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Eads' Diving Bell

This is Roald Tweet on Rock Island.

No one person influenced the Mississippi River in so many ways as James B. Eads, the great river engineer who grew up in LeClaire, Iowa. It was Eads who created the jetties at New Orleans, who built Union gunboats during the Civil War, and designed the magnificent Eads Bridge at St. Louis. How was he able to do so much with no formal training? Eads' secret was, he learned the entire Mississippi, top to bottom.

James Eads took a job as clerk on a steamboat in 1839, hoping the open air would be good for his precarious health. The job was certainly good for his mind. One of the things that caught his imagination were the almost weekly steamboat wrecks whose valuable cargo often could not be salvaged. By the time he was twenty-two, Eads had a plan. He talked a boat building firm, Case and Nelson, into letting him design and build a salvage boat. Insurance companies were glad to give salvagers half of what they could rescue.

Just as the boat was finished in 1842, a barge loaded with pig-iron sank in fifteen feet of water at the Des Moines Rapids at Keokuk. Eads took his new boat there, hired a diver and gear from the Great Lakes. But the diver refused to go down in the rapid Mississippi current. Eads went into Keokuk, bought a forty-gallon whisky barrel, put a seat inside it, attached an air hose and lead weights, and ordered the derrick on his boat to lower him down to the wreck.

Eads' contraption worked, and soon the lost freight had been salvaged. From this beginning, Eads and his partners worked the bottom of the river for hundreds of miles, from Galena, Illinois, to the mouth of the Mississippi. He bragged that there was not a fifty mile stretch of the river bottom he had not walked. Rivermen eventually began calling him Captain Eads.

Steamboat pilots like Mark Twain bragged that they knew every inch of the river, every eddy, snag, sandbar and shoreline. But of course, they knew only the surface. It was Eads' experience with currents under the surface that later gave him the expertise to succeed with bridges and jetties.

Not a bad showing for the captain of a whiskey barrel.

Rock Island Lines with Roald Tweet is underwritten by the Scott County Regional Authority, with additional funding from the Illinois Arts Council and Augustana College, Rock Island.

Beginning 1995, historian and folklorist Dr. Roald Tweet spun his stories of the Mississippi Valley to a devoted audience on WVIK. Dr. Tweet published three books as well as numerous literary articles and recorded segments of "Rock Island Lines." His inspiration was that "kidney-shaped limestone island plunked down in the middle of the Mississippi River," a logical site for a storyteller like Dr. Tweet.