Eads mother named him after her cousin, Congressman and later President James Buchanan. His early life was spent moving among larger cities while his father pursued many failed business ventures. By the time Eads was a teenager he lived in St. Louis and had lived in Cincinnati, Ohio, and Louisville, Kentucky. His education initially came from reading the books of his first employer, a dry-goods merchant in St. Louis. As a young adult he signed on as the purser of a steamboat. While working on the Mississippi Eads noticed the great loss of goods that came from the many riverboat wrecks. The Mississippi River was a dangerous place to navigate, filled as it was with debris called snags. Eads, at the age of 22, decided that he could devise a means to salvage steamboat accidents. He invented a boat equipped with a diving bell that allowed him to walk on the river bottom. He called his boat a submarine, although only the diving bell was submersible. His invention proved successful as Eads recovered cargoes from the river bottom. During the twelve years he operated his salvage boat he made a fortune. He took his earnings and settled down to establish a glass manufacturing plant in the West, but was ruined by the Mexican War. Returning to the salvage business Eads steadily improved his innovation and built more salvage boats.
Aware that control of the country's river systems would important to both sides in the Civil War, Eads proposed the U.S. government invest in the development of steam-powered, ironclad warships. Eads made his proposal before the war, but his idea was coolly received. When he was awarded a contract, he employed upwards of 4,000 men to build the U.S. ironclad armada that would prove decisive in Union efforts against Forts Henry and Donelson, at Memphis, Island No. 10, Vicksburg, and Mobile Bay. In a remarkable feat Eads turned out his first ironclad 45 days after he began production. The ironclad idea would be adopted by the Confederacy and both sides would improve on Eads' idea throughout the war. After the war Eads found a new project, the spanning of the Mississippi with a suitable bridge to carry everything from people to trains. The self-trained engineer proposed a triple-arch design fabricated from steel. Each span was roughly 500 hundred feet and rested on piers resting on bedrock some 100 feet beneath the river bottom. The building of the arches involved steel supplied by Andrew Carnegie's steel works. Eads required that the 18 inch diameter hollow tubes conform to a test strength of 60,000 pounds. Many times during construction steel was returned to be re-rolled so that it might meet Eads' exacting standards. Keeping the shipping lanes open was necessary during construction, so Eads designed a cantilever system to support the unjoined arches. A system of pulleys stretched over the piers and supported the arches. Eads was also innovative in that he employed a threaded iron plug to close the arches. He allowed five inches on each arch to be used for threading the plug and closing the distance between the arches. The Eads Bridge was the largest of its kind and quickly became world renowned.
The Eads Bridge opened in 1874, but little time passed before Eads found
his next project, creating a year-round navigation channel for the city
of New Orleans. Employing a system of jetties Eads allowed the river's
natural flow to carve a permanent channel by 1879. Other projects
he embarked on included promoting a ship-carrying railway across the Isthmus
of Tehuantepec, in Mexico, as a more efficient alternative to the Panama
Canal, and various installations and docks in places as diverse as Mexico,
England, and Canada.
Here is a brief bibliography:
Estill McHenry (ed.), Addresses and Papers of James B. Eads (1884)
Florence L. Dorsey, Road to the Sea: The Story of James B. Eads and the Mississippi River (1947)
Louis How, James B. Eads (1900, reissued 1970)
H.J. Hopkins, A Span of Bridges (1970)
Quinta Scott and Howard S. Miller, The Eads Bridge (1979)