The 1875 masterstroke that kept the Port of New Orleans afloat
The Port of New Orleans is now and always has been a mainstay of the Crescent City economy. But by 1875, local officials faced a significant problem: The 100-mile stretch between New Orleans and the Mississippi River’s mouth could not be navigated by larger vessels because it was clogged with silt the river had brought down from the Midwest. Enter James Buchanan Eads, a self-taught engineer who devised a system of wooden jetties that narrowed the river’s path, thereby using the power of the river itself to scour a deeper channel. The system was installed in 1876. By February 1877, the channel had been cleared.
Eads’ jetties were such a success that shipping interests persuaded the Army Corps of Engineers to deepen Southwest Pass, at the river’s mouth, to 35 feet. Southwest Pass remains the river’s main shipping channel, which the corps maintains at a depth of 45 feet.
- Thanks to Eads’ jetties, navigation improved markedly and New Orleans went from being the ninth-busiest port in the nation to the No. 2 spot, right behind New York. By 1880, shipping from New Orleans reached 453,000 tons, compared with 6,875 tons before the jetties were in place.
- The American Society of Civil Engineers designated the jetties a National Historic Civil Engineering Landmark. Among the other entries on that list are the Eiffel Tower, the Panama Canal and Hoover Dam and the Huey P. Long Bridge.
- Eads knew the river well. As a young man in St. Louis, he salvaged wrecks on the river, using a diving bell he invented that let him walk along the river bottom, feeding him air pumped down through a hose.
- Among Eads’ other accomplishments were the construction of ironclads for the Union during the Civil War and the Eads Bridge in St. Louis, the first span to cross the Mississippi.
- Eads’ jetties were made of woven willow mattresses that were laid over wooden piers 2.33 miles long and faced with quarried rock. This was designed to make mud settle into the mats and make a solid wall.
- Because the Army Corps of Engineers balked at paying $8 million for the project (the equivalent of about $175 million today), Eads arranged for the financing himself. Among the underwriters was the journalist Joseph Pulitzer, a friend of Eads’, who contributed $20,000.
- Eads agreed to be paid only if the river’s depth at its mouth reached 30 feet. That goal was reached in 1879, and Eads was paid in full.
- To celebrate the 50th anniversary of that milestone, a cross-river swim from Avondale to the foot of Canal Street was held on Oct. 27, 1929. Naomi Damonte (later Naomi Marshall) and her brother, Lowell, won the men’s and women’s divisions.
- To honor Eads’ achievement, New Orleans created Eads Plaza near the river at the end of Canal Street. That plaza doesn’t exist anymore; it was replaced at that spot by Spanish Plaza, a gift of Spain to signify that country’s close ties to New Orleans. It was dedicated in 1976.
It’s generally accepted that without the Mississippi River, there would be no New Orleans. But just as important is the port, which allows for the commercial use of the river by deep-draft, ocean-going vessels. New Orleans was lucky that a man with Eads’ vision tackled the problem that had threatened to wreck the city’s riverborne commerce. What’s more, Eads’ success begat success: In 1883, Southern Pacific Railroad established regular freight routes to New Orleans, enhancing the city’s role as a major shipping hub.