Mud Clerk on the Knickerbocker

Today, I will use the fact that the steamboat, Knickerbocker, arrived in St. Louis, Missouri, on January 30, 1839, carrying a load of Saxon immigrants who were part of the Gesellschaft, as a springboard for another story.

On the PBS website, there is a page which includes a timeline corresponding to one of their productions titled, The Secrets of a Master Builder.  This film highlighted the life of James Buchanan Eads.  In that timeline, you will find the following information which ties the biography of James B. Eads with that of the Saxon immigration.

“1839……Eads becomes a mud clerk on the steamboat “Knickerbocker.” It is sunk by a snag on December 11, 1839, with the loss of a large quantity of lead.”

In my imagination, I see an image of a young, eighteen year old teenager, in need of a job, standing on the St. Louis levee, watching newly-arrived German passengers disembark from the Knickerbocker, waiting to walk up the gangplank so he can ask the captain of the ship for a job.  We do know that James B. Eads did work on this same steamboat that carried many eventual Perry County residents to St. Louis.  And it appears that steamboat sank before the end of 1839.  His job as a mud clerk was an entry level job that involved doing any kind of dirty work required by the captain.

The entire story of James Buchanan Eads is a remarkable one.  It begins with tragedy that leaves his family destitute and ends with him being named as one of the top five engineers in the history of the world.  That list includes Thomas Edison and Leonardo da Vinci.


James Buchanan Eads was born in 1820 in Lawrenceburg, Indiana, a town near Cincinnati on the Ohio River.  He was named after his mother’s cousin who later became President of the United States.  In 1833, his family moved to St. Louis.  As the steamboat upon which they traveled was nearing St. Louis, it started on fire and was engulfed in flames.  He and his family managed to survive with only the clothes on their backs. Eight people lost their lives in this fire.  This event would be a harbinger of things to come.  James would spend almost all his life dealing with the difficulties and dangers presented by the waters of the Mighty Mississippi River.

As a young teenager, James got a job in a dry goods store in St. Louis.  The owner must have recognized his potential, because he allowed this young man access to his library of books.  He used this opportunity to become self-educated in many scientific subjects.  In 1837, his family moved to Iowa, but James stayed in St. Louis.

This is the time that James got the job on the Knickerbocker.  And it was during that year that he experienced the second steamboat disaster of his life.  However, the sinking of the Knickerbocker with its valuable load of lead inspired in him the idea of his next business endeavor.  He presented designs for special boats and diving equipment to be used for salvaging material from under the waters of the river to some potential investors.  He must have been very convincing because they decided to support his efforts.  This business was a financial success for James, but it also brought much danger to his life.

In 1845, James married Martha Dillon in St. Louis.  Martha was the daughter of a rather wealthy merchant who did not give his approval to this marriage.  He was hoping his daughter would marry someone from another wealthy family.  So this couple decided to elope.

Martha (Dillon) Eads

Possibly because he did not want his wife to worry about him doing such a dangerous job, James went into a glass business.  That business would be one of the few failures in his life.  It went broke.  Meanwhile, his wife had moved to live with her in-laws in the Quad Cities area in Iowa, hoping for James to join them there later.  Instead, James ended up going back to diving.

In 1849, another disaster took place, but this time it led to more financial success for James.  A great fire took place on the St. Louis wharf, destroying 23 steamboats.  This brought much business to James’s salvage business.  He developed equipment that could bring entire boats up from the bottom of the river.

Martha and James had three children.  However, their son, James, died in June of 1849.  I do not have evidence, but since that is about the time of the Cholera Epidemic in St. Louis, I think it is likely that disease was the cause of his death.  Then, in 1852, Martha died of that disease.  In 1854, James remarried, this time to his cousin’s widow, Eunice Eads.  This added three step-children to his family, all with the last name of Eads.

Eunice Eads

Prior to this marriage, James stopped doing his own diving, but he remained in the salvage business, and it continued to grow.  In 1856, the Baltimore & Ohio Railroad reached East St. Louis.  Talks began for building a bridge across the Mississippi for the railroad.  Lobbying efforts in Washington, D.C. failed to get funding for this project, despite the fact that James Buchanan had been elected President.  Eads started getting private investors to fund this effort.

The Civil War put these plans on hold, but it did not stop James Eads from working.  Abraham Lincoln’s war department contacted him and asked him to construct ironclad gunboats for the Union navy.  He contracted with the government to make seven such ironclads.  Four of these were constructed at the Eads Union Marine Works in St. Louis.

Eads Union Marine Works

These ironclads were a huge success.  They were in operation even before the famous battle between the Monitor and the Merrimac in March of 1862.  Eads’s ironclads are given credit for assisting in several battles along the Mississippi and Tennessee Rivers.  General Ulysses S. Grant gave much credit to these boats for the victory at the Battle of Vicksburg.  They also were instrumental in winning the Battle of Mobile Bay.

When the Civil War ended, the efforts to build a bridge in St. Louis were renewed.  Construction was begun in 1867.  This was the first bridge to be built using a cantilever method which allowed river traffic to continue as the bridge was being constructed.


This bridge was going to provide both road and railroad traffic across the river.  The bridge was dedicated on the Fourth of July in 1874.

By this time, James B. Eads had become quite a wealthy man.  The 1870 census indicates that a cook, two domestic servants, a wash girl, two gardeners, and a coachman, were living in his mansion in St. Louis.



Even as the bridge which eventually became named after him was finished, Eads was working on a plan which would have great impact on the mouth of the Mississippi near New Orleans.  Eads would construct a system of jetties there which helped keep the river channel open and deeper, allowing river traffic all year long without delay.  This had a monumental impact on trade in New Orleans.  The location at the very end of the Mississippi River in Louisiana has been named Port Eads.


Eads, Tennessee and Eads, Colorado are named after this man.

One idea that Eads had which never came to pass was what was called the Interoceanic Ship Railway.  It was an idea that ships could be transported by railway across the Central American isthmus from the Gulf of Mexico to the Pacific Ocean.


James B. Eads died while visiting Nassau in the Bahamas in 1887 at the age of 66.  To put this into our Lutheran perspective, Eads died about two months before the death of Rev. C.F.W. Walther.  His death was probably at least in part caused by health problems which began when he was diving.

James Buchanan Eads was a man of great vision who was very driven to accomplish his ideas.  In fact, on his deathbed, his last words were, “I cannot die.  I have not finished my work.”





2 thoughts on “Mud Clerk on the Knickerbocker

  1. One of Eads’s ironclad gunboats, the USS Cairo, was sunk near Vicksburg on December 12, 1862. It was raised in 1964 and is on display at the Vicksburg National Military Park in Mississippi.


    1. Richard Eads and Son, Peter Eads maybe relative. They lived in Texas. Has family there
      Do you know family history
      There’s not many Eads I’d not only one lineage


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