James B. Eads, lover of the Mississippi.
Reading Rising Tide: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America by John M. Barry introduced me to a fascinating character by the name of James Buchanan Eads. In his efforts to understand the muddy waters of the Mississippi River, Eads designed his own diving bell from a 40-gallon whiskey barrel and began the first successful ship salvage business along the Mississippi River in the 1840’s. Eads was not yet twenty-five when he became the American most intimate with the currents and furies of this mighty river.
The passage that struck me described Eads’ first descent to the bottom of the river seeking a sunken ship to salvage. As he descended in his diving bell, Eads realized that the sediment reduced the light and visibility under the water’s surface. He could not see the river- he could only feel it. The bottom sucked at him while the current buffeted, whipped, pulled, shoved, and nudged him. Unlike the wind, the current never let up- and never became predictable enough to warrant preparation. Eads described it in the following words:
“I had occasion to descend to the bottom in a current so swift as to require extraordinary means to sink the bell…. The sand was drifting like a dense snowstorm at the bottom…. At sixty-five feet below the surface I found the bed of the river, for at least three feet in depth, a moving mass and so unstable that, in endeavoring to find a footing on it beneath my bell, my feet penetrated through it until I could feel, although standing erect, the sand rushing past my hands, driven by a current apparently as rapid as that on the surface. I could discover the sand in motion at least two feet below the surface of the bottom, and moving with a velocity diminishing in proportion to its depth.”
I just had to read this aloud to the kids- such a rich description of what it would be like looking for boats at the bottom of the Mississippi over one hundred years ago. This book is just another reminder of why parents should read as much as possible- all the stories and histories we can share with our kids to enrich their conception of the world around them. I also found a free biography of Eads at Gutenberg for those who care to learn more about this fascinating man.