army Capt. Micah Brown certified that the South Pass channel had reached the final goal, a depth of 30 feet.
The Corps soon took credit for the jetties, saying as early as 1886: “The present successful results might have been obtained years before Mr. Eads took hold of the work if Congress had not handicapped the Corps. … It is certainly unjust to blame the Engineer Corps because its recommendations were not followed.” By 1924 a revisionist Chief of Engineers would tell the Secretary of War: “The Army Engineers did not oppose the jetties. As a matter of fact, the plan for the con- struction of the jetties was originated by the Corps of Engineers, and Captain Eads merely carried out plans which had previously been discussed.”
It soon became clear that as Eads had predicted, South Pass was too small to accommodate heavy shipping traffic, and the larger Southwest Pass had to be opened. In 1893 Eads’s former assistant Corthell offered to do the work on the same terms as Eads had done. The Corps outmaneuvered Corthell and was given the task, but twenty-one years later the channel was still only 27 feet deep. “The plan did not prove to be successful,” conceded Maj. Gen. Lansing Beach, chief of engineers.
In 1875, when Eads began work on the jetties, 6,857 tons of goods were shipped from St. Louis through New Orleans to Europe. In 1880, the year after he finished, 453,681 tons went by that route. By the 1940s New Orleans had risen from the ninthlargest port in the United States to the second, trailing only New York. And in 1995, measured by volume of cargo, New Orleans ranked as the world’s largest port.
BY THE TIME OF EADS’S DEATH, in 1887, the Mississippi River Commission was claiming that it could control the Mississippi River. But by then Eads had resigned from the commission in protest over its unscientific behavior, and the Corps of Engineers soon came to dominate it. The result would be the greatest natural disaster in American history, the 1927 Mississippi River flood. Still, the river had been tamed enough to permit the settlement, development, and prosperity of the huge swath of America surrounding it. It was a monumental accomplishment, and no one was more responsible than James B. Eads.
John M. Barry is the author of Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, published this spring by Simon & Schuster, from which this article is adapted.