aerial image of South Pass Jetties

Since 1966, ASCE has designated more than 285 projects as National or International Historic Civil Engineering Landmarks as part of its Historic Civil Engineering Landmark program. While some of these landmarks, such as the Brooklyn Bridge, Eiffel Tower, and Hoover Dam, are well known, others are less prominent.

The South Pass Jetties, at the mouth of the Mississippi River, was designated an ASCE landmark in 1982. Designer James Buchanan Eads is also an ASCE Notable Civil Engineer. Here are five things you didn’t know about Eads and his Navigation Works:

1-James Eads was a self-taught civil engineer. He learned physics, mechanics, and civil engineering as a teenager by reading borrowed books when he was not working to help support his family.

portrait of James Eads
James Eads

2-Eads offered to construct the South Pass Jetties at no cost to the U.S. government; he would be paid only if it successfully opened the mouth of the Mississippi River for navigation. It worked, and he received $8 million for the resulting 30-foot-deep channel.

3-Eads created mattresses of interwoven young willow trees to build the jetty walls. Sand and mud gradually filled the crevices, forming a semi-permanent dike.

4-With his successful road-and-rail bridge across the Mississippi River in St. Louis (ASCE Landmark, 1971), design and construction of ironclad ships for the Union Army, and opening of the Mississippi River for navigation, Eads was so revered and respected that Scientific American proposed he run for president of the United States.

5-Eads died a few years after the completion of the jetties without knowing he had changed the course of the Mississippi River’s history.

This article is one in a series of recurring features that the ASCE History and Heritage Committee offers on topics related to the history and heritage of civil engineering. Email chair Tonja Koob Marking at [email protected] for more information about their work.

As the committee continues to build an inventory of all ASCE Historic Civil Engineering Landmark projects, members of the committee and other volunteers have been visiting sites to photograph landmarks and ASCE plaques while assessing their conditions. If interested in volunteering to help the committee record these landmarks, email committee chair David Gilbert at [email protected].

Committee members have also been researching and writing biographies of ASCE Notable Civil Engineers. If interested in volunteering to help the committee document and preserve the histories of notable civil engineers, please email committee chair Dick Wiltshire at [email protected].