James Eads and the Great Ship Railway

James Eads and the Great Ship Railway

Mr. Eads

James Buchanan Eads had one of the most preposterous suggestions ever, an idea you would expect from a person with a wild imagination and no engineering training–but Eads lasting successes proved his engineering expertise.

  • Eads designed and built the bridge across the Mississippi at St. Louis.
  • He produced, in five months, seven “iron-clads” for the U.S. Navy which were important for the Union victory in the Civil War. Don’t miss the U-tube video about them!
  • His South Pass jetties prevented silting of the main shipping channel at New Orleans with the result that within a year after that construction New Orleans went from the ninth largest U.S. port to the second largest.

School Dropout

The Eads family lost all their possessions in a steamboat fire when they moved to St. Louis, and his father abandoned the family after a business failure. At age 13, James left school. He worked at Barrett Williams’ dry goods store to help support his mother and sisters.

Self Educated

James had been in school long enough to read well and understand basic mathematics. Mr. Williams owned a library of books on science, mechanics, and civil engineering; he allowed James to read freely. Perhaps it was the possibility of making money that led James into the salvage business; there were enough shipwrecks on the Mississippi River to make that business quite profitable. James designed diving bells and constructed boats for salvage work, and between boating and diving he acquired so much understanding of river currents that Mississippi Rivermen gave him the honorary title of Captain.

The Great Idea

A way from the Atlantic coast to the Pacific without the long and treacherous sail around the horn was an international preoccupation as Americans moved west to California and the Alaska gold fields and far-eastern trade expanded. Americans were exploring the possibility of a canal either in Panama or Nicaragua. Moving goods across either isthmus meant unloading goods from a ship on one side and reloading goods into a second ship on the other.

Captain Eads not only suggested, but drew up plans for a railway–not one, but three parallel rail lines across Nicaragua. A ship would pull into a dock equipped with an underwater cradle to which the ship could be secured. The cradle would be hydraulically lifted to raise the ship to the level where it could connect with the rail lines, and the three train engines would pull the ship across the Isthmus of Nicaragua and reverse the process on the other side.

Scientific American Publication

The Scientific American issue of December 27, 1884, included a description of the plan with illustrations.

Captain Eads was unable to find investors for his project, and when he died in 1887, the Great Ship Railway died also. First the French, then the Americans, worked on the Panama Canal and dropped the idea of a canal in Nicaragua. Interestingly, China has been talking in recent years about constructing a second canal in Nicaragua.

It Could Have Worked

Given Eads’ other accomplishments, it’s likely his plan would have worked as he planned for the largest ships of his time. It would not have worked for the large cruise ships, navy vessels and Panamax ships of today.

Captain Eads’ Interoceanic Ship Railway

Not Every Great Idea Gets Used

Probably Captain Eads had many other ideas for projects that never happened. None of us can accomplish everything we dream of doing. What we remember the Captain for is the quality of what he did do: The bridge that is approaching its 150th anniversary and is still usable. The cross-country trains no longer cross it, but it’s now part of of the St. Louis Metrolink system. The iron-clads Eads built helped keep the Union intact. The river jetties he designed are still keeping open the main shipping channel of New Orleans.

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