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St. Louis Regional history comes alive in this joint production by KDHX and the Missouri Historical Society. Stories of our past are connected with the present in these well researched and entertaining short presentations about the people, places, and events that have shaped who we are and who we are becoming. 

Dec 11, 2023

There was a time when, if a steamboat sank or exploded, as they often did on the Mississippi, nothing could be done to recover the wreckage. But in 1842, an industrious man named James Eads found a way to change all of that and to build his fortune in the process by inventing a diving bell. Just press play to hear the whole story. ------

Click on search links to explore episodes with related content:  Andrew Wanko, Mississippi River, Riverboats, Engineering, People Of Note, Transportation, Fire, Disaster, Business, Transportation, ------


Podcast Transcript: I’m Andrew Wanko, Public Historian of the Missouri History Museum, and Here’s History on 88-one, KDHX. ------

While we usually envision Mississippi River steamboats as graceful things floating lazily down the river, they actually often had pretty tough and short lives. They regularly exploded, caught fire, or smashed into submerged trees. When they sank, they took fortunes of valuable cargo with them. In 1842, twenty-two-year-old James Eads would invent a way to cash in on the Mississippi’s buried treasure.------

Eads designed a special boat equipped with hoists and a diving bell that would let him scour the river bottom looking for steamboat wrecks. It seemed unlikely that he would find an investor for his radical invention, but to his surprise, St. Louis shipbuilders Calvin Case and William Nelson were impressed enough to take the risk. But the hard part – finding wrecked steamboats on the river bottom - had just begun. ------

The boat’s diving bell was made from a tar-coated whiskey barrel with one end removed, and if small, dark spaces make you uncomfortable, you wouldn’t have enjoyed being in it. Eads sat inside as dangling lead weights pulled the bell down to the riverbed, and with only a thin air-supply hose to keep him alive, he shuffled across the river bottom’s unstable sand. When he found a piece of steamboat wreckage, he tied a chain around it so it could be cranked up to the surface and explored. ------

Eads personally made more than 500 diving bell trips into the Mississippi’s muddy darkness, since few others were willing to attempt the dangerous but rewarding work. He hunted known wreck sites with an intense passion, searching at sometimes unbelievable lengths. For instance, he spent nearly 300 hours inside the diving bell while searching for wreck of the steamer Neptune. ------

The 1849 St. Louis fire, which sank twenty-three steamboats just off the levee, provided Eads with a grand finale of salvage work. By 1853 he retired from river diving a wealthy man. Even though his salvaging days were over, Eads was not done with the Mississippi River. Twenty years later, he would oversee construction of the first bridge across it at St. Louis. ------

Here’s history is a joint production of the Missouri History Museum and KDHX.  I’m Andrew Wanko and this is 88.1 KDHX St. Louis.