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Chapter 2

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The Transcontinental Railroad

John Debo Galloway

New York, 1950

The text is in the public domain.

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Chapter 4
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 p27  Chapter 3
Early Projects and the Railroad Surveys

The building of the Pacific Railroad was preceded by the usual discussion that accompanies proposals of this kind. Dreamers, writers, politicians, and promoters precede the practical men who finally take up the project and carry it through to completion. The promotional effort was necessary in order to arouse public interest, inasmuch as an undertaking of the magnitude of the Pacific Railroad could be accomplished only by the assistance of some portion of the public, either as investors or as those who influence the representatives of the people in state or national legislatures.

While it is not possible to determine with certainty who first suggested a railroad to the Pacific coast, there is a definite record of such a proposal being made by a writer in the Emigrant, a weekly newspaper published by Judge S. W. Dexter at Ann Arbor, Michigan. The editorial was probably written by Judge Dexter in the issue of February 6, 1832. After remarking on the probability that the public would consider the idea a visionary  p28 one, the writer outlines the project for a railroad in the following terms:

The distance between New York and the Oregon is about three thousand miles. From New York we could pursue the most convenient route to the vicinity of Lake Erie, thence along the south shore of this lake and of Lake Michigan, cross the Mississippi between forty-one and forty-two of north latitude, cross the Missouri about the mouth of the Platte, and thence to the Rocky Mountains, near the source of the last named river, thence to the Oregon, by the valley of the south branch of that stream, called the southern branch of Lewis River.

The writer suggested that the United States should build the road, or that a company be permitted to do so.

This article in the Emigrant is remarkable for two reasons. First it appeared at a time when just two railroads were getting started in the country, the Charleston and Hamburg in South Carolina, and the Baltimore and Ohio, and when there were probably less than 200 miles of track in operation. However, news of English railroads was available to the American public. The other remarkable feature was the editorial writer's location of the line, which was followed in later years by the railroads west from Chicago and specifically by the Union Pacific across the plains and over the Rocky Mountains by way of the Snake River and the Columbia River on to Oregon.

In Bancroft's History of California, it is stated that Hartwell Carver of Rochester, New York, published articles in the New York Courier and Enquirer advocating a transcontinental railroad to the Columbia River, and outlining a scheme for constructing the line. It would seem that Carver was one of those who followed the articles in the Emigrant. Carver later tried to obtain a charter for a railroad from Lake Michigan to California by way of the South Pass, but his schemes came to naught. Carver's ideas were elaborated in 1847 when he stated that he wanted 8,000,000 acres of public land to be selected from a strip of land sixty miles wide along the line. An alternate idea  p29 was to secure a tract of land twenty miles wide on each side of the track. The gauge of the track was to be eight or ten feet, the rails to be laid on felt to lessen the vibration of the cars. He visualized cars 100 feet long, with sleeping berths, a kitchen, and a dining room. For climbing grades, the engines would be provided with cog wheels engaging holes in the rails. His memorial to Congress stated that the enterprise would "bring about a kind of earthly millennium, and be the means of uniting the whole world in one great church, a part of whose worship will be to praise God and bless the Oregon Railroad."

A railroad along the proposed route was built long ago, but the great church foundation seems to have been deferred. However, such spiritual adjuncts to a promoter's scheme were popular in those days.

In 1833 or 1834, a fairly complete scheme for a Pacific Railroad was outlined by Dr. Samuel Bancroft Barlow, a physician of Granville, Massachusetts. He wrote an article for the Intelligencer, a weekly journal published in Westfield, Massachusetts. This article is given in full in Eugene V. Smalley's History of the Northern Pacific Railroad. Dr. Barlow states that he had read the article in the Emigrant. He assumes a railroad of a length of 3,000 miles, and reaches the conclusion that while the cost per mile in the settled sections of the country might be $10,000, that for the regions beyond would be greater. If the average cost was $10,000 per mile, 3,000 miles would cost $30,000,000, which was a cost that the United States could stand, since the annual service of the national debt was then from twelve to thirteen million dollars. The plan called for three years to be devoted to surveys, estimates, and other preliminaries, during which period the then existing national debt would be liquidated. When work on the railroad was undertaken, expenditures would range from six to fifteen million dollars a year, a sum that the country could bear without effort. The writer then goes into rhapsodies over the results to follow from the building of the road in integrating the country. The gorgeous  p30 West would be brought to our doors and "riches and glory would ultimately be conferred upon a great and magnanimous people." There is no record that anything came of the proposal.

About the same time that Barlow was writing about his project, the Reverend Samuel Parker, a missionary who was associated with Dr. Marcus Whitman in his labors to convert the Indians of the Far West, wrote a book of his travels. This was in 1835. His book, The Tour Beyond the Rocky Mountains, was published in 1838, and in it he said:

There would be no difficulty in the way of constructing a railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific Ocean. There is no greater difficulty in the whole distance than has not already been overcome in passing the Green Mountains between Boston and Albany, and probably the time may not be far distant when tours will be made across the continent as they have been made to the Niagara Falls to see Nature's wonders."

Another claimant for the honor of having first proposed a railroad to the Pacific was Willis Gaylord Clark, who wrote an article for the Knickerbocker Magazine in June, 1838, outlining a project. Apparently he claimed that he was the one who first proposed the road. Clark reviewed the book of the missionary, Parker, and described in glowing terms the transformation that would take place in the West when the railroad was built. It is of interest to read some of his description, of which the following is a part:

The work will yet be accomplished! Let the prediction be marked. This great chain of communication will yet be made, with links of iron. The treasures of the earth in that wide region are not destined to be lost. The mountains of coal, the vast meadow seas, the fields of salt, the mighty forests, with their trees two hundred and fifty feet in height, the stores of magnesia, the crystallized lakes of valuable salts — these were not formed to be unemployed and wasted. The reader is now living who will make a railroad trip across this vast continent. The granite mountain will melt before the hand of enterprise; valleys will be raised, and  p31 the unwearying fire-steed will spout his hot, white breath where silence has reigned since the morning hymn of young creation was pealed over mountain, flood, and field. The mammoth's bone and the bison's horn, buried for centuries, and long since turned to stone, will be bared to the day by the laborers of the 'Atlantic and Pacific Railroad Company;' rocks which stand now as on the night when Noah's deluge first dried will heave beneath the action of 'villainous saltpetre;' and where the prairie stretches away, 'like the round ocean girdled with the sky,' with its wood-fringed streams, its flower-enameled turf, and its herds of startled buffaloes, will sweep the long hissing train of cars crowded with passengers for the Pacific Seaboard. The very realms of chaos and old night will be invaded; while in the place of the roar of wild beasts, or howl of wilder Indians, will be heard the lowing of herds, the bleating of flocks; the plough will cleave the sods of many a rich valley and fruitful hill, from many a dark bosom shall go up the pure prayer to the Great Spirit.'

Another of the early advocates of the Pacific Railroad was a civil engineer who had had considerable experience in railroad work as it was then understood. John Plumbe, who lived in Dubuque, Iowa, published a pamphlet in 1836 advocating a railroad from Lake Michigan to Oregon, and on March 31, 1838, he called a convention in Dubuque to discuss the subject. Resolutions were passed and sent to Congress asking for an appropriation for surveys, and a small sum was granted. In 1839‑1840, Plumbe secured a memorial from the Wisconsin legislature addressed to Congress, asking that the surveys be continued west of the Mississippi. He took the memorial to Washington and spent considerable time on the subject, but nothing tangible resulted from his labors. His plan proposed a company capitalized at $100,000,000, to which would be given a land grant of alternate sections along the line of the railroad. Plumbe was the first to appreciate the magnitude of the task of building the railroad and to outline a practical method for accomplishment of the work.

Others, at later dates, claimed to have advocated the railroad  p32 at about the same time. One of these was Lilburn W. Boggs, one-time governor of Missouri, whose son claims that his father wrote an article for the St. Louis Republican in 1843 advocating the railroad and estimating the cost. The article was not published. Another claimant was Robert Mills, who addressed a memorial to Congress advocating a road and stated that in 1819 he had projected a railway to connect the Atlantic with the Pacific. His claims seem to have been for a road and not for a railway.

Enough evidence has been cited to show that some men were alive to the possibilities of the railroad in the decade 1830‑1840, but that there was little to justify action on their plans. Railroads were too new and untried, and practically nothing was known of the western country and the difficulties that would be encountered, both from Nature and from the Indians. All of the projects were for a road to the Columbia River, and even the owner­ship of that region was disputed by Great Britain. More than that, most of the West and Southwest was then in the possession of the Republic of Mexico.

The Projects of Asa Whitney

The second stage in the agitation for the Pacific Railroad began with the work of Asa Whitney in the decade 1840‑1850. The indefinite projects of the earlier writers gave place to a feasible plan that was advocated by an educated promoter with tireless energy and undying persistence.

Asa Whitney was a merchant from New York City, who, in the course of business, had visited England and had made a trip over the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad. He had undoubtedly read the literature that has been mentioned in preceding pages. In 1842 he visited China and spent two years there before returning home. He was impressed with the extent of Oriental trade and with the possibility of diverting a large part of that trade across the United States. From the time when he returned to this country until his death, he devoted his entire fortune and efforts to promoting the project of a Pacific Railroad.

 p33  In 1845 he made a 1,500‑mile trip up the Mississippi, but before starting he presented to Congress a memorial that was introduced in the Senate and the House, in which he outlined his project of a railroad to the Pacific coast. His first plan was for a railroad from Lake Michigan to the mouth of the Columbia River, in Oregon. The cost was estimated at $50,000,000 and incidental expenses would increase the amount to $65,000,000. The cost was to be defrayed by the sale of public lands to colonists who would build the railroad and afterwards settle on the land. A strip of land sixty miles wide would be granted to the settler and the railroad and the land would be his property but the control would rest with the national government. Excess profits would be devoted to education and other public purposes.

However, despite the merits of the plan, no action was taken by Congress on the memorial. From that time on, Whitney visited all parts of the country, explaining his project and obtaining resolutions from legislatures and public bodies in favor of the scheme. In general, he and his idea were favorably received and the public was interested. It was difficult at times to secure the approval of representatives and public men, as at Philadelphia, where it took some time to arrange a public meeting. At the meeting of December 23, 1846, the Mayor presided and Whitney and other speakers explained the project, with the result that a favorable resolution addressed to Congress was passed. At a meeting in New York on the Fourth of July, 1847, the public permitted a group of radicals to take possession of the Mayor and others on the platform, including Whitney, and force them to leave the hall. The mob denounced the project as a swindle and as an attempt to seize lands that properly belonged to the people.

Whitney's second memorial to Congress was presented in 1846 and was favorably reported by the Senate Committee on Public Lands on July 31,a but after some debate nothing was done. A third memorial presented to Congress in January,  p34 1848, was referred to the Committee on Public Lands, but instead of reporting on the memorial, the committee, in June, reported a resolution for survey and exploration of one or more routes for a railroad from the Mississippi below the Falls of St. Anthony to the Pacific Ocean. As the committee would not report Whitney's bill, another introduced by Senator Niles favored the grant of land to Whitney. Referred to a select committee, it was reported on favorably, but was lost by a vote in the Senate, largely owing to the opposition of Senator Benton of Missouri. In January, 1849, the bill was re-introduced but dissension prevented action and the bill died. The Thirty-first Congress referred all memorials and projects for a railroad to the Committee on Roads and Canals, with the result that an exhaustive report was made favoring the grant of lands to Whitney. Nothing came of it except that the discussion informed the country of the merits of the project. A final bill was presented to the Thirty-second Congress on April 1, 1852, permitting the sale of public lands to Whitney to enable him to build a railroad from the Mississippi River, to commence south of Memphis and proceed by way of the Rio Grande to San Francisco. Sectionalism defeated the bill and this action terminated Whitney's efforts. His fortune had been dissipated and he lived in comparative poverty until he died.​b

In his efforts to arouse the people of the country, Whitney had published a pamphlet in 1849 that summarized all the information he had gathered on his projects. The plans varied as time went on and the country changed, owing to the accession of California and the discovery of gold. While there were a number of impractical features in all of Whitney's projects, they contained the germ of the plan on which the road was built at a later date — the location, the grant of public lands, and the construction by private parties assisted by the government. Some of the reasons for Whitney's failure were described in the American Railroad Journal of April 5, 1851:

We freely admit that Mr. Whitney possesses some qualities  p35 which eminently fit him to head a great enterprise. He is enthusiastic and possessed to a remarkable degree with the capacity for inspiring others with his own views. He is deterred by no obstacle and discouraged by no defeats. But here his qualifications for conducting to a success­ful issue a work of such magnitude as that of a railroad from the Atlantic to the Pacific end. He is self-confident without experience or training, arrogant in his opinions, and overbearing toward all who differ from him. He has a hearty contempt for the whole engineering profession and loses his temper the moment one of that class talks about tunneling, bridging, excavation, etc., which are certainly great annoyances in railroad construction and which have made others beside Mr. Whitney lose their temper. He can never tolerate the introduction of such disagreeable topics as these, but is never tired of poring over maps and enlarging upon the grandeur of his scheme. So long as his mission was confined to the matter of arousing the attention of our people to the importance of the proposed work, his success was remarkable. The moment he came to the question of construction his plans failed to receive respect­ful attention . . . We are sorry for his disappointments and heartily wish he would adapt his scheme to the practical ideas of the present day of which he appears to have not the least appreciation.

The writer of the above probably came close to a correct estimate of the man. The rising tide of sectionalism that finally culminated in the Civil War was already apparent when Whitney was endeavoring to put his scheme into effect and this could be cited as another reason for his failure. The most practical of men could hardly have accomplished much when that subject engrossed the attention of the country. In spite of his shortcomings Whitney deserves great credit for finally placing the subject of Pacific Railroad on a fairly firm basis and for arousing the population to the need of such a work.

The Era of Politicians

There comes a time in the history of all great enterprises when the politicians of the country find it to be their interests  p36 to adopt the ideas of other men and to ride to public favor on them. This is just what happened when Whitney pounded the idea of Pacific Railroad into the reluctant heads of the men in Congress. When that body began to consider the subject, numerous members of both houses became experts with the certain knowledge that the railroad should commence in their district. Other promoters also appeared with their schemes and each one had his adherents. It is not necessary to follow these schemes in detail.

One plan was proposed by P. P. Degrand, whose railroad was to extend from St. Louis to San Francisco. Stock was to be sold to raise $2,000,000 and the government was to loan $98,000,000 and to give a ten-mile strip of land.

Another man whose name is connected with the Pacific Railroad projects was Josiah Perham of Boston, who had promoted railroad excursions to Boston to see a painted panorama of Niagara Falls, in which activity he made considerable money. His plan, which he called the "People's Pacific Railroad," was for the general public to subscribe $100 each, and with 1,000,000 subscribers he would build the railroad.

Senator Benton of Missouri helped defeat Whitney's plan, but he had his own ideas on the subject. The Senator's first plan was for a national highway similar to the Cumberland Road that extended from Washington to St. Louis, but he waxed eloquent about a "plain old English road." Later he referred in equally glowing terms to the railroad and proposed a statue of Columbus, "hewn from the granite mass of a peak of the Rocky Mountains." Many other senators were equally eloquent and each one was certain that his route was the best. Senator Seward favored the northern route from Chicago; Benton favored a route across what he called the Buffalo Trail through Colorado on a route explored by Frémont; while the southern men wanted the railroad built from the East by way of El Paso to San Diego. A promoter named George Wilkes advocated a line due west from Chicago to the South Pass and thence to Oregon,  p37 and his schemes were favored by many northern senators.

Finally, on October 16, 1849, a railroad convention was held in St. Louis, at which Stephen A. Douglas presided. Benton clashed with a lawyer named Loughborough as to the best route, and an adjourned meeting was held in Philadelphia in April, 1850, at which representatives from fourteen states were present, two of the states being southern ones. Another convention was held at Memphis in July, 1849, and at all these meetings there was much talk and little action. On one point and on one only was there fairly general agreement: the route should terminate at San Francisco, since that city was the center of the most populous region on the Pacific.

The Pacific Railroad Surveys

The inability of Congress to reach a decision finally forced the men there to resort to the only sensible procedure, which was to have surveys made over a number of routes to determine the best possible railroad location. Senator Gwin of California finally moved an amendment to the Army Appropriation Bill, approved by President Fillmore March 1, 1853, which read as follows:

"And be it further enacted, that the Secretary of War be, and he is hereby authorized, under the direction of the President of the United States, to employ such portion of the Corps of Topographical Engineers and such other persons as he may deem advisable, to ascertain the most practicable and economical route for a railroad from the Mississippi River to the Pacific Ocean, and that the sum of $150,000 or so much as may be necessary, be, and the same is hereby appropriated out of any money in the treasury not otherwise appropriated, to defray the expense of such explorations and surveys.

"That the engineers and other persons employed in said explorations and surveys shall be organized in as many district corps as there are routes to be surveyed, and their several reports shall be laid before Congress on or before the first Monday in February, 1854."

 p38  Congress must have been very optimistic as to the ability of the engineers to examine and report on such a vast subject in nine months. The fact seems rather to emphasize a pronounced lack of senatorial comprehension of the great size of the country and of the engineering problems involved in the surveying project.

After the railroad surveys had been in progress for some months it became apparent that they could not be completed by the date set. They were therefore continued and an additional appropriation of $40,000 was approved May 31, 1854. This sum was not sufficient, and still another appropriation of $150,000 was approved August 5, 1854, making the total appropriations $340,000.

It was not until February 27, 1855, that Secretary of War Jefferson Davis was able to submit a somewhat incomplete report. His annual report of December, 1855, contained a summary of progress, and it was not until his annual report of December, 1856, that the project was completed. It had taken nearly three years to make the surveys and to formulate the report. Much work was done both in the field and in the office, and judging by the extent of the surveys and the difficulties encountered, the time consumed was well spent.

The selection of the routes to be examined apparently was left up to Secretary Davis, and he undoubtedly had the advice of many men who favored different routes, but his final selection showed his sincere desire to determine the merits of many possible routes and to balance one against the other. While the Army bill required that the routes should start at the Mississippi River, it was not necessary in most cases to commence the surveys there, because by that time several railroad lines had already been built or were in the process of building westward beyond the Mississippi. In general, the western borders of Iowa, Missouri, and Arkansas were made starting points of all but the northern route, that being the only route that actually commenced at the Mississippi River. The routes selected may  p39 be described as follows taking them in their geographical order from north to south:

Route No. 1. Near the forty-seventh and forty-ninth parallels of north latitude. The route commenced at St. Paul and followed across the plains near the Missouri River to the Rocky Mountains. It crossed those mountains into eastern Washington and followed thence southward and along the Columbia River and then northward to Seattle on Puget Sound. A cross-country line over the Cascade Mountains to Seattle was also explored. The general route was that followed later by the Northern Pacific and the Great Northern railroads.

Route No. 2. Near the forty-first and forty-second parallels of north latitude. This route commenced at either Council Bluffs on the Missouri River, about 267 miles west of the Mississippi River, or at Fort Leavenworth on the same stream, 245 miles west of the Mississippi River. It followed up the Platte River, taking the north fork along the Emigrant Trail, crossed the South Pass and the Green River, and followed over the Wasatch Mountains to Salt Lake City. Westward the route passed south of Great Salt Lake, and over the deserts and mountains to the Humboldt River, which stream was followed to the vicinity of Winnemucca, Nevada. Leaving the Humboldt, the route crossed the deserts and mountains into northern California, and following down the Pit River, reached the Sacramento River. From that point the Sacramento Valley was to be followed to San Francisco. The greater portion of the route is near the one followed by the Union and Central Pacific railroads from Omaha to San Francisco, except that the long detour into northern California was not followed.

Route No. 3. Near the thirty-eighthº and thirty-ninth parallels of latitude. The route commenced at the junction of the Kansas Mountains south of the Arkansas River. It crossed the mountains of Colorado and Utah somewhat along the line of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, but the line led across the Wasatch Mountains to the neighborhood of Sevier  p40 Lake. The survey party was massacred by Indians at that point and the survey was not continued, although it was later thought possible to cross central Nevada and the Sierra Nevada at the headwaters of the Carson River.

Route No. 4. Near the thirty-fifth parallel of north latitude. This route commenced at Fort Smith on the Arkansas River, about 270 miles west of the Mississippi River. It crossed the plains of Oklahoma and the northern part of the Texas Panhandle, and followed around the southern end of the Rocky Mountains in the vicinity of Santa Fe and Albuquerque. The route across the high plateaus of central New Mexico and Arizona is practically the same now followed by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe Railroad into California at Needles on the Colorado River. A line was indicated across the Mohave Desert and through the Cajon Pass to Los Angeles, or though the Tay‑ee-chay‑pah (Tehachapi) Pass into the Tulares (San Joaquin) Valley to San Francisco.

Route No. 5. Near the thirty-second parallel of north latitude. This, the most southern route, commenced at Fulton on the Red River and crossed the intervening plains and deserts, the Llano Estacado to the Pecos and thence to the Rio Grande at El Paso. From that point the route followed across the mountains and deserts of southern New Mexico and Arizona to the border of California at Fort Yuma, at the junction of the Gila and Colorado rivers. A line westward was projected to San Diego but the mainline was to follow across the desert and through the San Gorgonio Pass to Los Angeles. From that point several routes were examined, one across the mountains to the San Joaquin Valley and thence by several alternate routes to San Francisco. This route is the one followed in later years by the Texas Northern Pacific and the Southern Pacific railroads, especially from El Paso westward.

A number of survey parties were assigned to each route, sometimes working independently over different sections of the route, but in one case, that of Route No. 1, the entire survey  p41 was under the direction of one man, Governor Isaac I. Stevens of Washington Territory, a civil engineer.​c The work was in charge of officers of the army, generally of the Topographical Corps, but sometimes it was handled by the Engineer Corps. Instructions for the conduct of the surveys were issued in detail, which Secretary Davis summarized as follows:

They were directed to observe and note all the objects and phenomena which have an immediate or remote bearing upon the railway, or which might seem to develop the resources, peculiarities, and climate of the country; to determine geographical positions, obtain the topography, observe the meteorology including the data for barometric profiles, and two of the parties were to determine the direction and the intensity of the magnetic force. They were to make a geological survey of the lines; to collect information upon and specimens of the botany and zoology of the country; and to obtain statistics of the Indian Tribes which are found in the regions traversed. Thus would be obtained all the information for the general consideration of the question, as well as the data upon which the cost of construction and working of a railroad depend.

If the results of the explorations made under these instructions do not furnish the data required to solve every question satisfactorily they at least give a large amount of valuable information and place the question in a tolerably clear light. We see now, with some precision, the nature and extent of the difficulties to be encountered, and at the same time, the means of surmounting them.

Under the instructions given, a great mass of information was obtained. In difficult regions, actual surveys with transit and level were made, grades determined, and sufficient information taken to determine quantities and costs. As detailed estimates of the entire line could not be made, nor were they then necessary, comparison was made with existing railroads. Note was made of stone for culverts and walls and of the presence or absence of timber for bridges, ties, and fuel. Explorations were made for coal and the development of water supplies for the  p42 railroad were carefully considered. In each case of the two southern routes across the arid plains of Texas and New Mexico, wells were drilled for this purpose. Meteorological observations were made and all available information collected regarding snow, rainfall, and general weather conditions. The geology of the country traversed was carefully examined and information obtained regarding the amount of arable land, the occurrence of minerals, the nature of soils, etc. The natural history of the regions was studied, especially that relating to animals, birds, insects, and similar data, together with the plant life encountered.

When the data came in, it was arranged and edited by an officer of the army. Maps were made of the entire western part of the country, the first correct ones ever prepared. The reports from different engineering parties, with lithographs of drawings of important scenery, detail maps of each line, cost estimates, data regarding railroads, and everything that could pertain to the subject, were printed in eleven quarto volumes that remain today models of the way such information should be presented. Owing to the nature of the problem and to the fact that many men were engaged on the work, the individual studies are of unequal value. One criticism of the work might be that the surveys were entrusted to army officers, whose knowledge of railroad work was necessarily limited. A board of consulting railroad engineers would have systematized the work and established standards under which the several cost estimates would have been more easily comparable than they were. It is but just to the army officers to say that within the limitations mentioned, their work was of excellent character, and their conclusions generally sound.

The work on Route No. 1 seems to have been the best organized and the most complete from one end of the line to the other. Governor Stevens had the entire survey under his direction and thus was able to present a complete report. In the crossing of the Rocky Mountains, especially the eastern ranges,  p43 nine passes were examined and surveyed. The passage of the Cascade Mountains, either by way of the gorge of the Columbia River or across the mountains directly to Seattle, was well studied. While later surveys of railroads as they were being built indicated some variation from his route, in general the line was wisely located.

In the case of the central route, No. 2, a number of surveys and reports were included, made by different men and at different times. Some dependence was placed on the explorations of John C. Frémont, and the line from the Missouri River to the Green River followed largely the old traveled route of the Overland Trail. Reference should be made to the explorations and surveys of Captain Howard Stansbury of the Corps of Topographical Engineers. In 1849, at the time of the gold rush to California, Stansbury was sent with a party to survey Great Salt Lake. He traveled by the Overland Trail to Salt Lake City, organized his party and made the first survey of the lake. He also investigated the possibilities of a road westward around the southern end of the lake, and on his return trip in 1850 investigated the route for a railroad or road from Salt Lake up the Timpanogas (Provo) River as a crossing of the Wasatch Mountains and thence to Fort Bridger on a tributary of the Green River. Instead of following the route homeward by the South Pass and the North Fork of the Platte, he crossed the Wyoming Basin directly eastward along the base of the mountains that border the basin on the south.

Jim Bridger was Stansbury's guide and perhaps credit should be given that old mountain man for first indicating the route that was afterward taken by the Union Pacific. Jim Bridger came into the mountains in 1822 and worked in the fur trade, first as one of General Ashley's men and later as one of a company. In 1843 he built his fort or trading post on Black's Fork of the Green River. When in 1850 he was asked to guide the Stansbury party westward, he led them across the open lands of the Wyoming Basin by way of Bridger Pass and crossed the  p44 Black Hills (Laramie Mountains) near the Cheyenne Pass. They were proceeding eastward down Lodgepole Creek when Stansbury was severely injured and forced to return by way of Fort Laramie. Stansbury in his report dwelt upon the advantages of the route for a railroad and showed it to be sixty-one miles shorter than the route by South Pass. In the Pacific Railroad Report his route was rejected, but it was substantially the one over which the Union Pacific was finally built.

From Fort Bridger west, the route was surveyed by Lieutenant Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.E. G. Beckwith. He indicated two crossings of the Wasatch Range, either by way of the Provo River or by way of the Weber River, the latter being followed when the railroad was built. His line lay south of Great Salt Lake and across the salt deserts of Nevada. He reached the Humboldt River but followed it only as far as where it bends southwestward toward the Sink. From there Beckwith, for reasons he does not give, left the Humboldt, and crossing mountains and deserts reached northern California and followed westward across the Madeline Plains and down the Upper Sacramento (Pit) River to the north end of the Sacramento Valley, from which point the way to San Francisco was clear. This route seems almost absurd, even in the light of such knowledge as was then available. To have continued down the Humboldt along the Emigrant Trail and across the Sierra Nevada by well-known passes would have seemed the route to be followed. This writer has been on the Pit River over almost its entire length and can vouch that it is no location for a railroad. The distance by the Beckwith route from Winnemucca to Sacramento is approximately 150 miles longer than that of the Central Pacific route.

When the railroad was built, the general course of Route No. 2 was followed along the valley of the Platte River to the junction of the North and South forks, and a short section down the Weber River and along the Humboldt River. The route was over 200 miles longer than the road and in many cases it was in more difficult territory, as on the North Fork of the  p45 Platte River and in northern California. Next to No. 3, No. 2 was the poorest of the five proposed routes.

Route No. 3 was the least adapted to a railroad of the five courses selected. As in all the other routes, the crossing of the Great Plains by No. 3 presented no difficulty, but the line over the high mountains of central and western Colorado and into Utah was difficult and beyond the capacity of the builders of the time. While the surveys were terminated by the death of Captain Gunnison, a suggestion was made that Nevada could be crossed and the Sierra Nevada surmounted at the headwaters of the Carson River. The estimates from Sevier Lake westward were made on the basis of the travels of Frémont by way of Tehachapi Pass into the San Joaquin Valley, and also by the western route from Sevier Lake via the Humboldt River and the line followed by Route No. 2 into California by way of the Madeline Plains and Pit River. This information is of a fragmentary order. The route was dismissed from consideration as impracticable. However, the estimates of cost are included in the summary, both by way of the Tehachapi Pass and by way of northern California and the Pit River. As has been noted, the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad followed part of the route surveyed, and the Gunnison River and Canyon perpetuate the name of the able army officer who, like many others, lost his life in the discharge of his duty.​d

The two southern routes, No. 4 and No. 5, were well located, and this is borne out by the fact that they were followed in later years by the Atchison, Topeka and Santa Fe, and by the Southern Pacific.

The several routes were compared by means of cost estimates, and it is in this respect that the study is least reliable. On account of the length of the lines, it was not possible to make detailed estimates, nor was it necessary. On the other hand, the several men on the surveys used their judgment and obtained their cost figures by comparison with costs on railroads built in the eastern states. They tried to adapt such costs to conditions  p46 as they found them in the unsettled regions of the West, with the result that the estimates are approximations only. Captain Indicates a West Point graduate and gives his Class.A. A. Humphreys, the officer who edited the reports, comments on the fact that over similar territory the estimates varied from $35,000 per mile to $50,000 per mile. In the case of Route No. 1, the editor increases the estimates of Governor Stevens by 60 per cent, thus adding from $30,690,000 to $41,440,000 to the several estimates. In another instance, on Route No. 4, from Fort Smith to San Pedro, a distance of 1,892 miles, the preliminary estimate was $169,210,265, while the revised estimate for a distance of 1,760 miles was $86,130,000 — a reduction of $83,080,265, or nearly 50 per cent. Similarly, the preliminary estimate from Fort Smith to San Francisco was reduced by $81,157,265, or nearly 50 per cent.

A summary of the several estimates was given in a table from which the following is abstracted. On all the routes the horizontal distance is increased by adding a length determined by formula to account for the elevations to be overcome, which differed in each project. The latter is not of much importance but it does furnish one means of making a correct comparison.

 p47  Estimate of Distances and Costs of Different Routes

(pp48‑49) Distance by air line — miles Distance by proposed railroad route — miles Sum of ascents and descents — feet Length, level route, equal working expense — miles Comparative cost of different routes Altitude above sea, highest point of route — feet
No. 1. Route near 47th and 49th parallels — St. Paul to Seattle 1,410 2,025 18,654 2,378 $140,871,000 6,044 Tunnel at elevation 5,219 ft.
No. 1. Same — St. Paul to Vancouver 1,455 1,864 17,654 2,198 $130,781,000 6,044 Same
No. 2. Route near 41st and 42nd parallels — Council Bluffs to Benicia via South Pass 1,410 2,032 29,120 2,583 $116,095,000 8,373
No. 3. Route near 38th and 39th parallels — Westport to San Francisco via Coo‑che-to‑pa and Tah‑ee-chay‑pah passes 1,740 2,080 49,985 3,026 Impracticable 10,032 Tunnel at elevation 9,540 ft.
No. 3. Route near 38th and 39th parallels — Westport to Benicia via Coo‑che-to‑pa and Madeline passes 1,740 2,290 56,514 3,360 Impracticable 10,032 Tunnel at elevation 9,540 ft.
No. 4. Route near 35th parallel from Ft. Smith to San Francisco 1,550 2,096 48,521 3,015 $106,000,000 7,550
No. 4. Route near 35th parallel from Ft. Smith to San Pedro 1,360 1,820 48,862 2,745 $92,000,000 7,550 Tunnel at elevation 4,179 ft.
No. 5. Route near 32nd parallel from Fulton to San Francisco via Coast Route 1,630 2,024 38,200 2,747 $90,000,000 5,717
No. 5. Route near 32nd parallel from Fulton to San Pedro 1,400 1,598 30,181 2,169 $68,000,000 5,717
No. 5. Route near 32nd parallel from Fulton to San Diego 1,360 1,533 33,454 2,167 $68,000,000 5,717

The cost estimates of two cases of No. 1 are those of the office, those of Governor Stevens having been brought to the same standard of increased cost with the other routes, and his equipment reduced to that of the other routes. His estimates were $117,121,000 and $110,091,000.

For No. 5, Fulton to San Francisco, Lieut. Park's estimate was $84,837,750, and for No. 5, Fulton to San Diego, his estimate was $59,005,500.

 p50  The summary tends to favor the most southern route, No. 5, Fulton to San Francisco via El Paso. There is no question that Secretary Davis favored the southern route for many reasons not connected with the physical situation. However, it could never be said that he desired to alter the reports or to influence those who compiled the data. One point not sufficiently developed at the time was the fact that the best route for a railroad would be the route that best served the needs of the country. There was no doubt that San Francisco and the central part of California should be the western terminal; but when it came to the eastern end of the road, every city, town, and hamlet put forth claims to be made the starting point. The important and deciding factor was that the free industrial North was rapidly out-distancing the slave-holding South, as shown by the extensive railroad construction in the northern part of the country. The decision as to just where the Pacific road should be located was reached at a later date and for other reasons.

The most important point developed by the Pacific Railroad surveys was that railroads could be built across the country in as many places as traffic conditions warranted. In the years that followed, the fact that railroads were built along practically all of the five routes examined emphasizes the excellent character of the work done in the location and surveys by the men who did the job.

Later Developments

While the Pacific Railroad surveys were in progress, the agitation in Congress continued. There was some change in the nature of the proposals. In the beginning, the idea had been for the national government to build and operate the road. By 1855 the plan for a corporation building the road with government assistance had been discussed. By this time the disastrous experience of the states in building railroads was well understood. Benton of Missouri changed his views, and his influence in favor of private enterprise was effective. However, sectionalism also succeeded in defeating the many bills that were introduced.  p51 Ignorance of the project was in evidence everywhere, at least as far as the real needs of the country were concerned.

In 1856, the national convention of the Democratic party wrote a plank into its platform recognizing the importance of "safe and speedy communication by military and postal roads through our own territory between the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts of this Union." The new Republican party in the same year stated in its platform "that a railroad to the Pacific Ocean by the most central and practicable route, is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country, and that the Federal Government ought to render immediate and efficient aid in its construction." The new President, James Buchanan, expressed himself in favor of a road but did not commit himself to any one route, although it was well known that his sympathies lay with the southern route.

From that time on, there were various proposals in the form of bills before Congress, but like most of the measures of that time the issues were debated from the standpoint of the southern states versus the northern states. A possible breakup of the Union was openly discussed, and that subject overshadowed all others. Attempts at a compromise on the location of the railroad failed every time, and so the situation went from bad to worse. In 1860, as four years earlier, the platform of the Republican party stated "that a railroad to the Pacific Ocean is imperatively demanded by the interests of the whole country." The wing of the Democratic party that met at Charleston repeated the sentiment in other words. The election resulted in a victory for the Republicans and Abraham Lincoln was the new President. By the time a special session of Congress was called in July, 1861, the southern states had seceded and that element of sectionalism was absent.

As a result of the Civil War, the South was ruined financially and its industries and railroads largely destroyed. The location problem of the Pacific Railroad was therefore well on the way to a solution.

Thayer's Notes:

a The report is onsite, in full: Appendix to Sidney Breese's Early History of Illinois, pp303‑363.

b In 1872, three years after the completion of the Pacific Railroad.

c A good biographical sketch of Isaac Stevens is provided by Cullum's Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy, Class of 1839, No. 986; the page links to further more detailed biographical information.

d A summary of John Gunnison's career is provided by Cullum's Register of the Officers and Graduates of the United States Military Academy, Class of 1837, No. 892.

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Page updated: 27 Aug 13